Whether it's my very personal bias against SUVs or my unlikely-yet-unironic infatuation with minivans, I keep underestimating Cars.com's Best of 2018 and long-term tester the Volkswagen Atlas — and the Atlas keeps proving me wrong. I never would've guessed that it would come out on top of our recent head-to-head with Cars.com's Best of 2017 Chrysler Pacifica (though it did) and, despite that, I remained equally dismissive of its chances of passing muster as a self-contained camping unit.
Like Chris Farley's excitable, waistband-hiking sad-sack motivational speaker Matt Foley from "Saturday Night Live," I lived in a van down by the river last year for Memorial Day, which is to say I camped — sleeping accommodations and all — in Cars.com's long-term Pacifica. With the upset in our Atlas-Pacifica face-off still fresh in mind, it seemed only logical to see how the all-new-for-2018 SUV would measure up out in the woods — so on a recent weekend, I lived in a Volkswagen Atlas down by the river (the Galien River in New Buffalo, Mich., 70 miles outside of Chicago, to be exact). And although the Pacifica’s title in my camping-car contest is perfectly secure, when it comes to doubting the Atlas’ versatility, I wish I could just shut my big YAPPER!
With the long weekend of the Labor Day holiday ahead — the perfect amount of time for that last-minute camping getaway to celebrate the official end of the summer travel season — here's what to expect when you live in a Volkswagen Atlas down by the river.
1. Cargo Room
The Atlas offers 20.6 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third row, 55.5 cubic feet with the third row folded, and 96.8 cubic feet with the second and third rows down. The 55.5 cubic feet was ample for our equipment-and-supplies load, which included a large plastic bin, two very large backpacks containing inflatable stand-up paddleboards and related appurtenances, two shrink-wrapped bundles of firewood, a pair of small folding beach chairs, an extra-large Ikea shopping bag full of towels and blankets, a reusable supermarket bag full of groceries and another full of clothing.
That left space for a full crew of second-row passengers, and while we had cargo space to spare, room for gear would've started getting tight in the wayback with even one more passenger's gear and supplies, and certainly depleted with two. Still, since the objective was to accommodate just my wife and me without the necessity of a tent, the Atlas provided more than more than enough space.
2. Sleeping Space
This was one of the areas where the Atlas pleasantly surprised, as both rear rows of seats fold forward to create a perfectly flat, level surface on which to sleep. Our queen-size air mattress — the same one we previously fit into the Pacifica's cavernous 140.5-cubic-foot-max cargo area — actually fit pretty well in the Atlas' diminutive-by-comparison space. Although the mattress was forced to bow in the middle to fit, under the weight of two adult bodies, the surface was just flat enough for comfort. Unlike in the Pacifica, however, there was no extra room at the foot to house both my 6-foot-1 span and our personal bags, so we had to stuff our stuff into the front seats or risk it getting soaked in the storm that threatened from above with thunder and lightning but ultimately passed with scarcely so much as a drizzle.
We initially positioned our heads toward the rear liftgate and feet toward the front, but wound up sleeping head-to-toe as the night wore on for a little extra elbowroom. Plus, I wanted my head nearer to the cracked-open rear passenger window on this hot, humid night spent cooped up in a closed vehicle.
3. Cubbies, Compartments and Cupholders
Now, the Atlas is no Subaru Ascent where cupholders are concerned, but it still boasts a potentially bladder-bursting 17 places to securely keep containers of hydrating fluids — which is good, because I tend to wake up like once an hour when I'm camping to re-quench my persistent nighttime thirst.
In addition to copious cupholders, the Atlas offers a goodly amount of well-placed receptacles for accouterments like flashlights, phones, keys, wallets, earrings, sleep masks ... carpal-tunnel wrist braces ... Breathe Right strips (you know, the essentials). These include a shallow rectangular cubby adjacent to cupholders, midships on both the port and starboard sides; that's in addition to a massive, deep, open compartment on either side near the liftgate for larger items, or perhaps sandy flip-flops you want to keep out of the morning dew while not cruddying up the cabin.
4. Privacy Please
If you're camping on a popular holiday weekend like Labor Day, your campground area could be quite busy with other people who had the same idea as you, which potentially means more people wandering by in the dark and sneaking a peek at you while you sleep.
Here again, the Atlas provides adequate accommodations, if not quite to the standard set by the Pacifica. Cars.com's Atlas is equipped with handy retractable sunshades on the second-row windows, blocking enough of the view from passersby for a reasonable expectation of privacy; we threw a blanket over the front seats and across the gap to block the view from the front windshield. The third-row windows and rear windshield, however, leave a mostly unobstructed view to potential peepers of you snoozing away with your mouth wide open, drool dripping down your chin.
5. Room and Board
If you're gonna live in an SUV down by the river, it's nice to be able to haul your watercraft around. Very surprisingly, the Atlas, with both rear rows folded, was able to easily fit a fully inflated 10-foot-4-inch stand-up paddleboard turned on its side with the nose resting between the front seats, juuust shy of touching the windshield. We didn't attempt to force a second one in there, and it's highly doubtful we would've succeeded if we had; here again, the Atlas was trumped by the Pacifica. While driving with a board stowed inside the SUV's cabin would be too unsafe, it's nice to have the option to at least have a place to quickly toss your boards and lock them up for safekeeping while you go for food or move on to other recreational opportunities.
If you sleep in a van, you won't have the covered overhang of a tent to keep items outside without getting rained on — or a place to wipe off your feet or leave your shoes — so you may want to bring a rug to leave outside the door for when you're entering and exiting, plus maybe a tarp for covering up stuff you wish to keep dry that won't fit in the front captain's chairs. Also, the nighttime temperature for us was in the mid-70s with high humidity, which was borderline too balmy to bear; the warmer it gets, the more likely it is you'll have to crack windows to let in outside air and, inadvertently, bugs — so be sure to check the weather forecast before you commit to car camping.
Bottom line: Tent-schment. All you need is comfortably cool nighttime temps, the Volkswagen Atlas and a place to park it — and you'll be a happy camper.
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