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UP TO THE TASK: There’s a lot riding on the shoulders of Volkswagen’s new Atlas SUV, but it’s well prepared

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Volkswagen, well on its way to being the world’s largest automotive manufacturer, has gotten serious about sport utility vehicles, albeit somewhat belatedly.

A major thrust of its strategy it to supply a series of new SUVs designed with American tastes in mind to pump up its U.S. sales. Hence, the new 2018 Atlas midsize sport-ute.

On the heels of the redesigned and enlarged compact Tiguan, the Atlas is sized specifically for the American family. With three rows of seats seating seven or eight (depending on the choice of second-row seating), the new Atlas is downright cavernous inside.

Well-bolstered front buckets provide long-haul comfort. Even the rearmost third-row bench can accommodate full-size adults without requiring unnatural positioning or ungainly maneuvers to access it.

Our test Atlas was a top-of-the-line V6 SEL Premium with 4Motion all-wheel drive. The narrow-angle, twin-cam V-6 has been in the VW parts bin for a number of years, and it’s very smooth and relatively powerful, although its 276 horsepower is outclassed by several competitors.

It’s also rather thirsty, EPA-rated at 17 mpg in town and 23 on the open road. At least the Atlas has a decently sized fuel tank – 18.6 gallons – and it runs just fine on regular-grade gas.

The Atlas sports conservative styling, but with a strong character line outlining and connecting the wheel wells that give it a somewhat brawny look. Big 20-inch wheels and tires add to the attitude.

The cabin is typical VW in design and materials. A pair of large, digitally displayed speed and rev gauges sit in front of the driver, with an 8-inch infotainment touch screen in the center of the dash. Below are a combo of climate-control buttons and knobs.

As befits its top-model status, the SEL Premium brings a comprehensive suite of safety assists as standard.

Under way, the Atlas scoots up to highway speeds with ease. The big ute’s handling is quite confident and the steering is nicely weighted and communicative. Brakes too are powerful and progressive.

So while the Atlas may be a bit late to the game, it understands the rules. And Volkswagen is out to prove it’s playing for keeps.

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