Whenever I receive a vehicle that has undergone a mid-cycle refresh, I have to ask myself whether the updates on this vehicle improved it at all.
That is always a loaded question. When you can keep a vehicle fresh in the marketplace, there is a responsibility to not only improve in the most visual places – but underneath, as well.
There is an industry expectation that all of the initial quality and build issues have been resolved by the mid-cycle refresh. That is two to three years of assembly line work to ensure that the umpteenth-thousand unit is more than satisfactory to the customer.
The challenge for Volkswagen was to not only give their mid-size three-row SUV a facelift – including affixing the new "digital" logo everywhere – but to ensure that each one of these 2021 Atlases are produced beyond customer’s expectations.
After reviewing two of the big three-row Atlas models (and a great run in the Atlas Cross Sport – a #VOTY2020 finalist), I had high expectations of this Racing Green 2021 Atlas SEL with the V6.
Those high expectations begin with an inventory of the updates that are on the 2021 Atlas.
The new front clip is the most prominent update you will see. The grille is now more three-dimensional, flanked by new headlamp units and adorned with the "digital" logo. It gives the Atlas a more upscale look, which is something Volkswagen enthusiasts would appreciate.
On the liftgate, there’s just a few updates to the trim, badging – including the "digital" logo – and the taillamps. Everything else remains the same – which is not a bad thing at all. The Atlas has always been large and in charge. Not since the Phaeton has a Volkswagen could command this kind of road presence.
Inside, you will be greeted by a new steering wheel with the "digital" logo in the middle. Volkswagen made a concerted effort to bring more color into the cabins of the Atlas (and Cross Sport). It may be a neutral color, but it adds a bit more aspirational feel to the Atlas cabin.
Interior updates also include a wireless charging pad for your smartphone, tucked away in the storage area at the end of the center console. Dynamic Road Sign Display is a welcomed addition, which actually works to read any updated speed limits on various roads. A good example is that the southern part of Minnesota Highway 101 south of Interstate 394 was upgraded from 55 MPH to 60 MPH to match the northern part of the freeway. The Atlas read that speed limit change immediately.
Some unseen updates include a series of added Car-Net features and benefits, including on-board Wi-Fi. The Car-Net app is now enhanced to monitor your Atlas from your smartphone.
Otherwise, the Digital Cockpit provides customized information in front of you. I really like this display in comparison to other full screen instrument clusters. I also like the infotainment screen that houses App-Connect and other connected functions. The standard six-speaker set-up does a good job spreading the sound around the cabin.
My tester is the SEL trim – not exactly the "top of the line" for the Atlas, but it is luxurious nonetheless. The perforated leatherette upholstery in Mauro Brown is sumptuous. They provided big space with a balance of support and comfort behind the wheel.
One thing I point out for families are the large rear doors of the Atlas. To access the spacious third row is easily done with a single latch on the outboard second row seats. In fact, the Atlas is one of a few vehicles where I can sit behind myself across all three rows. Adults can sit in the extreme rear of the Atlas.
You don’t have to have your Atlas to fit up to seven people. If you do, you only get 20.6 cubic feet. That is quite generous. However, if you keep on folding down the third and second row for an astounding 96.8 cubic feet of load space. Could you move a house in an Atlas? Probably not, but you can load your more precious items when you relocate the next time somewhere.
Powering my SEL tester is the 276-horsepower 3.6-liter V6 – one of two engines available for this big SUV. The V6 is made for better load management between passengers and cargo, as well as towing up to 5,000 pounds. The eight-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly and makes driving the Atlas a joy.
There was one thing missing in this big 2021 Atlas – the 4MOTION all-wheel-drive system. Luckily, the late October weather improved to avoid the snow we received earlier (than expected) that month.
As for fuel economy, I averaged 22.7 MPG. That's perhaps the best fuel economy figure I ever achieved in a three-row Atlas!
Let me go back to the idea that this Atlas was a joy to drive. It is not just then driveline that makes it a joy. It is the overall driving experience. The ride quality is smooth and works well in absorbing bumps and other road imperfections along the way. The handling is secure with good response in evasive maneuvers. It also corners quite well.
Which brings me to the steering system. It offers a tight turning radius for its size, but it does feel a bit artificial. That’s the sign of the times with electric power assist system. On-center feel is fine, tending on the softer side. The brakes are pretty good. I like the pedal response, as well as its stopping power.
The sticker price on this 2021 SEL V6 tester came to $43,315. As of this posting, a further update to the Atlas lineup – known as 2021.5 – further simplifies the trim lineup. The turbocharged four-cylinder appears on most trim levels now, with the V6 becoming available on the SE with Technology model.
The Volkswagen Atlas is such a wonderful SUV. It has all of the boxes ticked for family transportation – a spacious interior for passengers and cargo, plenty of performance, and a better look inside and out. So, how come I try to talk about the virtues of the Atlas that someone comes up with something negative about it. Was it the Consumer Reports rating it gave in its first two years? Is it the question about quality coming out of the Chattanooga, Tennessee plant.
So, yes, do your research. But, also follow your curiosity before you sign any paperwork and have your credit score take a hit. Compare the Volkswagen Atlas with other models. If I was my money, I’d strongly consider the Atlas if I was, well, married with 3-4 kids.
I'll tell you what…the Volkswagen Atlas looks much better than ever. It feels more upmarket, too. It has my kind of style. No, it's not an oversized Passat, but it could be your family's mode of transportation.
DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Volkswagen of America
All photos by Randy Stern