When it comes to automobile design, two words we don’t see in the same sentence much anymore are “different” and “crossover.” The homogenous crossover SUV segment has evolved into a utility-driven value proposition that puts form so far below function that it barely registers. That is until VW released its refreshed 2021 Volkswagen Atlas.
Buyers intent on avoiding minivans and sedans are opting for the SUV/crossover body style in record numbers, and manufacturers are scrambling to meet the demand. Demand is steady across the entire size and price landscape, from low-priced subcompact mini-SUVs to massive land yachts, but what if you’re looking for a little more refinement?
We like how Volkswagen tweaked the Atlas just enough to set it apart, but not so much that the price tag increased. In that way, a starting MSRP of just $31,555 highlights the 2021 Atlas’ list of finer attributes and gives buyers a reason to take it for a test drive. Not too many automakers can claim that their base MSRP price remains unchanged from the previous model year.
Volkswagen SUVs, especially the Atlas, sometimes get lost in the shuffle because of the sheer quantity of options within the category. In fact, Volkswagen dealers sold just under 60,000 Atlas crossovers in the US last year. To us, though, that’s its most intriguing attribute: you won’t find one in every other driveway.
If the idea of driving an SUV that not too many others are driving appeals to you, get to know the Atlas. Authentic German engineering is on display in a nicely refreshed package that ups the style quotient demonstrably. Here are our favorite things about this dark horse.
We mentioned that Volkswagen refreshed the Atlas for 2021, but that’s a bit of an understatement. The SUV underwent some pretty significant changes that resulted in a more sculpted, modern overall curb appeal. The net effect is a more evolved, sportier aesthetic than before, most notably in the front grille.
Featured front-and-center is Volkswagen’s new logo, which is surrounded by a 3-bar horizontal grille that reveals just enough of the functional air intake to give it a geometrical, modern appearance. LED headlights modernize it some more, and the sculpted roofline slopes slightly to the rear and terminates at a low-profile spoiler.
On the inside, German minimalism is abundant but in a good way. It’s refined. Volkswagen adds everything drivers need and nothing they don’t. Since there is 153.7 cubic feet of passenger volume across its three rows of seats, everyone gets a comfortable place to ride, and depending on the trim, you’ll have a choice of cloth or luxurious leather seating.
Speaking of trims, there are several to pick from. The main trim nomenclature includes Volkswagen’s usual S-SE-SEL lineup, but within the SE and SEL trims are – for lack of a better term – sub-trims. There’s the SE, the SE with Technology, and the SE with Technology R-Line available in the mid-range, and then the SEL, the SEL R-Line, the SEL Premium, and the top-of-the-line SEL Premium R-Line. Opt for the latter if you want all the bells-and-whistles along with peak performance equipment.
The 2021 Atlas is powered by one of two engines, once again dependent on trim level or a cost-based upgrade on certain trims. The base 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder makes 235 horsepower and a throaty 258 lb-ft of torque. An available 3.6-liter V6 (standard on R-Line trims) delivers 276 horsepower and 266 lb-ft of torque.
Both of the Atlas’ available engines are relatively fuel efficient for the SUV’s size – the 2.0-liter engine gets 21 MPG in the city and 24 MPG on the highway, while the larger V6 is closer to 17 MPG in the city and 19 MPG on the highway. Add all-wheel drive, and those numbers drop slightly, but it’s still respectable.
The R-Line trims pay particular attention to performance, starting with appearance. Opting for an R-Line sub-trim adds extra air intakes below the grille for added form and function, along with R-Line badging to distinguish it from other Atlas trims. 21-inch wheels are standard, and there’s a choice of either front-wheel or all-wheel drive.
Volkswagen equips the Atlas with a standard 8-speed transmission outfitted with several driving modes. Called 4Motion with Active Control and available only with all-wheel drive powertrains, the system allows drivers to choose from four modes: Snow Mode, Onroad Mode, Offroad Mode, or Offroad Custom Mode.
Strip the pretty exterior shell off any vehicle, and you’ll see exactly how solidly it’s built. The keyword for well-built structures is rigidity. The Atlas has an extremely rigid cage-like structure that’s designed to absorb the energy generated by a crash and pull it away from the vehicle’s occupants.
In the unfortunate event of a crash, an on-board system, the Intelligent Crash Response System (ICRS), will automatically turn off the fuel pump, unlock the doors, and switch on the hazards. It’s a passive safety feature that you won’t think twice about until it’s needed, at which time you’ll be glad it’s there. The same goes for the standard automatic post-collision braking feature. It works by slowing or stopping the vehicle after a collision, reducing the potential for additional impacts.
The Atlas is equipped with several standard and available driver assist systems, including standard forward collision warning, automated emergency braking, blind spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert. There is also available adaptive cruise control which works by automatically adjusting the vehicle’s speed to keep a safe distance from the car ahead.
We like that Volkswagen includes two years of scheduled maintenance (for the first 20,000 miles) along with a robust 4-year/50,000-mile limited warranty, but we’re disappointed in the shorter-than-average 4-year/50,000-mile powertrain warranty, which falls short of nearly every other vehicle in its class.
While the top-end SEL Premium R-Line is no bargain at over $50,000, it delivers enough standard equipment across the performance, tech, safety, and luxury categories that shelling out the extra cash might be worthwhile. Features like the expansive sunroof that stretches past the second row, rain detecting variable intermittent wipers with heated jets, epic Fender premium audio system, and up-sized 8-inch infotainment touchscreen help make a compelling case.
Size-wise, we echo the opinions of the editors at Autoblog when they report that “anybody in search of a large, three-row family crossover will find a properly spacious one here.” Expansive size is the calling card of this 2021 Volkswagen Atlas. At the low end of the trim range, it’s incredibly affordable, which means buyers have a three-rows-of-seating option that won’t ultimately break the bank.
Add a decent 5,000-pound towing capacity (when properly equipped), and the Atlas becomes the right choice for weekend family road-trippers looking to haul a small boat or RV. The NHTSA awarded the 2021 Atlas with a coveted 5-star overall safety rating, and we’re not surprised by this since safety is a hallmark of the entire Volkswagen lineup. Stalwart German engineering may translate into more minimalist interiors, but there’s innovation where it counts: design, structure, and mechanical systems. Bottom line: the Atlas is a vehicle you can count on to keep everyone safe. What’s that worth?