Friday, August 11, 2017

Compared: How Does the Atlas Stack Up Against the Competition?

By: Sebastien Bell
When Volkswagen decided to build its new seven-seat SUV, it must be said, they were late to the party. The Atlas, as we know, is a perfectly acceptable SUV in a vacuum, but something its size never operates without the environs acting upon it. The Atlas comes into a world full of competition and the perhaps the biggest foe it faces is the Honda Pilot.
The Pilot sells in droves and has been around for years, so its experience and age must be good for something. Without a doubt, VW’s engineers looked at the Pilot as they were designing their new SUV to conquer the American market and considered its vastness, like Lewis and Clarke heading west.
Since the Atlas can’t be considered in a vacuum we got our hands on a Honda Pilot (with the help of some friends at Auto Guide) and compared the two. And you know what? The Atlas does pretty well. It’s little wonder the biggest VW ever to have hit the American market’s sales are picking up, as the freshman effort proves to be the Pilot’s equal in most respects and it superior in others.
I’m doing my best not to be a sycophant here. I won’t say that the Atlas treads all over the Pilot. Nor that Honda’s latest effort is a hulking mass of garbage. It’s well considered and intelligent, and I freely admit that its sales come as the result of its quality. With a broad cabin, more captain’s chairs than the Pentagon, and enough cubbies to hide a DB Cooperian treasure, it’s clear to see why the Pilot sells in greater quantities than some gold records.
But that’s not to say it doesn’t have faults. The Pilot may be large, but it’s a little hollow, too. And though it may have four captain’s chairs, none of them could be compared to a La Z Boy, comfort-wise. After a long drive through dense city traffic and open highway with a couple of friends, the Pilot, though never cramped, wasn’t exactly comfortable. This is a problem I see widely, to Honda’s credit. The great evil of “bucket seats,” carved from granite in the name of “sportiness” is an industry-wide problem. Maybe I’m odd, but when it comes to a big, slow car I’d much rather have softly sprung cushions, than hard-formed Recaros. Frankly, I still think that a bench seat would be more appropriate for these purposes, but again I point you to the question of my oddness, and this time with more evidence.
The Atlas, meanwhile, I found more comfortable. It’s hard to say absolutely if you will too, since the human body is snowflake-like in its resistance to conformity, and I am a slight man whose lack of weight gives him to an appreciation for soft cushions, but these felt better to me. I could stand them for longer and their range of motion made it easier to place the seat comfortably. Further, the position saving function was much less annoying. The Pilot’s seat automatically backs up when the car shuts off to make entry and egress easier, which I’m sure Honda engineers were patting themselves on the back for. The problem is, though, that the seat always returns to saved position 1, regardless of who was last in the seat or how long the car has been off. And in a car for families, which often have two drivers, that’s annoying. Every time I got into the Pilot, whose first save was recorded by Auto Guide’s Jonathan Yarkony, whom the internet has noted enjoys sitting close to the steering wheel, the car tried to slowly crush me like a trash compactor on some kind of deadly star.
Meanwhile, in the back, the seats, again felt better in the Atlas. Admittedly, there was little to differentiate them, comfort-wise, in the middle row, but the Atlas’s third-row seats felt like, well… seats. Whereas the Pilot’s felt like being patronized to. Sure, third rows come don’t get used all that much, but as the smallest in a family of five children who was forced to sit in the third row of a van on many occasions, I feel it’s my duty to make a stink about an uncomfortable third row. So consider it smelly in here.
On the child front, though, the Atlas does miss a trick. Honda, unlike VW, has fitted its Pilot with a Blu Ray player. VW only has a sunroof. And while that panoramic sunroof is lovely, and while it does bathe the cabin in light and let occupants gaze upon the heavens—which I’m sure we all wish our children were more interested in than screens—it’s foolhardy to think that they will be. Or even that they should be. The skies are boring. They do, like, three things. Four, tops. Sun, clouds, stars, rainbows. And that last one is just an illusion. Otherwise, they’re dull to anyone but the hardiest of sailors. And when you’re driving across America, as VW wants you to do, and children are hollering in the back seat, I have the sneaking suspicion that any actual parent with actual children will gladly put on a movie to quiet them down for 90 or so minutes.
Back in the driver’s seat, meanwhile, the VW is much more interesting than the boring heavens or the Pilot. While my learned colleague, Mr. Yarkony felt that the Atlas was a little harsh on the throttle, I felt that the Pilot was sluggish and unresponsive at nearly every throttle position. Unhurried is the nicest way I can say it. It feels like a fat dog uninterested in going anywhere you want to go. I fear that this may be because it lessens the amount of puke you have to pick up from the back seats, but from the front seat the result is frustration. Frustration at the gap you couldn’t capitalize on, at the light you couldn’t catch, at the car you couldn’t pass because the throttle pedal did nearly nothing when you stamped on it. Even with all the eco options turned off and the so-called “sport” option activated, nearly nothing occurs.
The Atlas, by comparison, feels pliant and eager, like a sycophantic yes-man. Sure, it’s a little eager off the line, but it’s predictable, unlike the Pilot, which commits the cardinal sin of never accelerating when you expect it to. Volkswagen meanwhile made its Atlas accelerate the same way every time, so you know what to expect and can react accordingly. It gives you the authority, and while fat dogs are charming as pets, they’re less charming as cars. I want companionship from a pet. I want dominion over my car.
Size-wise, the Atlas does a better job, too. The Atlas has a bit more space by cubic-footage, the sum is more useful. That is to say that VW has somehow made its cargo area more useable, with fewer hindrances in it. Fewer hindrances, with the exception of the actual loading aperture. Effectively, the hatch is bigger on the Pilot, so getting a 50’ inch TV box into the back of the Pilot was easier than getting it into the Atlas. Once you’ve repositioned and angled the box correctly, though, with the back seats down, the box fits much better in the Atlas than it does in the Pilot. Same goes for all sorts of stuff, like lumber and strollers and groceries.
Finally, infotainment. The Atlas introduced VW’s new MIB II infotainment system to the market and it’s hard to overstate how big an improvement it is over MIB I. Unlike the movies, MIB is slow paced and dumb. MIB II, meanwhile, moves quickly with lightning fast refresh rates and load times. No more waiting for the radio to turn on after you’ve pressed the button. Moreover, everything is easily accessible and intelligently laid out. It really doesn’t require much of your precious attention, which is important in a car, because attention is already at a premium. Honda’s infotainment system meanwhile, which I’m sure also has a silly name, would struggle to beat the old MIB system in a head to head test. It’s slow and relies entirely too much on menus, which demand more attention than small children.
It’s a common refrain from auto journalists that there’s no such thing as a bad car anymore, and while I’m not sure how much I agree, in this comparison it’s true. I’ve been mean to the Honda because it’s fun and it does a better job of highlighting the Atlas’s strengths—something I’m eager to do since I like it better—but really it’s not a bad SUV. It lack urgency, but it’ll keep up with traffic; its seats are uncomfortable, but they’re no beds of nails; and the info system is imperfect, but you will eventually find your radio station. All of that is to say that this isn’t a rout. Personally, I would rather own the Atlas. I think it’s more handsome, inside and out, I’m better acclimatized to its layout, and it feels more like a car that I’m used to, but it’s not perfect either. You may not need an Atlas and you may not want an Atlas (Lord know I don’t, but I’m single and young and have nothing much to cart around) but it has something of the intelligence, dynamics, and quality that brought me to the brand. And I don’t object to giving more people access to that. So I’m willing to give them this one. I’d just like it if they were willing to take the back doors off the Golf again for me.

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