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The 2021 Volkswagen Atlas Satisfies the Brady Bunches of America and Bolsters VW's Bottom Line

Car and Driver logo Car and Driver 5/15/2020 Eric Stafford
a car parked on the side of a building: The face-lifted three-row Volkswagen Atlas SUV is appreciably prettier and as spacious as ever. © Michael Simari - Car and Driver The face-lifted three-row Volkswagen Atlas SUV is appreciably prettier and as spacious as ever.

Look at enough crossovers, and they tend to blur into a homogeneous blob of inoffensive two-box shapes—useful, yes, but seldom interesting. The crossover is a jack of all trades, master of none, except for the one that involves making money for automakers. At that, crossovers are very good, and the three-row Atlas SUV has been one of Volkswagen's most profitable money printers since it debuted a few years back. The refreshed 2021 models are rolling out now, complete with prettier styling and additional features. The big VW's basic stats don't distinguish it from its peers, but Volkswagen is hoping that its looks and value will.

What's New with You, VW?

The face of the Atlas has transformed overnight from generic to handsome, with a more prominent grille bearing VW's new logo and more naturally integrated headlights. Its front and rear bumpers have also been reshaped and add 2.4 inches to the crossover's overall length. The interior is virtually untouched compared with the 2020 model, but there are revised controls and a new steering wheel with a more substantial feel. A wireless charging pad located beneath the center stack is now available, too. The Atlas gets enhanced adaptive cruise control with the addition of stop-and-go capability, and we confirmed that the improved lane-assist camera does a great job of smoothly centering the vehicle in its lane. Traffic-sign recognition also joins the crossover's roster of driver-assistance technology, which already included standard automated emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert.

a car driving on a city street: 2020 Volkswagen Atlas V6 SEL R-Line © Michael Simari - Car and Driver 2020 Volkswagen Atlas V6 SEL R-Line

The 2021 Atlas SEL R-Line that we sampled boasts the most obvious visual updates. Unlike other trim levels, the R-Line's unique jawline has a sportier flair thanks to large air intakes on either side of the lower grille. Along with stylized "R" badges and a gloss-black rear diffuser, the R-Line rides on huge 21-inch wheels with machined faces. The regular SEL starts at $43,415 and comes standard with a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four and 4Motion all-wheel drive. The SEL R-Line brings the naturally aspirated 3.6-liter engine—a narrow-angle V-6 with a single head that VW calls VR6—available with either front- or all-wheel drive. Our example was equipped with the latter, which contributed $1900 towards its as-driven price of $46,915. Our Pyrite Silver example came with the standard second-row bench seat as well as niceties such as an eight-way power driver's seat with memory settings, the Digital Cockpit gauge cluster, a heated steering wheel, and a panoramic sunroof. Notably, the R-Line models are order only, meaning you won't find them sitting in dealer stock.

a car parked on the side of a building: 2020 Volkswagen Atlas V6 SEL R-Line © Michael Simari - Car and Driver 2020 Volkswagen Atlas V6 SEL R-Line

Rather than offer many distinct option packages, VW bundles features according to trim, which is why there are seven trims. One exception is the $550 V6 towing package, which adds a receiver hitch to SE trims. (It's standard on SEL and SEL Premium.) You need to check that box to get the Atlas's maximum 5,000-pound tow rating. Without it, the Atlas can get a dealer-fitted hitch, but the tow rating drops to 2,000 pounds. Even with the factory package, though, VW insists on a proprietary wiring harness that'll require a dealer adaptor to hook up to standard U.S. trailers. Bogus.

An Oversized Golf? Not Exactly.

Since we've already spent more than 30,000 miles with our long-term 2018 Atlas V6 SEL 4Motion—which has the same exact powertrain as this 2021 SEL R-Line—we're familiar with its invasive engine stop-start system and respectable acceleration. The EPA estimates for the V-6 with all-wheel drive have dropped by 1 mpg in all categories to 16 mpg city, 22 highway, and 18 combined. That creates a more substantial gap between similarly equipped rivals, such as the Hyundai Palisade (19/24/21 mpg) and the Subaru Ascent(20/26/22 mpg). Those who still prefer the VW but want the thriftiest version should consider the front-drive four-cylinder model, which has government estimates of 21 mpg city, 24 highway, and 22 combined.

a close up of a car: 2020 Volkswagen Atlas V6 SEL R-Line © Michael Simari - Car and Driver 2020 Volkswagen Atlas V6 SEL R-Line

While we've complained about the Atlas's lazy eight-speed automatic transmission before, we found that its behavior is more astute and responsive when shifted into the S position. Not only will it hold gears longer to better access the VR6's 276 horsepower and its 266 pound-feet of torque, but the gearbox will also quickly drop a gear or two with an assertive prod of the accelerator. Of course, tepid types can leave the transmission in D for more relaxed shift points that help optimize fuel efficiency. That laconic transmission response is at odds with the aggressive throttle response, which prompts the Atlas to squawk its tires when launching from a standstill if the initial throttle tip-in is even slightly too eager. There's a little bit of the ghost of the old Golf R32 in the exhaust note, and the distinct call of the wookie will warm the hearts of VW loyalists.

The Atlas is built on VW's ubiquitous MQB platform, which underpins the driver's delight that is the 10Best-winning Golf GTI. But don't expect it to feel like a scaled-up GTI, since this largest of MQBs is tuned for a more sedate driving experience, in line with the expectations of its intended audience. Its massive proportions take up most of the lane, and its considerable mass doesn't elicit confidence when quickly changing directions. However, the R-Line's exclusive 21-inch rollers are mounted with wide 265/45R-21 Pirelli Scorpion Zero All Season tires, and the big footprint contributes to the Atlas's remarkable sense of stability. The Pirellis also help transmit hints of feedback through the electrically assisted steering. While we're not proclaiming that VW is channeling its inner Porsche, the R-Line's helm feels more communicative than the overboosted systems that plague most mid-size crossovers. The Atlas also has a smooth and steady ride on the highway, but broken pavement revealed the suspension's uncouth response to harsh impacts as well as the cabin's lack of noise isolation.

a car parked on the side of a vehicle: 2020 Volkswagen Atlas V6 SEL R-Line © Michael Simari - Car and Driver 2020 Volkswagen Atlas V6 SEL R-Line

Blandness Meets Spaciousness

The inside of the Atlas isn't as handsome as the exterior. The wide swath of hard plastics and chintzy trim pieces creates an uninspired aesthetic that underwhelms compared to the classier cabins in competitors such as the Mazda CX-9 and Kia Telluride. At least the Atlas offsets the mediocre materials and staid design with an abundance of desirable features. A high-resolution 10.0-inch Digital Cockpit gauge cluster comes standard on the SEL, and its customizable layouts and selectable settings nicely complement the 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system. The capacitive screen allows pinching and swiping, making for an intuitive interface for Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. We also appreciated the VW's commitment to physical switchgear, with traditional knobs for volume, tuning, and climate control.

a close up of a car: 2020 Volkswagen Atlas V6 SEL R-Line © Michael Simari - Car and Driver 2020 Volkswagen Atlas V6 SEL R-Line

Aside from our gripes about the cabin's drab environs, we're impressed with the amount of passenger space available in all three rows. The driver's seat has a wide range of motion that provides a seating position for all preferences. Outward visibility is excellent, but the SEL R-Line's front and rear parking sensors are still appreciated, given that from the driver's seat, the rear bumper seems to be about three counties yonder. The VW's second-row bench seat is comfortable and flexible, with folding seatbacks and sliding bases that can be separately adjusted. It's also easy to access the Atlas's third row thanks to an intuitive folding mechanism that easily tilts and slides the second-row seat forward, which can also be done without removing a child seat. The third row is surprisingly spacious as long as you don't try to cram more than two average-sized adults back there and provided that the second-row seats are positioned closer to the middle of their adjustable tracks.

Odds are good that if the Atlas wasn't already on your short list of preferred mid-size crossovers, the refreshed 2021 version won't do much to change that. Or perhaps you're more intrigued by the new sloped-back, slightly more affordable two-row Atlas Cross Sport. Still, VW has made its largest model appreciably prettier, especially in the sporty R-Line guise. Sometimes, mid-cycle refreshes get pretty drastic, but the 2021 Atlas doesn't reinvent the 2020 model or much change its essential merits. It's still big, good to drive, and handsome. Just a little more so.

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