The VW Atlas makes its debut.

In Greek mythology, Atlas carried the world on his back. The new Volkswagen Atlas won’t have quite as big a load to shoulder, but it will still be the troubled brand’s heavy lifter.

The long-awaited sport-utility vehicle made its debut during a preview on the Santa Monica Pier Thursday night, and it will soon start rolling out of the expanded Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Atlas will join VW’s two other SUVs and, if all goes according to plan, help the automaker gain some much-needed momentum in a fast-growing market that has largely passed it by.

“This is the beginning of a new future for Volkswagen in America,” declared Hinrich Woebcken, the long-time BMW executive who was named CEO of Volkswagen Group of America early this year. The launch of the Atlas, he continued, means that “We are here to stay in North America.”

Significantly, the new VW model adopts a name both familiar and easy for Americans to pronounce. Brand officials told that they have yet to decide what name will be used in other markets once exports begin about a year from now. Some analysts have blamed the names Touareg and Tiguan for the lackluster success of VW’s earlier SUVs.

At nearly 200 inches, the new Atlas will be the biggest product VW offers in the U.S.

The debut of the Atlas came just days after a federal judge in California gave final approval to a $14.7 billion deal with U.S. and California regulators that followed VW’s admission it rigged the 2.0-liter diesel used in about 475,000 vehicles sold in the American market so they would illegally pass emissions tests. Roughly $10 billion of that will go into a program to either buy back or repair those diesel models.

(For the latest on the VW diesel settlement, Click Here.)

The scandal has seriously tarnished VW’s image, especially in the U.S., something all the more problematic considering it has had only two utility vehicles in its line-up at a time when crossovers and more conventional sport-utility vehicles have become the hottest products on the market.

The VW Atlas will now join VW’s original SUV, the Touareg, as well as the smaller Tiguan. Together, Woebcken suggested, they will help the automaker compete in about three-quarters of the expanding SUV market. VW insiders told that the company is also considering the addition of a model even smaller than the Tiguan, as some of the utility segment’s fastest growth is in the subcompact segment that includes such models as the new Chevrolet Trax and Honda HR-V.

VW claims it will offer segment-best access to the Atlas SUV's third row.

The Atlas targets the other end of the spectrum. With three rows, it is capable of seating up to seven adults. Measuring 198.3 inches nose-to-tail, 77.9 inches in width, and standing 69.6 inches tall, it is the biggest vehicle Volkswagen sells in the U.S.

Unlike many of the latest crossover models, VW opted for a more traditional SUV look, even though the three-row ute shares the same modular unibody architecture, dubbed MQB, as such conventional passenger car models as the Volkswagen Golf.

It also will mark the first time a product based on the MQB platform will be assembled in the U.S. VW has spent $900 million getting the Chattanooga plant ready for Atlas, a major chunk of the $6 billion it says it will spend to shore up its presence in the American market. Atlas will get its first public showing next month at the annual L.A. Auto Show, with production set to get underway early in 2017.

The new VW Atlas on the Santa Monica Pier, the landmark's iconic Ferris Wheel in the background.

VW promises a reasonable well-equipped vehicle, one it promises will be “competitively priced.” That will include a number of advanced safety systems, such as forward collision warning, autonomous emergency braking and lane departure warning. But there will be a wide range of options, including LED lighting, that should stretch the range from an anticipated mid-$30,000 base to well into $40,000 territory, or above.

High-tech features will include not only those advanced driver assistance technologies but a reconfigurable Digital Cockpit gauge cluster, and both Apple Car Play and Android Auto. The optional Fender Premium Audio System will blast up to 480 watts of sound out of 12 speakers.

Buyers will get to choose from two different engine options, including a turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four making 238 horsepower, as well as a 3.6-liter V-6 making 280 hp. Fuel economy numbers, along with final pricing, won’t be released until closer to when the VW Atlas goes on sale.

The engines will be paired to an eight-speed automatic gearbox and there will be a choice of either a front-drive, or a 4Motion all-wheel-drive layout.

The instrument panel will feature a reconfigurable digital display and other high-tech touches.

Right now, there appear to be no plans to add a diesel option, at least in the U.S., the CEO did say Volkswagen is weighing the possibly of adding a hybrid or plug-in hybrid version of Atlas in the future. In the wake of its diesel woes, VW is making a heavy push for electrified drivetrains, with 30 battery-electric models planned worldwide by 2025.

Woebcken declined to discuss sales targets for both the Atlas and for the VW brand overall, but it is clear the company didn’t invest $900 million into the Chattanooga plant – plus millions more to develop the new SUV itself – just for modest sales gains.

The U.S. is expected to be the largest single market for the new Volkswagen Atlas. VW certainly could use a lift in the American market, where sales for the first nine months of 2016 came to a mere 231,268, a year-over-year 12% decline.

(VW delivers strong profit for Q3 despite diesel scandal. Click Here for the story.)


Hinrich Woebcken was named the new CEO of VW's North American operations in January.

VW sales were lagging even before the diesel scandal became headline fodder in September 2015, and the maker has a long way to go if it ever hopes to reach the 600,000 annual sales figure that corporate management in Wolfsburg, Germany had set for the U.S. back around the beginning of the decade.

For his part, Woebcken insisted that VW can draw from loyal customers ready to return to the brand once it has the right product line-up. There has certainly been a lot of positive press for the CrossBlue concept that served as a model for the new Atlas. And in private consumer clinics, the executive claimed, “10 out of 10” potential buyers “said they loved this car.”

VW will soon find out if that affection translates into sales. If that happens, Atlas will echo its Greek mythological namesake, carrying the Volkswagen brand on its shoulders.

(Check out our first drive in the 2017 VW Alltrack. Click Here for the story.)

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