2021 Volkswagen Atlas Review

2021 Volkswagen Atlas - 2021 refresh keeps Atlas current, but size makes it relevant.


The Volkswagen Atlas is a 3-row midsize crossover. Introduced for the 2018 model it, it was refreshed for 2021 updated styling, upgraded interior appointments and additional safety and tech features. Competitors include the Chevrolet Traverse, Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Mazda CX-9, Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota Highlander. The Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport is mechanically similar to Atlas, but offers exclusively 5-passenger seating.

Atlas seats seven and comes with either a 235-horsepower turbocharged four-cylinder engine or 276-horsepower V6. Both engines mate to an 8-speed automatic transmission and are offered with either front- or all-wheel drive. Towing capacity with the four-cylinder engine is 2000 pounds and the V6 can tow up to 5000 pounds when properly equipped.

Model offerings include S, SE, SE w/Tech, SE with Tech R-Line, SEL, SEL R-Line, SEL Premium and Premium R-Line. Pricing for the 2021 Volkswagen Atlas 2.0-liter starts at $31,555 for the S model; 3.6-liter models start at $38, 345. R-Line models add custom wheels, unique bumpers and trim and interior accents. Significant changes for 2021 include new bumpers LED lighting front and rear, an 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system and the addition of Travel Assist and Emergency Assist.

Both engines provide class average, if somewhat uninspired, acceleration pushing Atlas from 0 to 60 MPH in about 8 seconds. The four-cylinder needs a deeper stab into the throttle in passing situations and can feel underpowered with a full load of passengers. In addition, the V6 seems to mate better with the 8-speed automatic transmission. However, both engines stumble in passing situations where the transmission takes a while to downshift to provide more power. Overall, engine choice might come down to front- or all-wheel drive. The four seems to work best with the lower curb weight that comes with front-drive models while the V6 is better suited to the all-wheel drive system and perhaps highway cruising.

Atlas' all-wheel-drive system does not have a low range and is not intended for extreme off-road use. For most Chicago-area drivers, front-drive will be more than adequate, but those intended to head off road should certainly consider all-wheel drive.

EPA estimates with the turbo four come in at a middling 21 MPG city and 24 MPG highway for the front-drive model. V6 models with all-wheel drive net only 16 MPG city and 22 MPG highway. In both cases the Atlas comes in near the bottom in overall EPA ratings for the class. Routine suburban commuting will likely yield about 23 MPG overall -- a touch higher if you throw in some highway driving and a touch lower if you spend all of your time in traffic.

Behind the wheel, the Atlas drives almost exactly as you might expect. The ride is firm, but still compliant enough to soften large impacts. There's almost no bounding or bouncing on badly broken pavement and no head toss that's common on larger SUVs. In the handling department, VW's Atlas defaults to benign limits that prove more than acceptable in daily driving. There is minimal body lean in quick maneuvers and the steering is sharp and nicely weighted. Brakes have good stopping power and an easy-to-modulate pedal.

The 20-inch wheel and tire option package adds a considerable amount of harshness to the ride. In addition, expansion joints and potholes often pound through to the cabin in an unrefined manner. Though the package does tighten up handling a bit, the tradeoff might be too much for some buyers.

Interior noise levels are low, with no noticeable wind rush or road rumble. Overall, the Atlas proves docile in daily driving and quite acceptable when compared to others in the class.

As is the case with most VWs, the Atlas sports an interior dressed in mostly black with class-appropriate materials and a function-first design. Drivers face a conventional twin-dial setup with a central-mounted touch screen and handy dials for climate and audio control. The infotainment system features support for Android Auto and Apple Car Play and is extremely user friendly. Most will find the control layout pleasing if not extremely functional. The digital gauge package lends an upscale feel without becoming a distraction.

Front buckets are firm and flat. Still, there's ample head and leg room and a fair amount of width. The second row is offered with either a split-folding three-place bench or twin bucket seats. The buckets are extremely comfortable, but the bench is flat. The third-row seat offers actual seating for two full-size adults. In fact, both the second and third row offer ample room for adults. Getting in and out of first and second rows is easy thanks to a low-step-in height and tall and wide-opening doors. Maneuvering into the third row is a bit tricky as the second-row seats don't tip and slide as easily as those offered in some competitors.

Cargo space with the third-row seats in place is a modest 20 cubic feet. However, folding both the second- and third-row seats yields a whopping 97 cubic feet of space. The hatch opening is large and there's a bit of space under the floor. Interior storage is modest for a modern crossover with just a few open and covered bins throughout.

Bottom Line -- Atlas is designed to appeal to a very wide audience. It's extremely roomy, pleasant to drive, offers all of the latest tech and safety features and is priced affordably. Faults are few and include uninspired driving dynamics and underpowered engines -- two things that don't seem to matter much to buyers in this segment. As a large crossover Atlas checks all of the boxes and remains a viable player in this hotly contested market segment.

Mark Bilek

Mark Bilek is the Senior Director of Communications and Technology for the Chicago Auto Trade Association and the General Manager for DriveChicago.com. He is also responsible for developing and maintaining the Chicago Auto Show Web site.

Mark has been reviewing vehicles for more than two decades. Previously, he was associate publisher at Consumer Guide, where he oversaw publication of Consumer Guide Car & Truck Test, Consumer Guide's Used Car Book, and ConsumerGuide.com. He was also responsible for publication of "Collectible Automobile" and various hardcover automotive titles. In 2001 and 2002 he served as president of a Midwest Automotive Media Association. Mark has appeared on NBC TV, ABC TV, Fox News, WGN and MotorTrend TV as an automotive consultant. He hosts the Drive Chicago radio show on WLS 890 AM and was a regular guest on WGN Radio's Steve & Johnnie show. Mark lives in the northwest suburbs with his wife and three sons.