by Frank A. Aukofer

It looks like Volkswagen slipped some of its Cross Sport into the family lunker, the 2021 Atlas crossover sport utility vehicle.

That’s the initial reaction to the tested Atlas SE R-Line model with the Technology package, mainly a reference to the steering feel and handling of this cavernous three-row hauler that stretches nearly 17 feet long.

2021 Volkswagen Atlas SE R-Line

It’s the biggest Volkswagen to ever entice American buyers and is a solid choice for families that might be put off by minivans. It welcomes seven passengers with headroom that can accommodate someone in an Abraham Lincoln top hat. Even the third-row denizens are not disrespected.

However, the Atlas has formidable competition: Subaru Ascent, Chevrolet Traverse, Honda Pilot, GMC Acadia, Kia Telluride, Buick Enclave, Hyundai Palisade, Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer and Toyota Highlander. The Mazda CX-9 also has three rows but is smaller.

2021 Volkswagen Atlas SE R-Line

The Atlas made its debut as 2018 model, designed specifically for the U.S. market and built in Volkswagen’s plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee. VW followed with the Atlas Sport, a smaller five-passenger version with two rows of seats and a generous cargo area of 40 cubic feet.

It’s only about five inches shorter than the three-row Atlas but focuses on attributes of responsive handling and a decent, mostly fatigue-free ride. It has 112 cubic feet of space for passengers and 40 cubic feet for cargo behind the second row.

2021 Volkswagen Atlas SE R-Line

Contrast that with the tested three-row 2021 Atlas, which has 154 cubic feet of space for its seven passengers and 21 cubic feet for cargo behind the third row. Flop the third-row seatbacks flat and the cargo area expands to 56 cubic feet.

Unlike some other three-row SUVs, the Atlas has cleverly designed second-row seats that flip and slide forward, opening an entry area to the third row that can be negotiated even by someone with clodhopper-sized feet. Just duck and step in — it’s easy if you’re an agile teenager. Oldsters should stick to the forward seats.

2021 Volkswagen Atlas SE R-Line

However, to get enough knee room back there you have to slide the second row to a midpoint that divvies the space between the rows. It’s not particularly easy to wrestle the big and heavy seats, and you have to make sure they’re locked in place lest they noisily crash forward and back as you drive and brake.

The Atlas is an easygoing handler with relatively light steering and responsive moves even on twisting two-lane roads, though you have to be cognizant of its size and not push too hard. It cruises quietly with just enough engine and mechanical noise to let you know there’s something powerful under the hood.

2021 Volkswagen Atlas SE R-Line

That something is a 276-hp V6 engine that develops 266 lb-ft of torque, or twisting force, delivered to all four wheels on the tester via an eight-speed automatic transmission that shifts surreptitiously. Six-cylinder engines are famously smooth and shudder-free, and the Atlas’s is no exception.

The Atlas uses the Volkswagen Drive/Sport shifter. In Drive, it has leisurely moves off the line, though you can override it with a determined punch on the loud pedal. Tap the shift lever back a notch and the Sport mode is engaged, which keeps the engine at higher revs before the transmission shifts. Another tap of the shifter takes you back to Drive.

2021 Volkswagen Atlas SE R-Line

There are four selectable drive modes, mostly for nasty conditions or off-roading: Snow, Normal, Off-road and Off-road Custom. Given its size, however, the Atlas is not the sort of machine you’d pick for any serious off-road adventures.

Better to treat it as a minivan alternative for motoring trips and family vacations. It’s an easy-going long-distance cruiser with a composed ride that soaks up bumps and ruts. There are four comfortable seats and three not so much but acceptable: the center second-row seat and the two third-row seats. On the tester, the seats were upholstered in perforated leatherette and the front seats resembled sport seats with substantial bolstering to hold the torso in place.

2021 Volkswagen Atlas SE R-Line

With the R-Line trim and the Technology package, the tested Atlas came fully loaded with modern safety and convenience equipment, and no extra-cost options. Items: adaptive cruise control, automatic climate control, SXM satellite radio, wireless smart phone charging, blind-spot monitor, Bluetooth and power rear lift gate.

Its base price, including the destination charge, was a reasonable $42,615, which also was the bottom-line sticker price.

2021 Volkswagen Atlas SE R-Line

Specifications

  • Model: 2021 Volkswagen Atlas SE w/Technology R-Line four-door crossover sport utility vehicle.
  • Engine: 3.6-liter V6, direct fuel injection; 276 horsepower, 266 pound-feet torque.
  • Transmission: Eight-speed automatic with all-wheel drive.    
  • Overall length: 16 feet 9 inches.
  • Height: 5 feet 10 inches.
  • EPA/SAE passenger/cargo volume: 154/21 cubic feet.
  • Weight: 4,612 pounds. 
  • Payload: 1,080 pounds.
  • Towing capability: 2,000 pounds (5,000 pounds with towing package and braked trailer).
  • EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 16/22/18 mpg.
  • Base price, including destination charge: $42,615.
  • Price as tested: $42,615.

Disclaimer: The manufacturer provided the vehicle used to conduct this test drive and review.

2021 Volkswagen Atlas SE R-Line

Photos (c) Volkswagen