Behind the Wheel of Volkswagen's Big Bet: The Three-Row Atlas SUV

Gas is cheap, for the time being, at least, and Americans are again buying big SUVs like they never went out of style. You'd be forgiven for thinking it was the 1990s — except there's nowhere to play that Rusted Root CD. Strangely, though the sport-ute craze has been building for years, Volks­wagen has never sold a three-row SUV. That changes with the Atlas, the biggest vehicle the brand's ever built in the U.S. — and one that VW hopes will put its diesel scandal in your rearview.

It's a handsome beast: broad-shouldered and big-grilled but relatively unadorned, hewing more toward the look of a classic SUV than a slippery, egg-shaped crossover. And it's robust on the road. On a drive through the Texas Hill Country, we discovered that the Atlas handles with the stern composure of a German vehicle, despite the fact that it's made in Chattanooga. On meandrous byways, the Atlas two-steps like a dance partner smaller than it is. I daily drive a Golf GTI, and the similarities between the two don't stop at the grip of their steering wheels: The Atlas is based on a stretched version of the Golf  's chassis. There's more body roll with the Atlas because of its higher center of gravity and extra weight, but the firm ride faintly echoes that of its platform mate. (A $30,500 model, coming later this year, will feature the GTI's two-liter, four-cylinder engine.) Inside, a minimalist approach to the cabin does more than avoid tacky design miscues — it makes the space seem bigger than it is. And a third row of seats are legitimate chairs fit for adults.

But the Atlas isn't quite the titanic win that its name implies. Though VW is tardy to the three-row-SUV party, the Atlas comes baring little in terms of powertrain innovation: Its 3.6-liter VR6 V6 engine (the model we drove, and your only option until the V4 arrives) predates Run Lola Run, another 1990s German import. The Ford Explorer's advanced twin-turbo V6 (from $45,355) nets you more power (365 horsepower versus the Atlas V6's 276), while the Honda Pilot's V6 (from $30,595) gives better fuel economy.

So how will VW sweeten the pot? By giving the Atlas a killer warranty, for one thing: Its transferrable bumper-to-bumper deal more than doubles the competition's terms and is good for 72,000 miles or six years. By that time, dieselgate should be just a distant nightmare.

Horsepower: 276

Cargo Space: 96.8 cu. ft.

MSRP: From $30,500; vw.com