Family size might be on the decline, but many parents still need a whole lotta seats in their family haulers. Pew Research found in 2015 that nearly 4 in 10 mothers have three or more kids, a brood that all but requires a third row — and real chairs, not some pop-up afterthought shoehorned into the cargo area. Throw in your youngest in child-safety seats, add a spouse and bring the in-laws in for the long weekend, and those way-back seats will need to pull adult duty.
Related: Atlas Bugged: 5 Annoying Things About Our Long-Term VW SUV
That’s what happened when my extended family tromped into town for a week this summer. For four days, the Mays home was full, and so was Cars.com’s 2018 Volkswagen Atlas, tasked with hauling four adults, two kids, a 1-year-old in an infant seat and a bulky stroller in the cargo area. Volkswagen rates our Atlas to carry more than 1,200 pounds’ worth of passengers and cargo. We hit a solid majority of that maximum tooling around Chicago’s tourist attractions (and probably a little more of it after the deep-dish pizza).
The Atlas handled it with aplomb. Acceleration at extra-urban speeds required the eight-speed automatic transmission to kick down an extra gear or two versus the same exercise with only one or two adults aboard, but the SUV’s 3.6-liter V-6 had enough power on tap to reach cruising speeds comfortably.
So how ’bout them third-row seats? On more than one occasion, adults ended up back there. My brother took a turn and declared the space more cramped than the third row in his late-2000s Honda Odyssey minivan. Headroom was fine, but legroom required sliding the second row a few clicks forward for him to fit — a position still workable for adults in the second row.
Two Seats Versus Three
Other complaints were few. The third row is adult-friendly, and Volkswagen set proper expectations by not trying to shoehorn a third seating position back there — something I’ve chided automakers for doing in tighter third rows.
Is the criticism justified? Now I’m rethinking it. Aside from the narrowest of third rows, the addition of a third seat might add more good than bad. Having two seats instead of three makes the bench seem roomier because the positions are wider by design. But the inherent dimensions of the third row itself — headroom, legroom, seat height — matter a lot more than how many seats it has. Carve the space into three positions, and you might end up with a center belt that digs into an outboard passenger at times. But the extra spot will come handy when parents have to cart half the soccer team around.
As it stands, the Atlas has suitable passenger space. And its cargo area is impressive, too, with enough room to fit a bulky stroller with the third row in place. That’s a testament to cargo volume, which — by Cars.com’s measurements — exceeded the volume behind the third row in the rival Subaru Ascent by 23 percent.
Driving with a full load did expose one unexpected antic. Backing out of my driveway with the suspension laden, the Atlas’ maneuver braking feature — an option on our car that can automatically brake at low speeds in reverse to prevent a collision — triggered sudden hard stops on two separate occasions. It’s possible the sensors’ lowered position identified the street as an obstruction, something I haven’t experienced while backing the Atlas out unloaded. I polled our staff, and most other editors said they haven’t experience the automatic braking in reverse, but Photo Editor Christian Lantry says it happened to him once while reversing in tall grass.
New Mileage Records
Despite new directives to fill up the Atlas only when it’s near-empty instead of closer to a quarter-tank, we saw the SUV’s observed range creep up, though still not enough to address what’s become a chief downside. Five of the 12 fill-ups since our last mileage update broke 300 miles — a range observed only three times in the 23 fill-ups that preceded the update. But the other seven fell short of the mark, in some cases dramatically: On two tanks in July and August, we observed just 231 and 204 miles, respectively. The latter total is our lowest observed range since we bought the SUV more than nine months ago.
August also saw new records for best and worst observed mileage: 24.2 mpg on Aug. 31, but almost half that — 12.7 mpg — three weeks earlier on Aug. 7. Here’s our summary so far:
2018 Volkswagen Atlas SEL AWD
- EPA rating city/highway/combined: 17/23/19 mpg
- Recommended fuel: Regular
- Highest single-tank average: 24.2 mpg
- Lowest single-tank average: 12.7 mpg
- Average gas mileage: 18.5 mpg
- Current mileage: 9,514
- Total cost of fuel: $1,524.85
- Longest mileage range observed: 367.0
Want to know more about our Atlas this summer? Read about our snafu with the moonroof’s sunshade (and how long it took to fix), see how the Atlas fared in a comparison test against the all-new Subaru Ascent, and find out how it matched up against Cars.com’s other long-term test vehicle, the 2017 Chrysler Pacifica.
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