March/April 2023

Atlas takes center stage

New 2024 models rolled out at Chicago Auto Show 

By Cliff Leppke

Chicago’s Revel Motor Row, one-time Illinois Automobile Club headquarters noted for its Art Deco embellishments, played host to Volkswagen’s premiere of its 2024 Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport as part of the 115th Chicago Auto Show. 

   After we wined and dined on tasty bits of catered bliss, VWoA’s CEO Pablo Di Si took the stage. His pitch commenced with his vita sheet, not VW’s new vehicles. While he’s from Brazil, he went to school in Chicago and is an American citizen. 

   His presentation focused on the Atlas’ revamped style, lustier engine and lovelier interior. A new rear spoiler spiffs up VW’s otherwise boxy vehicle. We knew the Atlas’ front and rear sported new signature LED lighting bars and illuminated logos. Those luminaries shined through the silvery wrappers draped over these SUVs. Their silhouettes looked familiar despite the gift wrapping. 

   After the presentation, I joined Di Si, who invited us to join him and experience the uncovered Drive Bigger Atlases. OK, the Drive Bigger ad campaign is now largely forgotten. But these thing-big VWs have worthwhile refinements and some showroom engineering — VW’s 12-inch infotainment touchscreen, not-so-wonderful capacitive touch-centric dashboard and steering-wheel “switches.” 

   While I’m not thrilled with touch sensors, the new infotainment screen is contemporary. Several of us found it difficult to summon the climate control menu though. Knobs please. A two-finger tap on the temp slider is your shortcut to seat heat or ventilation. A heated steering wheel is standard. 

   Di Si answered my questions. For example, does VW plan an off-road version? Not on the agenda, he says. Does the “new” 2.0-liter, 269-hp turbocharged four-cylinder mill replace both the 276-hp VR6 and the 235-hp 2.0-liter four? Yes. Toyota’s Grand Highlander sports three different power trains — just saying. Di Si says the Atlas has 28% more torque (was 214 lb-ft, now 273 lb-ft) compared to the VR6 and has an added dose of oomph at 1,550 rpm and up. I suspect this torque improvement is rpm-specific, as the 2022 Atlas V-6 is rated at 266 lb-ft of torque at 3,600 rpm. More torque at a lower rpm should equal more scoot. The Atlas maintains its 5,000-pound tow rating and eight-speed automatic transmission with optional 4Motion AWD.

  The goal, according to Di Si, is to improve the vehicle’s lackluster (my word, he’s diplomatic) customer satisfaction rating. People want power, and they’re going to get it. Plus, the “B” cycle efficiency trick found on some VW fours isn’t employed here. As VW’s Mark Gillies told me later, the B-cycle engine has a complicated camshaft. It nets slightly improved mpg under certain conditions but seems flatfooted when prodded. VW fans will lament the demise of the VR6 engine, a narrow-angle unit with single-cylinder head that first wowed us under the hood of the 1992 1/2 Corrado. The new turbo four drinks regular fuel, while the former Atlas four required premium. 

   Inside, Atlas models borrow the GTI’s stubby shift-by-wire automatic transmission controller. This opens the center console with a pass thru under the center stack. And on the R-Line and Cross Sport models it’s covered with soft leatherette — an upscale touch. The quilted leather-clad heated/ventilated seats are double stitched with a diamond pattern — as if they escaped from a Bentley. The passenger’s front perch is height adjustable. The new digs, says Di Si, make the Atlas the brand’s pinnacle. What about Arteon? Colleague Jules Stayton found the renewed Atlas very comfortable. And indeed, VW’s CEO said customer feedback critical of the Atlas’ plastic-icky interior, which didn’t seem suited to the vehicle’s price, led VW to surround the dashboard with soft, stitched leatherette.

   Atlas optics embellish the luxo-theme, with a Rolls-Royce-style signature LED lighting peeking through the dashboard’s right-side carbon-fiber-effect fascia. Smart! And, of course, LED exterior lighting with de rigueur-stacked LED adaptive headlamps — suddenly it’s 1966 — are chic. Designers, these days, drizzle LEDs on their creations much like late-1950s chromium tinsel. I wonder: What does it cost to fix a stone-dinged light bar? Unlike the 2018 Atlas, which debuted in 2017, the lengthy six-year/72,000-mile People First bumper-to-bumper warranty hasn’t survived. 

Hein Schafer discusses the new Atlas models.

A focus on two VW SUVs

   Chicago Show’s second media day had a different vibe. Ford offered a smartphone photography clinic. Many reporters either tied one on at Sweet Home Chicago at Reggie’s on State Street — the first day’s afterglow party sponsored by VW — or filed their stories and headed elsewhere; they were conspicuously absent on Friday. 

I used this preview day as a photo and interview op. VW’s Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport were VW’s booth’s key attractions — uncovered and ready for photographers. I found my now-vintage and sluggish Pentax DSLR poorly suited to exhibitor stage lighting. I swapped lens filters and changed camera settings. Regardless, fuzzy images plagued me.

   Your befuddled correspondent was distracted. BMW, however, offered a respite — a champagne brunch with freshly baked bakery. The Bavarian brand’s exhibit was compact, and BMW didn’t hit you with a sales pitch. Smooth.

   VW hosted lunch. During both media days, the back side of VW’s booth wall was a beehive of activity — with VW’s busy rush of executives and guests conducting interviews. VW’s staff looked exhausted. This show’s tempo isn’t as quickly paced as the city’s news radio stations or those motoring on its tollways, but clearly VW’s media reps seemed harried. Wouldn’t you? They juggled local VW dealer reps, the media, their VWoA bosses and the show’s caterers. 

Electrify America upgrades promised 

   I joined VW PR guru Mark Gillies for an American-made ID.4 walkaround. He discussed VW’s BEV plans. VW’s relationship with Electrify America, he notes, continues. He says EA now knows which suppliers deliver reliable chargers. EA will switch to these units to improve the customer experience, which is regarded as spotty. A week later, Tesla announced it’s opening its proprietary charging network to other EVs. Gillies says the upcoming, improved modular electric vehicle architecture (arrives for 2026 called MEB+) will have increased range and battery/motor updates, but don’t expect VW to switch to an 800-volt platform from its current 400. VW’s Trinity BEV program promised for 2028 will have it. 

   To counter the faster charging Hyundai BEVs, VW will expand Electrify America’s reach and push charging at home. EA, for example, says a five-year partnership with TravelCenters of America means 1,000 new chargers, making road trips more feasible. TA has 200 locations along major highways. Gillies says he’s taken trips with the ID.4. He says you can fast-charge it while noshing. And his wife? She wants an ID.Buzz. Gillies, shrugged, after revealing this factoid — a genuine moment, I’d say. Don’t get Gillies wrong. His taste tilts toward the Golf R or e-Golf. A three-row BEV van, well? 

   I broke this moment. After hearing about his wife’s passion for the Buzz, I asked: when will she get one? Journalists around me broke into laughter. I landed a zinger. He says, “next year.” 

   Following this, Hein Schafer, VW’s vice president of sales, reintroduced the 2024 Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport. You might wonder why this second reveal — it’s for those who weren’t at VW’s offsite Atlas premiere. This time, however, Schafer emphasized Atlas’ importance as VWoA’s high-volume, yet profitable vehicle. He says the Atlas has 6% of the midsize SUV market. In 2013, 91% of VW’s deliveries were sedans; today 83% are SUVs. Things changed.

Danielle Gumro

   Safety is important. VW’s IQ.Drive is standard, and now there’s multi-seat, seat-belt monitoring. Options include a head-up display and predictive adaptive cruise control. After he extolled the revamped model’s virtues, we took a closer look. We didn’t see the lower-trim Atlas’ front clip. Its grille and LED lighting differ from the displayed machines. Move up to R-Line trim and you get a front fascia that’s about the same as the relatively sexier Cross Sport’s.

   VW’s brand specialists, who work VW’s booth during this and the following days, add warmth. Danielle Gumro, whom I met at the American Passat’s Detroit-show launch, is back. She’s moved from Chicago to St. Paul, Minnesota. Her children are in school, and she’s doing her VW gig/thing again. 

   The brand specialists will work VW’s major shows. If you have a major show near you, go!   Say hello toy our VW brand specialists. They’re happy to meet club members.

   OK, you’ve heard the buzz. Here’s my first 2024 Atlas impression: It’s a good move. The tidy turbo-four should respond to the long pedal better, while eking out better regular fuel, fuel economy. Those who pick higher trims will find a more appealing vehicle. I’d say it still doesn’t match the Hyundai/Kia three-row models feature-for-feature. Many thought the introductory 2018 Kurkuma Yellow Atlas was spacious penalty box. Upper trims didn’t seem worth their now nearly $50,000 MSRPs. In contrast, the 2024 model available later this year Drives Bigger. 

Cliff Leppke |


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