Payne: Big Volkswagen Atlas shrugs off the snow

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Once upon a time, Volkswagen (translation: people’s car) lived up to its name in America making Bugs and Rabbits and Jettas and other fun fare that appealed to average Americans.

One of them was me. My first car was a Rabbit GTI.

But over the years VW grew detached with odd menu-offerings like the pricey Touareg SUV and Phaeton luxury car.

Now that it’s producing vehicles in America’s Tennessee heartland, the German brand seems to have regained its footing with the Atlas and Tiguan SUVs — schnitzel-and-potatoes utes with a decidedly American accent. Which is good news, because the big, all-wheel drive Atlas arrived in my driveway just as Motown was being buried by a classic middle-America blizzard.

Driving Metro Detroit roads in a snowstorm is an adventure. There are four types of winter drivers: plodders, joggers, speeders and crazies. I saw them all in the course of my winter blizzard adventures.

Winter drivers are a lot easier to negotiate in the towering all-wheel drive Atlas than in the ground-hugging, rear-wheel drive BMW M3 that I arrived in here 20 years ago — a Southern boy (West Virginia, not Tennessee) at the mercy of a Michigan winter.

With all-wheel-drive, good safety systems and loads of cargo space, the 2019 VW Atlas is an excellent family travel companion in all weather conditions.

Where the M3 would beach itself on minor snowdrifts, the Atlas strode boldly out of my snow-socked neighborhood. Merging onto Inkster Road, a plodder inched across my bow at 15 mph — slow even for the snow-covered 45 mph zone.

Flashers on (a sure plodder giveaway), he poked along like an icebreaker in the Arctic — then abruptly decided to stop in the middle of the road. Traveling a safe distance behind, I squeezed the Atlas brakes, felt a hint of ABS assist, then steered nimbly around him. Not bad for a 5,000-pound brute.

Starting at $31,000, my Atlas SEL Premium was nicely equipped with everything for a reasonable $50,320. That's welcome from a company that has often priced itself above its brand weight. Festooned with the latest safety systems, the Atlas felt confident in my hands.

In addition to ABS, its helpful safety systems included adaptive cruise-control, blind-spot assist and multiple drive modes like Snow. Surrounded by the safety cocoon of the Atlas, I trailed a few steady joggers driving down Inkster while familiarizing myself with VW’s mixed bag of infotainment options.

Mrs. Payne was pleased to learn the Atlas carries Apple CarPlay, because it is vastly superior to VW’s own navigation system in ever-changing traffic conditions. When traffic clotted at an accident site, CarPlay — using its vast cloud resources — rerouted me to another road.

Though VW voice commands and navigation can be lacking, interior ergonomics are first-rate with buttons where they should be, making for minimal distraction in challenging conditions like, well, blizzards. Only VW’s volume knob annoys — mute it and the whole screen goes black.

The Tennessee-made VW Atlas debuted with the 2018 model year and has re-established V-dub as a brand with American drivers in mind.

Transitioning onto the Lodge freeway, my blind-spot assist suddenly blinked. My first snow-speeder of the day! — a hulking Ram pickup knifing in and out of traffic, eager to show off its road-skiing abilities. I watched him fly past, hoping I didn’t see him upside-down against a guardrail.

The 330-horsepower V-6 in the Atlas is nicely mated to its eight-speed transmission. Not overly sensitive on throttle, it smoothly did its job of distributing power to all four wheels. In a family-hauler class where some automakers offer only turbo-4s (the base Atlas offering), the V-6’s low-end torque is welcome, sacrificing fuel economy for confidence-inducing grunt.

Chugging along on adaptive cruise-control at 10 miles per hour under the speed limit, I kept the Atlas in the left lane, avoiding schools of plodders and joggers in the right lanes.

Then I passed crazy, which appeared to wake the SUV driver from his slumber. Crazy sped up to keep pace with me. Was there a finish line he wanted us to cross together? Inspired by the Ford GT40s in “Ford v Ferrari”?

Traffic loomed in the right lane ahead, but crazy barreled ahead until ... it was too late. I canceled adaptive cruise-control and dropped back just in time for him to swerve across my grille and into my lane to pass the jogger-drivers ahead.

Atta boy, Atlas, you modern brute.

While safety systems and a capable chassis allow the driver to deal with the idiosyncrasies of winter drivers outside, occupants can carry on in oblivious bliss. VW has done everything right inside, from comfortable captain’s chairs to tasteful brown leather to easy-access third-row seats.

With its chiseled exterior looks and digital instrumentation, it begs the question: Why would anyone would pay another $20,000 for a similar Audi Q7?

The Atlas isn’t the only looker in the three-row mainstream world. And despite aiming to please, it comes up short on value relative to the Kia Telluride or Hyundai Palisade (two transplants also made in America).

My biggest complaint is the Atlas — like little-brother Tiguan — begs for an injection of performance character from its sibling Golf GTI and Golf R hatchbacks to separate it in the dog-eat-SUV pack. Not that I want to be a winter speeder. But when the roads dried out, I yearned for the athleticism I felt in my old Rabbit GTI.

The three-row Mazda CX-9 has the DNA of its Mazda Miata sports-car sibling. The Atlas could use a GTI infusion.

We’ll hear a lot more about the Atlas. VW has smartly kept the smaller, more expensive Touraeg model at home in Europe. Americans want big, roomy, affordable three-row utes and the people’s car — er, people’s SUV — fits the bill.

New for 2020 also comes the Atlas Cross Sport, a two-row version of the Atlas with a more elegant horizontal grille and taillights complementing a coupe-like roof. You get the idea — Cross Sport plugs the hole between the Tiguan and Atlas to appeal to empty-nesters coveting the room of an Atlas — but with the smaller feel of a Tiguan. Priced competitively at $33,000 to start, the Cross Sport should match up well against competitors like the Honda Passport and Chevy Trailblazer.

But what I like best about it is the Atlas Cross Tour R. “R” as in a real, rough ‘n’ ready Baja racer. Dude, it looks rad. And maybe, just maybe, its racing DNA will rub off on the Atlas to give it a little more speed. For summertime, of course.

2019 Volkswagen Atlas

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front- and all-wheel drive, 5-passenger SUV

Price: $32,565 including $995 destination charge ($50,320 AWD SEL as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter turbo-4 cylinder, 3.6-liter V-6

Power: 235 horsepower, 258 pound-feet torque (turbo-4); 276 horsepower, 266 pound-feet torque (V-6)

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.9 seconds (V-6, Car and Driver); towing, 2,000-5,000 pounds

Weight: 4,759 (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 18 city/ 23 highway/ 20 combined (AWD turbo-4); 17 city/ 23 highway/ 19 combined (AWD V-6)

Report card

Highs: Good value in competitive segment; handsome package

Lows: Lacks VW character; so-so voice commands 

Overall: 3 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.