2018 Volkswagen Atlas: Goodbye, Counterculture

When I was a rookie reporter at the Oakland Press in Pontiac, Michigan, the chief photographer snapped a picture of me hugging my silver 1976 Volkswagen Beetle, a car I loved for its counterculture vibe and cute looks.

The picture and the car meant so much to me that I got out my craft supplies and decoupaged the photo onto a piece of wood. It’s a treasured keepsake and a reminder of one of the few truly emotional connections I’ve ever had with a vehicle.

I learned to drive a manual transmission on a friend’s red VW Super Beetle and in the ensuing years lined up with a lot of other nostalgic Baby Boomers when VW did a postmodern version of the Beetle in the late 1990s. I bought a yellow version with a little spoiler, and always had a silk daisy in the built-in bud vase on the dash.

I was anxious to check my emotional temperature when VW let me test-drive the 2018 Volkswagen Atlas, the brand-new SUV designed to give the German automaker serious street cred as a full-line manufacturer. The Atlas is VW’s largest U.S. vehicle and its first three-row midsize SUV. Would I feel like I did in my beloved Beetle?

Of course, the name Atlas is about as far away as you can get from the tiny Beetle.

Atlas was one of the Titans, the Greek god condemned to hold up the sky. I couldn’t help but think of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, wondering if this was an extremely subtle nod by VW to the book and its captains of industry who buck stifling regulations and bring the world economy to its knees. Now that would be countercultural in a kind of Randian way.

Nah.

With the competent, but generic Atlas, Volkswagen firmly places itself in the mainstream and steps away from anything revolutionary.

The company now has a mighty competitor in a crowded segment that includes the Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Explorer and Toyota Highlander. But there’s no idiosyncratic Beetle vibe here. Volkswagen is giving U.S. consumers what they want, another midsize SUV, but this time with a VW badge.

Don’t get me wrong. The Atlas gives buyers a great alternative, with its long list of standard features and lots of space for people and cargo. Baby Boomers who gave up the Beetle and now have healthy bank accounts — and lots more stuff to carry — should love it. But the Atlas is a bit pricey and hard to park, and the V6 engine can feel slightly underpowered.

My test vehicle, a mid-range SE model with the technology package and 4Motion four-wheel drive, was priced at $39,815, including a $925 destination charge. But that included features like forward collision warning, a blind-spot monitor, a 10-way driver’s seat and three-zone climate control for all three rows.

The base Atlas starts at $31,425 including shipping and the sticker price can exceed $40,000 if you opt for the high-end model.

I’m glad that Volkswagen still sells a 2018 Beetle, a nod to its anti-establishment past, but definitely a small part of the program today.

After putting a couple of hundred miles on the Atlas, I gave the new SUV a hug and had my husband take a picture for old times’ sake. But I didn’t pull out the decoupage.

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