A tourism-busting weekend of warm weather preceded our visit, thinning the ice sufficiently that said VWs would have sunk in the unfrozen lake. The back-up plan meant we got real road time, with bumps, dips, stops, turns, and elevation changes ice simply doesn't offer. Although we got up to 52 mph indicated only once, and dynamic loads were severely traction-limited, this was still better than verifying for the umpteenth time that modern electronics are indeed faster than most humans.
The Atlas crossover uses the same basic all-wheel-drive system as the Golf R and Alltrack, a fifth-generation clutch-pack arrangement often referred to as a Haldex system, which is built by BorgWarner. A console rotary dial selects one of four drive modes, while the mode button within it adjusts powertrain programming. The AWD control unit, pump, and clutch pack are packaged just ahead of the rear axle centerline, so the 4Motion models get a unique subframe.
Both the 235-horsepower turbo 2.0-liter four and 276-hp VR6 come with an eight-speed automatic, but only the VR6 offers the 4Motion option. This is mildly puzzling as early hints suggested both would offer it, the VR6's torque output isn't notably superior to the four's, and the turbo would be advantageous at altitudes where all-wheel drive may be more desirable.
As far as traction goes on frozen roads with gradients to 15 percent – and there really wasn't much difference between the paved and "off-road" routes we drove – neither the Atlas nor the Alltrack could be forced to put a wheel wrong. Credit winter tires (Continentals on Alltrack, Pirelli Scorpions on Atlas) for part of that, but only at full throttle in the Atlas's off-road mode did tire spin become obvious, that because wheel speed is beneficial in sand. It's worth noting that 4Motion is not predictive, so matting the gas from rest will slip the front tires part of a rotation, that fraction of a second in which the system reads slip and loads up the clutch pack, and it is not variable side-to-side nor intended as any kind of cornering enhancer.
In other respects, the Atlas has similar input feel to the Alltrack and most other VWs aside from the Touareg. It bounded over wallowing roads with controlled body motions even when suspension was pushed to both travel limits, and in a pleasant surprise no front-wheel splash ever hit the hood or windshield despite the minimal front overhang. There's no impression that decent dynamics were sacrificed in the name of isolation or softness, and it feels quite a bit lighter than a Touareg or Ford Explorer. It's no GTI, but there's enough fahrvegnügen to know it comes from the same manufacturer. And while it's built on the same MQB platform as the Golf, the Atlas is seven inches wider.
Think scaled-up VW sedan inside, with styling, controls, and finishes familiar to any VW driver and proportionally enlarged. Although the same length and just an in inch narrower than an Explorer, the Atlas feels much larger inside, with superior space efficiency aided by generous daylight openings and allowing a big middle seat and simple third-row entry/egress. Your six-foot-plus correspondent had little trouble getting in and out of the way back or finding adequate headroom, but knee and size-12 boot space are limited if the middle row is slid aft. Cargo space appears competitive and there's a spare beneath the floor, accessed from inside.
Standard equipment includes LED headlights and App-Connect (Apple CarPlay and Android Auto), with VW's digital dash, a 480-watt Fender audio system, and driver assists including head-in self-parking among the options. We've been told to expect Atlas prices to range from $30,000 to $48,000, roughly matching the spread between a front-drive four-cylinder base Toyota Highlander and the top Platinum AWD V6 model.
We'll know more about the Atlas, including its full specifications, in a month or so. This brief drive showed that it should be competitive and will likely join the Jetta and new larger Tiguan atop VW's sales charts. The brand's first three-row crossover will arrive at dealers in May.