How much difference do three feet and 50 years make?
It’s the difference between a 1970 VW Beetle that could carry four people (two of them extremely uncomfortably and all of them very slowly) and a 2021 VW Atlas, which can carry seven comfortably and speedily.
The Atlas is, without doubt, the largest VW ever. You could probably fit the smallest VW, ever, inside of one.
But it isn’t overwhelmingly large, even relative to the very small.
And relative to some of the other competition.
What It Is
The Atlas is a full-size, three-row/seven-passenger crossover SUV that competes with models like the Subaru Ascent, Mazda CX-9 (which seats seven), Honda Pilot (which takes eight) and also the new Kia Telluride/Hyundai Palisade, which also seats eight.
Prices start at $31,545 for the base S trim, which comes standard with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, an eight-speed automatic transmission, and front-wheel-drive.
VW’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive is available optionally.
You can also opt for a V6, which was rare in the class (the Ascent and CX-9 don’t even offer one) until the Telluride/Palisade appeared last year. Those two come standard with one.
Prices for a V6-equipped Atlas start at $34,745 for an S trim with FWD. Prices crest at $50,691 for an SEL Premium R-Line trim with fully automated self-parking, a 12-speaker Fender audio rig, 21-inch wheels, a Digital Cockpit instrument cluster and almost everything you’d get if you bought an Audi-badged crossover without the Audi price tag.
The Atlas gets a restyled front end and revised interior trim.
Available V6 (unavailable in four-cylinder-only rivals like the Ascent and CX-9)?
Pulls as much as 5,000 lbs.
Related to a German luxury car brand.
What’s not so Good
Newer rivals like the Telluride/Palisade seat eight come standard with a V6 and cost less.
Only tows 2,000 lbs. if you don’t opt for the V6.
AWD isn’t standard (it is in the Ascent).
Under the Hood
The Atlas is the largest VW so far, but it comes standard with an engine only slightly larger than a ’70 Beetle’s engine. Both are four-cylinder engines—the ’70 displacing 1.6- liters and the ’21 displacing 2.0-liters, which isn’t much of a difference.
But there’s 50 years’ difference between then and now when it comes to how much power you get, one vs. the other.
Back in ’70, 1.6-liters meant 56 air-cooled horsepower and 82 ft-lbs. of torque at 3,000 RPM. Today, 2.0-liters means 235 horsepower and 258 ft.-lbs. of torque.
It also means an eight-speed automatic today vs. a four-speed manual then.
And it means 0-60 in just over 7 seconds vs. 17 seconds 50 years ago.
You can send all that water-cooled, turbocharged horsepower and torque through the front wheels or all four wheels as opposed to just the rear wheels, back in 1970.
To be fair to the old Beetle, it was pretty good in the snow, even if you couldn’t see where you were going through the fogged-up windshield.
The optional Atlas engine is VW’s 3.6-liter V6, which you couldn’t get in a Beetle. It doesn’t need a turbo to make 276 horsepower and 266 ft.-lbs. of torque, either.
It’s also paired with the eight-speed automatic and your pick of FWD or AWD.
Noteworthy: Neither Atlas engine requires premium gas to make the advertised power or deliver the advertised mileage. Some rivals’ engines do require it (that’s you, Mazda CX-9).
As mentioned earlier, the base Atlas with the four-cylinder engine can only pull 2,000 pounds—about the same as most mid-sized cars and less than some of them. But you can more than double the VW’s max tow rating to 5,000 lbs. if you buy the V6.
On The Road
Size does matter when you’re trying to park, for instance.
The Atlas won’t fit into a Beetle-sized spot, but it will fit into most spots because it’s only about six inches longer overall than a current mid-sized sedan like the Toyota Camry, which doesn’t seat seven.
You also sit higher, in part because the Atlas is a crossover and due to its super-tall 20-inch throwing star wheels—five inches taller than a ’70 Beetle’s wheels. This helps you see better where you’re parking. And this VW can park itself hands-free if you buy the Premium trim, which comes standard with this technologically.
You also sit wider—literally and visually. There’s 15.9 inches more of Atlas between the door panels than there was in the Beetle back in 1970, which you can feel and see as you look out over a broad, flat slab of hood that looks like you could play ping-pong across it.
But, it’s not overwhelmingly large-feeling. In fact, it’s easier to drive and arguably, to park than a ’70 Beetle, which didn’t have power steering and only just barely enough power to reach the speed limit on the highway, without much left in reserve.
Speaking of power . . .
Whether to buy the four or the six is less a question of power or performance because both engines are very close in both departments. It depends on whether you prefer better gas mileage at the possible cost of turbo-related troubles at some point down the road.
The V6 is definitely thirstier, 16 city/22 highway vs. 21 city/24 highway for the turbo’d four, but it has no turbo, so there’s no chance you’ll ever have to replace the turbo. Or the intercooler. Or the other parts that come with a turbocharged engine.
With the four, you might. The truth is, we don’t yet know because not enough time has elapsed yet to really gauge the long-term durability of modern turbocharged small engines. What we do know from the historical record is that the turbo’d engines of the past tended to need repairs sooner than non-turbo’d ones.
Whether because of not-as-sound engineering or too much boost for the long haul. We’ll know about the current crop in about ten years from now.
Either way, the Atlas is almost startlingly maneuverable, especially as regards to steering, which is very light and very precise. Hardly any input is necessary to course-correct, and even better, the Atlas doesn’t try to correct course for you.
Which brings up another thing to know about the Atlas: It lets you drive.
It does come with “advanced driver assistance technology,” which can be intrusive, but it can be easily turned off too. One amusing feature is the speed limiter, which displays an exclamation-pointed message in the dash that you have exceeded whatever the posted speed limit is—the car knows the speed limit because of GPS mapping and real-time monitoring of your progress (and speed in relation to the road you’re on).
In Europe, this stuff is preparatory to speed limiting in real-time. The car will slow down if you don’t. For now, this technology is functionally impotent in the U.S., but the worrisome thing is it’s there and could probably be turned on anytime.
The Atlas is also less distracting to drive because you can adjust the climate control without looking at an LCD touchscreen. Even the top-of-the-line trims have rotary knob controls for these functions, enabling you to make them function without taking your eyes off the road.
There are also 8 inches of clearance if you need to go off-road, though like all the vehicles in this class, the Atlas is designed for on-road duty. Still, it can go in the grass if you need to, and it can handle snow on the road much better than any car without making you drive a vehicle that doesn’t drive like one.
At The Curb
VW, a small car company, faced the same problem that Porsche had when it created the first big Porsche. How to make a big vehicle not too big, both in size and looks, while still being big enough to meet the needs of people who need more than a small car?
The result is a car that looks hunky, but that’s just three feet longer than a Beetle, one of the smallest cars ever made. Yet there’s more room in its third-row than a Beetle had in its second and with a second row that’s light-years roomier than the front row of a ’70 Beetle.
You could almost put a Beetle inside the Atlas, too. It has 20.6 cubic feet of space behind its third row and 96.8 cubic feet with its second and third row folded. That’s significantly more cargo room than even the previously class-leading Honda Pilot can boast (82.1 cubic feet), and it edges out the new Telluride, too (87 cubic feet).
Shoulder room in both rows is among the best in the class at 61.5 inches and 60.8 inches, respectively. The Honda Pilot has a little more wiggle room in this category, 62.2 inches up front and 62 in the second row, but it cannot cart around as much stuff as the broad-shouldered Atlas can.
You can also get unimaginable (back in 1970) features in this VW, such as a flat-screen digital instrument cluster.
Plus a working heater.
You can also get an almost entirely glass roof if you want one. But, you’ll have to step up to the SE trim to order one. If you do, you can also sub out the bench seats for captain’s chairs. If you order the SEL trim, the panorama roof comes standard, along with the Digital Cockpit instrument cluster (instead of needle/analog gauges), and you also get a heated steering wheel.
The other thing you get is a kinship to Audi.
It’s not shared-platform kinship but engineering and general kinship. VWs are made by the same company that makes Audis. So even though the Atlas is not a rebadged Audi Q7 even though they look very similar—they are built on different platforms, MQB for the VW and MLB for the Audi. They feel similar because they issue from the same loins, so to speak.
But the VW is the roomier as well as the more practical and a great deal less pricey than its kissing cousin of the overlapping ovals. The Q7 starts at $54,800, about $4k less than a top-of-the-line Atlas with everything, including, once again, much more cargo room (96.8 cubic feet with the seats down vs. just 69.9 in the Audi).
In addition to its ample shoulder and cargo room, the Atlas has a roomy center console storage bin that can take a laptop plus a handful of other things. Plus side pockets.
The twin USB ports up front are in sight and reach, just ahead of the shifter, and VW has gotten rid of their VW-specific dongle-thing (adapter) you had to use in some earlier models to plug in a device.
The Atlas also offers a 12V power point, and you can get a 115V household-style outlet, too.
The tragedy is that the Atlas does not offer a diesel engine due to the ongoing VW diesel scandal, which I have talked about many times.
Whatever your thoughts about the diesel cheating scandal, the fact is a TDI-powered Atlas would likely have been capable of 35-plus MPG. That would have meant a lot more than a hair’s breadth of fuel savings as well as a lot less of other emissions (including the now off-the-radar carbon dioxide) simply by dint of burning so much less fuel per mile.
It also would have put some distance between the Atlas and newcomers like the eight-passenger Kia Telluride and its twin, the Hyundai Palisade, both of which come standard with powerful and thirsty gas V6s.
Finally, if you only need five seats, you might have a look at the smaller Atlas, the Cross Sport. It comes with two rows and the V6 standard. If we’re lucky, we may also soon see a pick-up based on the Atlas, similar in concept to the Honda Ridgeline.
The Bottom Line
If you’re looking for something with the room but not the size, the Atlas might fit!
Eric Peters lives in Virginia and enjoys driving cars and motorcycles. In the past, Eric worked as a car journalist for many prominent mainstream media outlets. Currently, he focuses his time writing auto history books and reviewing cars and blogging about cars+ for his website EricPetersAutos.com.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
*** Photo courtesy of Caricos