The best method of breaking into a new market segment: being better than the competition.
In many key ways, Volkswagen pulls off that approach with the 2018 Atlas, the German carmaker's first full-size seven-passenger crossover. Exceptional interior volume benefits both passengers and cargo, and composed ride and handling lend it a sense of mechanical sophistication.
Priced from $31,425, the Atlas faces strong competition from the best-selling Ford Explorer and Honda Pilot; the updated Nissan Pathfinder; the sporty and luxurious Mazda CX-9; the fuel-efficient Toyota Highlander; and the 2018 redesign of the extra-roomy Chevrolet Traverse.
But the Atlas avoids getting lost in the crowd. Its blocky styling is distinctive without seeming overdone. More importantly, its driving dynamics and dashboard design provide a taste of European flavor, even as easy-to-fold rear seats open up an all-American cargo hold whose 97 cubic feet of space beats nearly every competitor. Seven passengers can also sit in respectable comfort, though unfortunately VW decided not to fit an eighth seatbelt like you'll find in a Highlander, Pilot or Traverse.
The Atlas won't be the very best choice for every shopper. Many will demand better fuel economy than Volkswagen offers. With its 3.6-liter V6 engine, the Atlas' EPA ratings are a disappointing 20 mpg with the tested front-wheel-drive and 19 mpg with the available all-wheel-drive. A 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine is due soon for the base model, but engines so small are often overworked in vehicles this size.
Some other buyers may find the Atlas to be less luxurious than they'd like. Volkswagen's typical interior décor involves clean styling with mostly straight lines and few flashes of inspiration; while it could never be considered overdone, some might find it plain. Meanwhile, some plastic trim pieces are more functional than fancy — which not every buyer will love at prices that quickly surpass $40,000. Furthermore, the Atlas doesn't offer its best safety equipment on the base model, unlike the Highlander and the upcoming 2018 Pathfinder.
But overall, VW's first big crossover makes a big splash. If you value maximum interior volume over maximum fuel economy, especially if you care about relatively agile handling, don't miss the 2018 Atlas.
As you read this, you're starting to see the first all-new 2018 Toyota Camrys hitting the streets of Montgomery County. If past sales performance is any clue, the trickle will quickly become a deluge — Toyota sold nearly 400,000 Camrys last year, making this midsize sedan the country's most popular passenger car.
Of course, if you're not paying close attention, you might not instantly notice whether the Camry you're seeing is the new 2018 or any of the several million Camrys sold in the last decade. Toyota pitches the redesigned model as a break from the Camry's image as a safe but dull choice in a safe but dull market segment, but just from looking at a new 2018 Camry L, LE or XLE model, a skeptical response is fully understandable.
There's a more significant change on the SE and XSE, the Camry's two sportier trims. There, revised front and rear fascias make the 2018 Camry look more aggressive than before. The pricier XSE can even be dressed up with a two-tone roof and red leather upholstery.
More importantly, the substance of 2018 Camry models sees significant improvements, at least based on a recent media preview in Northern Virginia. The car feels more solid and substantial, with superior ride and handling composure. It's hard to tell from the brief test drive, but early impressions supported Toyota's contention that the Camry has become much more fun to drive — perhaps even one of the best-driving cars in its class.
Toyota bucked the trend of using small turbocharged engines, instead offering the 2018 Camry with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine or a 3.5-liter V6. Both have class-leading horsepower ratings among midsize sedans — 203 and 301 horsepower, respectively — along with outstanding EPA fuel economy ratings of 32 and 26 mpg, respectively, in mixed driving. There's also a gas-electric hybrid version whose EPA ratings soar to 52 mpg on its base model and 46 mpg on other versions. All these figures are significant improvements over the 2017 model.
The 2018 Camry remains highly comfortable, quiet and spacious, despite the renewed focus on sporty driving dynamics and more head-turning styling. The interior is richer and more stylish, yet still highly functional. And prices remain attainable, starting at $24,380 with generous standard equipment, including valuable high-end safety gear.
The Camry faces strong competition from the upcoming 2018 Honda Accord, along with other excellent midsize sedans. But given the upgrades to America's best-seller, Camry loyalists have every reason to stick around even as Toyota offers significant benefits to first-time buyers.