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We head to 'Murica for an audience with Volkswagen's biggest SUV yet
The sun is setting on the Santa Monica pier, tourists are slogging up the beach to return their rented surfboards, and Volkswagen is serving up hot dogs and ice cream sundaes with a side of nostalgia. It’s an interesting choice, considering how un-nostalgic their new SUV is, but the point isn’t so much these curvy relics they’ve assembled, with exquisitely restored Beetles and buses flanking us, but instead to tout the brands long-standing relationship with California beach culture. Moondog and Gidget are long gone, but Volkswagen is still staking its claim on the beach, hoping to kick sand in GM and Toyota’s eyes, among others.
There was a time when VW built the same cars for folk everywhere, but within seemingly proscriptive parameters. They weren’t so much building one car for one kind of buyer, as much as they were forever adapting that essential V-dubiness to new market demands. The cars tended to have an overarching family resemblance, which helped them stand out in crowded markets — they were maybe a little quirky, but never as bland as Detroit got during it’s less inspired chapters. They also had names that made the average American think a little too hard, something not generally recommended here.
Now, with the arrival of the Atlas SUV, and its Chattanooga Tennessee-built sibling, the US (and UAE) spec Passat, it seems VW’s global domination strategy has the Wolfsburg-based carmaker embracing greater regional product diversification — and by regional, I mean North American.
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Whenever I write about the States, I feel a vague need to apologise. No, not because of the election, or the endless succession of trite superhero movies (if you stop going they’ll stop making them), but because we here at wheels are dedicated to talking about the Middle Eastern car scene, not the American one. But in the age of globalisation that gets exceedingly hard to do when it comes to manufacturing trends. Not only does almost every carmaker of note build in the US, it’s such an overwhelmingly large market that, like it or not, we’re all subject to its whims. You could argue, for example, that the Prius would not exist if not for the State of California. You could also make the same claim about the 911 — this outsized state is the largest market for both.
“This is the biggest and boldest Volkswagen we have ever built in the United States, delivering the distinctive design and craftsmanship we’re known for, now with room for seven,” says Hinrich J Woebcken, CEO of the North America Region, Volkswagen. “The Atlas marks a brand-new journey for Volkswagen to enter into the heart of the American market.”
But let me backup — as you no doubt read, hanging on each adroit word, my recent test drive of the new Acadia revealed a slightly softer side of GMC’s 7 seater. Now, as the VW Atlas shrugs off the rounded iconography of the Beetle and Microbus, it meets Acadia (as well as Explorer, Highlander, and Pilot) somewhere in the very desirable middle, with the hope of wooing Middle America. It’s a more rectilinear, less whimsical SUV than the Touareg. A tougher-looking family hauler that’s no longer just for liberal arts majors. Where the Acadia has its signature C LEDs, the Atlas has prominent Ws to let the Joneses know who’s coming. Both cars have nice interiors that are just barely plain enough to leave some brand headroom for Audi and Cadillac. Both cars have seating for seven, so the average family with 2.5 children can bring 2.5 friends along for that road trip to Disneyland or Ibn Battuta Mall. No, they’re not the same car at all, of course, and I’ve done no more than sit in the Atlas, but a strategy seems to be coalescing in the battle for the, er, mid-size SUV, and lately I’ve found myself flung in the middle of it. There are myriad other seven seaters to compare to, mind you, but Acadia is freshest in my mind.
At 5,037mm long, 1,979mm wide, and 1,768mm high, Atlas will be the largest VW on sale in the US. Sure, the Suburban is so enormous that the term full sized was already taken, but the reality is that the market seems to prefer more manageably sized family haulers like the Atlas, Acadia, and Highlander. Then again, petrol is cheap now and the body-on-frame behemoths will be with us for some time to come.
Generally speaking, buyers will have a choice of two powertrains: the 2.0-litre turbocharged and direct-injection TSI four cylinder with 238 horsepower or the available 3.6-litre VR6 engine with 280 horsepower. VW Middle East isn’t yet saying whether our region will get both. Power is delivered to the wheels via an eight-speed transmission to help maximise engine efficiency and the VR6 iteration of Atlas can be ordered either as front-wheel drive or with available 4Motion all-wheel-drive. Inside, the Atlas feels spacious enough, and VW has made good use of ergonomic solutions to problems of ingress and egress. Third-row access is afforded by a nifty folding seat solution, that works even with child seats installed in the second row. (And you should really use your child seats, people.) Driver displays are crisp and configurable, without being too showy or distracting.
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Cars are ever more technological beasts, and Atlas offers a raft of driver assistance features, including Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC); Forward Collision Warning and Autonomous Emergency Braking (Front Assist); Blind Spot Monitor with Rear Traffic Alert; Lane Departure Warning (Lane Assist), which actively helps the driver steer the car back into its lane; as well as Parking Steering Assistant (Park Assist). VW says Atlas is the only vehicle in its class to offer the Automatic Post-Collision Braking System, basically the car takes over control of ABS for maximum stopping power when a primary collision is detected by the airbag sensors, halting the car more efficiently than analog machines like you or I can. The idea is that this will help limit the likelihood of additional impacts in the case of an accident while minimising initial damage.
Things change, and brands evolve — especially brands that are gunning for the number one spot in their industry. Fender, VW’s audio partner, was once known as the sound of rock and roll, although Gibson guitars would take exception to the claim. What do power chords and squealing feedback have to do the with hi-fi sound system in the Atlas? Nothing, if you happen to like Jazz. But like Fender, VW is a long-established tableau on to which we, the consumers, project our desires and, when they do it right, delights.
With the Atlas, Volkswagen seems to be adjusting to a different, slightly more American way of seeing the marque and, judging by the look and feel (albeit static) of the Atlas, the UAE roads will be a little richer for it.
Words: Liam Nelson. Photos: Supplied, wheels.ae