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2018 Volkswagen Atlas carries 3-row SUV class on its shoulders

With the all-new Atlas, Volkswagen is one of the last automakers to debut a proper three-row SUV. Being late to the three-row party has its advantages; Atlas feels roomier, smoother and altogether more unified than the competition.

It may just carry the beleaguered brand on its back, much as its mythological namesake holds up the sky, a sky less polluted by diesel emissions now that VW has made amends.

The 276-horsepower V-6 engine in the tester is middle of the V-6 pack in fuel economy at 19 mpg combined. With so many SUVs getting more fuel-efficient turbocharged four-cylinder engines, such as the Mazda CX-9 and forthcoming Subaru Ascent, why not go for the 235-horsepower turbocharged four cylinder offered in the Atlas? With torque relatively even with the competition, it comes down to towing. The V-6 is rated for a 5,000-pound towing capacity; the turbo tows 2,000 pounds.

While engine specs don’t stand out from the competition, the V-6 Atlas is peppy for a 4,500-pound vehicle and the eight-speed transmission is excellent. The shifts are so smooth it might be mistaken for a continuously variable transmission if not for the slight blip of the tachometer. It’s not a CVT, which is nice. The driver has control over the four drive modes within Volkswagen’s 4Motion Active Control. That’s not really German for conditional all-wheel drive.

In the default on-road setting it’s essentially front-wheel drive, with four drive modes such as normal and sport that delay the shift points. Shifting the selector on the center console to “snow” mode, for instance, adds power to the rear axle as well. The eight-speed shifts earlier, the throttle response is dampened and there is more grip for more confidence.

The system was barely noticeable in our week in snow and ice with the tester, which is exactly what we’d want. It did the work while we did the driving.

As good as the variable all-wheel drive system and transmission are, the real charm to the Atlas is the sense of space.

It has the interior space of the new Chevy Traverse, but doesn’t wear it as large on the outside. Atlas has clean lines, buff wheel arches and proportional edges as if it were designed by a tailor; Traverse is more off the rack.

The clean order carries over to the inside. The 8-inch touch screen is embedded smoothly in the dash, not wedged on top, and is complemented underneath by three climate dials. Wear gloves, keep warm.

Apple CarPlay is standard, as are tuning and volume knobs. Wear gloves, keep warmer. It’d be convenient if the redundant steering controls could change the audio source, but overall there is nothing peculiar about it to make one wish for the olden days.

Traverse has a bit more cargo area, but the 96.8 cubic feet in the Atlas is second largest in the class by our count.

The second-row seats slide forward by a latch on the top of the seat. Sliding them back into position also requires pulling the latch, which might be a struggle for younger grade schoolers. This is a safety feature, so that when the seat is pushed up it locks into place, so it won’t slam back into those grade schoolers when the car starts moving. The design also enables the seat to shift forward without removing a booster seat. The second row can fit three booster seats. It’s very easy to get in and out of, and six adults can fit comfortably.

From the rear, third-row seats flip down with a latch on the inside of the cargo area without any reaching or folding of headrests. Very easy, very convenient, very good, Volkswagen.

2018 Volkswagen Atlas V6 SEL at a glance

Vehicle type: Three-row SUV

Base price: $42,690

As tested: $42,690 (excluding $925 destination)

Mpg: 17 city, 23 highway

Engine: 3.6-liter V-6

Transmission: Eight-speed automatic in AWD

Parting shot: Welcome addition to crowded family class.

COMPARE IT TO: 2018 Chevrolet Traverse »

COMPARE IT TO: 2017 Honda Pilot »

COMPARE IT TO: 2017 Mazda CX-9 »

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