- The FordExplorer is the reigning Great American SUV, first sold in 1991.
- The 2018 VolkswagenAtlas is the German automaker’s attempt to tackle the Explorer’s market.
- We liked the Atlas enough to say it’s a winner against the longtime champ – for now.
The US auto market is all about SUVs right now.
Luckily for Ford, its Explorer model has been around for almost three decades and has proved its worth. More recently, it has been attracting buyers who might otherwise choose an established luxury brand.
Volkswagen, by contrast, has for years been trying to sell the wrong cars to Americans. But for the 2018 model year, the German marque finally rolled out a true three-row SUV and gave it a normal name: Atlas.
We checked out both vehicles last year. Could the upstart dethrone the champ?
Photos by Hollis Johnson unless otherwise indicated.
This will be the battle of the Great White SUVs. First up, the Explorer!
Our tester was a $US55,000 platinum trim, in “white platinum.” The model year was 2017.
Almost no SUV has a track record to match the Ford Explorer. Introduced in 1990, the Explorer has been in continuous production through five generations.
The current iteration has been around since 2011. Even with the 2018 model year’s update, the vehicle is getting a little long in the tooth.
The midsize-SUV market is critical to Ford, given that in combination with its best-selling F-Series pickup trucks, midsize utes are major profit-drivers in the US.
Ford must keep the Explorer competitive, even as both mass-market and luxury brands bring new large SUVs to consumers – and as Ford expands its portfolio of crossovers (the fifth-generation Explorer sits on a crossover frame, not a truck-based architecture).
The Explorer’s design has evolved over the years, becoming progressively sleeker. But this is still a full-size, three-row SUV intended to max out passenger space and cargo capacity.
What has always appealed when it comes to the Explorer is bang for the buck. You can haul around a large family and all their stuff in a vehicle that has tremendous capability, yet doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.
In recent years, Ford has also followed a trend of packing the Explorer with premium appointments, making it a sort of smart-money alternative to fancier, upscale SUVs.
Looks-wise, the waveform grille and backward-wrapping headlights reduce the overall massiveness of the front end, but the Explorer continues to have a powerful road presence when viewed from this angle.
The rear end is also nicely proportioned relative to the rest of the vehicle. Overall, the Explorer’s design is about as harmonious as a quite-large SUV can be.
But it’s important that the Explorer not come off as too sleek. It’s an SUV meant to endure some punishment, either in the suburbs – where we tested it – or under more gruelling conditions.
Ford sells beefed-up versions to government and law-enforcement fleets.
As with most three-row SUVs, when you deploy the third row, you cut into the cargo space.
We took the Explorer on a 200-plus-mile round-trip run with our entire clan – and to handle all our stuff, we had to drop one of the third-row seats.
But the cargo capacity was more than adequate for the quick weekend getaway that included two adults and three kids. That’s a power liftgate, by the way.
The Explorer presents the driver with a nice wood-trimmed, leather-wrapped steering wheel, but the instrument cluster is fairly old-school.
We have comfortable, leather-clad, three-row seating here. The third row, as with most SUVs of this type, isn’t great for adults.
The Explorer is equipped with multiple drive modes and has a good reputation for being able to handle some punishment, even though its frame isn’t a hardcore truck setup anymore.
The platinum is the top-of-the-heap Explorer trim level. Ours had a 3.5-litre, 365-horsepower EcoBoost V6 under the hood (that means turbocharged power). The transmission is a six-speed automatic that effortlessly sends the power to a four-wheel-drive system. The whole thing can tow 5,000 pounds.
Ford rolled out its Sync 3 infotainment system more than two years ago. It’s quite solid.
I’ve been warming up to Sync 3. The 8-inch touchscreen on the Explorer is smallish, but it works well.
Navigation was reliable. Audio quality was also impressive, and you have Bluetooth connectivity as well as AUX and USB ports.
The voice-recognition system got mixed up at one juncture of our journey, but in general, it worked well.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are available.
On to the Atlas!
Business Insider’s Ben Zhang quickly decided the Atlas was the truck-iest vehicle Volkswagen had ever produced for the US. (The Amarok pickup never made it over.)
He called it the German Explorer, clearly aimed at the same buyers who’ve kept the Explorer in the picture for decades.
Our first crack at the Atlas was a V6 SEL Premium with 4Motion all-wheel-drive; it cost $US49,000.
We were so impressed with the Atlas that we brought it back for a second tour of duty, just to make sure we didn’t miss anything. That time, we got our hands on a mid-grade Atlas V6 SE with 4Motion that cost a tad under $US40,000.
The base front-wheel-drive, four-cylinder Atlas S starts at $US30,500.
The Atlas is classed as a midsize SUV, but we thought it was more of a full-size one. It’s definitely large. This is about as far from a VW Beetle as you can get.
“From our perspective, what we have here is a German take on the American family SUV,” Zhang wrote when he reviewed the Atlas. “A Ford Explorer by way of Wolfsburg, if you will. Well, sort of. The Atlas is actually built in Chattanooga, Tennessee, alongside the Passat sedan.”
So now you know why we decided to make this comparison – the Atlas really did put us in an Explorer frame of mind.
Just look at the front end! It could be a pickup truck.
The Atlas’s rear end actually looks better than the Explorer’s.
But just a reminder: The Explorer should be getting a full redesign in a year or two.
As you can see, the Atlas handled our cargo needs quite capably.
The Explorer, however, swallowed up a bit more stuff without having to drop both of the third-row seats.
The interior of our tester was truly premium.
Truth be told, it was nicer than the Explorer’s. But that’s what VW is supposed to be all about: Germanic near-luxury, a notch above the mass market.
Yes, as I said earlier, the Explorer has always been smart-money luxury. But Atlas provides some real competition.
We found the interior roomy and comfortable, but we also wondered whether some of the components could stand up to relentless abuse.
Still, this is a proper three-row SUV at a nice price — something VW has needed for a long, long time.
The Atlas is equipped to handle a certain amount of off-roading. The engine, unfortunately, lacks some beef, though the vehicle was a good driver for us overall.
Base-model Atlases come with a 235-horsepower version of VW’s EA888 2.0-litre, turbocharged, inline-four-cylinder engine.
Higher-spec versions like our two test cars came equipped with 3.6-litre, 276-horsepower, VR6 narrow-angle V6 engine.
That means the Explorer has the edge on power. But the Atlas can also tow 5,000 pounds.
We liked the infotainment system, which comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
“Our Atlas testers were equipped with an 8-inch touchscreen running VW’s latest MIB II infotainment system,” Zhang wrote. “MIB II is quickly becoming one of our favourites.”
It is a good system, but Sync 3 feels more modern.
And the winner, by the narrowest of margins, is the Atlas!
“Embracing Americana is the smartest thing Volkswagen has done in a long time,” Zhang concluded. “While it hasn’t completely shed its German heritage, the company finally delivered an off-roader with the power, space, and practicality which caters specifically to the largest and most lucrative SUV market in the world.”
If you’ve been keeping score, the Explorer takes the lead when it comes to power, infotainment, and heritage. This is the SUV that more or less defined the segment surge of the 1990s, and as the market has returned enthusiastically to these vehicles, new buyers have discovered just how great the Explorer is.
The Atlas wins on design, newness, price, and sheer chutzpah. It’s the SUV Volkswagen intended to persuade people who might otherwise buy an Explorer to, well, buy a VW instead! We did name it a Car of the Year finalist last year.
We are, of course, under no illusions that Ford will let this stand. The Explorer will get more than a midcycle update and be ready to defend itself against all comers. But for now, VW’s interpretation of the Great American SUV is worth a look.