Competes with: Chevrolet Traverse, Ford Explorer, Hyundai Palisade, Kia Telluride, Nissan Pathfinder
Looks like: The Tiguan’s styling writ large across the Atlas
Powertrains: 235-horsepower, turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder or 276-hp, 3.6-liter V-6 engine; eight-speed automatic transmission; front- or all-wheel drive
Hit dealerships: Spring
Volkswagen’s full-size Atlas SUV has perennially been one of our favorites thanks to its combination of excellent driving dynamics and a brilliantly packaged interior. The company is working to keep the big family hauler relevant for 2021 with a mild refresh of the exterior styling, some new interior content, electronics and more powertrain choices for buyers. The revised 2021 Atlas was unveiled at the 2020 Chicago Auto Show and is being prepared for sale in the spring, when pricing will be revealed for the refreshed model.
Related: More 2020 Chicago Auto Show Coverage
VW has brought the big Atlas in line with the rest of the company’s new corporate face, giving the SUV a very similar look front and back to the Atlas Cross Sport or still-smaller Tiguan, or even the Jetta sedan. A new three-bar grille spans the distance between newly standard LED headlights; LED taillights are now also standard. The bumpers feature a new design, and the available R-Line trims offer up a dark trim option with 20- or 21-inch aluminum-alloy wheels and R-Line badging. The overall look is barely different from the current Atlas, but then it doesn’t really need to be — the look is still fresh and modern, and the new front and rear end bring the SUV into aesthetic harmony with the rest of the showroom.
Our biggest criticism of the Atlas has always been its interior quality: It looks and feels cheap inside, and the new version doesn’t do much to address this. VW has fitted a new steering wheel inside and has made contrast stitching available on seats and door panels for leather-lined models, but the leather itself still doesn’t quite feel competitive with the best in the industry. The infotainment system gets an upgrade as well, with the 8-inch Composition Media system now standard on all models except the base S trim. VW’s next-generation Car-Net mobile app connectivity system is also available, bringing a host of no-charge services for five years, plus some subscription-based services like in-car Wi-Fi connectivity that lets up to four devices connect via 4G LTE-enabled cellular data. The new systems are bright and easy to use (not that VW really ever had a problem with its multimedia systems).
As before, you can get the Volkswagen Digital Cockpit digital instrument cluster, a Fender premium audio system, ambient lighting, three-zone climate control, ventilated front seats and heated rears, remote start and more. Thankfully, the Atlas’ amazing packaging and interior space versatility still manage to overshadow its cheap plastics and sometimes creaky build quality.
Under the Hood
Volkswagen hasn’t made any changes to the powertrain for 2021. There’s still a choice of two engines: a 235-horsepower, turbocharged four-cylinder engine or a 276-hp, 3.6-liter V-6, both mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission and driving the front wheels. The news here is that now you can get the four-cylinder with the optional all-wheel-drive system, whereas before it was front-wheel-drive only.
You can also now get the four-cylinder engine on all trim levels, including the top luxury ones, instead of just on the base model. This is actually pretty exciting news: While the V-6 can tow up to 5,000 pounds, the four-cylinder turbo engine is a surprisingly peppy motor that can still haul around a full load of seven people without any fuss or drama. That it’s now available with all-wheel drive and on all trim levels should improve its appeal across models and regions, because unless you need the towing ability of the bigger V-6, the four-cylinder model is surprisingly adequate for nearly all applications.
Nothing new here, just the same level of very thorough systems availability from VW that we’ve seen on the previous Atlas. Standard equipment includes forward collision warning, blind spot monitor, forward autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian monitor, and rear cross-traffic alert. Optional equipment includes adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go, lane keep assist, parking sensors, parking steering assistance, an overhead view camera, traffic jam assist and dynamic road-sign displays.
VW hasn’t made too many changes for the 2021 model year, but not a whole lot of them were needed to keep the Atlas in the hunt. We’d still like to see a considerably revised interior — especially now that the Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride twins have arrived to massive acclaim — but it looks like that may have to wait for the full next-generation vehicle to arrive down the road.
Editor’s note: This story was updated Aug. 15, 2020, to reflect that the Atlas seats up to seven.
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