VW Atlas and the quest for blueberry pie

August 5, 2018 by
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

With room and power to spare, the new Atlas can take on the largest SUVs.

By John Gilbert

    Where will it all end, this apparent runaway escalation in number and size of Sport-Utility Vehicles?  For Volkswagen, the end is here in the form of the large, and extremely spacious Atlas.

    I’m on the record as being in favor of the smallest vehicle that is big enough, but our test drive timing was perfect, because we were taking four adults to  find the perfect piece of blueberry pie. We needed the room, because we were embarking on a nearly 2-hour trip to Ely, Up North on the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where it was Blueberry Festival time.

   The Atlas is the largest vehicle Volkswagen has ever built, and it is a new dimension from a company that made its impact by building compact, fuel-efficient and fun cars, such as the Beetle, Golf, former Rabbit, Jetta, and on up to the larger Passat and longer Sportwagon.

   We loaded up a new Atlas with four adults, my camera bag, spare hiking shoes, a windbreaker/rain jacket each, just in case, and a cooler full of sparkling Perrier and iced tea, and we headed off with a half-dozen CDs in the console for our second trip in a couple weeks from Duluth to Ely.

   There’s something about Minnesota blueberries in the middle of summer. They thrive, while they struggle in some other areas of the country. Up North, you find two varieties of blueberries — the large, marble sized prizes raised carefully by nurturing gardeners, and the little tiny blueberries growing wild in the woods. There is no question the tiny ones have unexcelled intensity in their flavor, but you have to spend a lot of time down low to the ground to find the beds where they flourish.

   In any case, the various places that make and sell fresh blueberry pies could charge anything they wanted for a slice of those delicacies. And even though the Chocolate Moose restaurant has closed, we wanted to go right up to the large weekend festival that fills Ely’s city park with all sorts of handiwork. When we first walked in to the crowded square block site, we spotted the facility that sold various light foods and also proclaimed boldly: “Blueberry Pie.”

   We were patient, leaving the best for last. It was a hot day, but we could wander around the many displays and hold off on satisfying our quest. We did hit the kettle-corn stand for a large sack of their specialty, and when we heard some fine harmony from a nearby stage, we wandered over and were thoroughly entertained by Pat Surface with the Boundary Water Boys, performing a series of folk-country classics.

Shape of Atlas allows easily accessed third row seat, which folds flat.

   On the way up, we appreciated the way the Atlas handled the many twisting curves and hills through the towering pine trees in and around the numerous lakes and rivers. It is one of the most fun highways in the country, driven moderately, of course. The Atlas comes in base form with VW’s long-proven 2.0-liter, 4-cylinder turbo, while our SEL had the optional 3.6-liter V6 with 276 horsepower and 266 foot-pounds of torque, with plenty of punch to handle those curves.

   The loaded Atlas SEL model listed at $42,940, and it was a large cave that had room for everything we needed, and we were glad that we had a large enough SUV to handle our stuff in spacious comfort. We never needed to fold the third row seat up into position, although it would have been easy. The second row not only tilts forward, it slides 7.7 inches forward to allow easy access to the third row, when needed. If you’re in the second row, you’ll appreciate the 14-degree reclining action.

   VW tried its hand at a compact SUV years ago with the Tiguan and the Touareg, a pair of larger, stronger utility vehicles that I’m sure the company figured would satisfy anyone wanting a bigger, stronger vehicle.

   But in our now-global autoworld, look around. Used to be that the General Motors Suburban and smaller sibling Tahoe, and its GMC brethren called the Yukon, plus Ford’s response with the Expedition. Most of the rest of the SUV builders did so with more moderation.

Comfortably supportive front buckets and businesslike instrumentation and controls line the Atlas interior.

    All of the larger SUVs were speeding down the superhighway to oblivion when gas prices rose to threaten the financial security of entire nations. We thought they all go the way of the dinosaur, but suddenly gas prices came down, oil production went up, and entire societies that had made logical decisions to seek more fuel-efficient vehicles, even if it meant downsizing their super-sized SUVs, changed direction almost immediately.

   As a credit to the human spirit, our industry had built more fuel-efficient vehicles that got better gas mileage in the years since, so they were able to go back to oversized vehicles with overpowered engines and get passable fuel mileage.

   Of course, what Volkswagen noticed all this time was that the companies with oversized vehicles were making their biggest profits from their large SUVs. The best VW customers, who might have kept their Golfs and Jettas and added a Passat or Tiguan, started to veer away to buy a huge Suburban or Expedition or Mercedes or Toyota, lining the bank accounts of those companies while VW was going along with much more restrained profits from their small cars.

   I’ll never forget a Porsche executive I interviewed, during the introduction of the Porsche Cayenne SUV. “Why,” I asked him, “would the creater of the world’s best sports cars want to make an SUV?”

   The fellow smiled ever so slightly and said: “So that we can afford to keep making the world’s best sports cars.”

   Simple as that. Sure enough, they sold enough Cayennes to finance the next generation of 911s and Boxsters.

   It’s the same with Volkswagen. The company may not have any societal interest in joining the larger-SUV trend, but it is a way to keep the loyal VW buyers loyal. If you admire the strong feel, the solid security and the durability of a Golf or Jetta, then you understand how you might find a VW SUV a strong temptation.

    The Tiguan met some of that concept, and the Touareg more, and the newest Tiguan has grown by almost a foot and added a third-row seat.

Second row of seats fold and slide forward, making it easy to climb in the way back.

   But for 2018, Volkswagen also introduced the Atlas. It looked huge at introduction, and it is huge inside, by VW standards. With 4Motion, VW’s own all-wheel-drive system, and direct injection sending fuel into the staggered-cylinder narrow-angle V6, all controlled by an 8-speed automatic, the Atlas did its job without complaint. We got 22-23 miles per gallon on the highway.

    As we were preparing to leave the Blueberry Festival, we stopped for a bottle of the Root Beer Lady’s legendary root beer for $2.25. We were happy to learn they had, without fanfare, gone away from the high-fructose corn syrup to real sugar. So we headed toward our long-awaited piece of blueberry pie. The sign, however, now said: “Sold out.”

    You can’t be sold out of blueberry pie in midafternoon of a Sunday at Blueberry Festival, can you? Apparently you can.

    We hit the road and headed south on Hwy. 1, bypassing our usual turn-off toward Two Harbors and continuing all the way down to Hwy. 61. The plan was to angle beyond the Rustic Inn, our favorite restaurant in the state, for some sort of feast, and we knew Beth Sullivan would have an array of her usual dozen pies, including her legendary blueberry.


Older son Jack and Joan were impatient to get going.

  We got there, and as Joan ordered the “usual,” the best barbecued ribs we’ve tasted, I got the special, grilled Alaskan salmon. And for dessert, we put in our order before we ate — two pieces of blueberry pie. “Sorry,” said the new waiter we had, “we’re sold out of blueberry pie.”

   What?! Afterward, back in the Atlas, we cruised down Hwy. 61 marveling at the view of the full moon about to rise over the Wisconsin horizon, and we listened to the satellite radio broadcast of the Twins game at Boston — from those now-historic days when the infield included Brian Dozier at second base and Eduardo Escobar at third. At the time, we didn’t know how special that would be.

   It wound up as a spectacular summer day, and the Atlas did its job in every way. Except, that is, locating the elusive blueberry pie.




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