Watch a historic first FIA-endorsed virtual 24 Hours of Le Mans competition with me this weekend.
Every year since 2012, I have organized a watch party for the 24 Hours of Le Mans – the legendary, grueling, uniquely-enchanting Superbowl of motorsports – during which friends and I binge on stimulants to stay up for as much of the 4+-day race weekend as possible. Because of The Big Virus, this year's race has been postponed until September 19-20. I was pretty upset about this until it was announced last month that a virtual race would be held on the traditional weekend this year. The competition is going to be hosted on rFactor 2 – a racing simulator which I hadn't heard of (not that I'm all that up-to-date on simming, mind you) – which supposedly will allow for a 50+ car grid, a dynamic day/night cycle, and driver changes. (Very curious as to how that last one works.)
If you're interested in endurance racing and/or are already a fan of the World Endurance Championship, please do join me on my new automotive Twitter account and/or the Honk channel on Extratone's Discord in watching/keeping up with the race. I'd like to finally finish writing an account of the event itself (something I start every year but never finish, it seems) as well as an essay reviewing this year's spectacular collision between the “real” professional motorsports and eSports industries.
I will be keeping this post updated with new resources/news as the weekend progresses.
Though I grew up on a farm surrounded by (and loving) diesel equipment, owning a diesel-powered automobile somehow never occurred to me. This is especially puzzling given the overwhelmingly positive experience I was privileged to have with one 2014 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Sportwagen over the past year. It would find me signing up to Facebook groups, using real Fast Boy terms, revisiting long-lost roads of home, and returning to my local community in an extremely intimate ridesharing stint. Throughout it all, the Jetta made me smile much much more than I would’ve thought. I found a real love for this relatively simpleton form of transportation that I should have seen coming, but did not at all. There is something delightfully indulgent about a manual-equipped diesel wagon. Even The New York Times knows this:
Auto writers have long tooted the horn about the benefits of diesel engines, and a bunch of them have also argued that the old-school station wagon is a far more efficient way to haul things around than a bloated high-set S.U.V.
I knew it, too, apparently, long before I actually decided to act on a purchase. On October 24th, 2012, I Tweeted “I sat in a Jetta wagon today. I need one.” I really did intend on becoming The Jetta Man (perhaps without the fashion.) In acquiring it, my plan – and it was a good plan – was to cease an era of general insensibility in my life's decisions by entombing my wayward self within the most sensible expression of modern automotive design I suspected I could live with. The wagon component joined with diesel power and a manual transmission upon casual research. Diesel, manual, wagon – of the people's car, these I sought. Nay, demanded.
An ex-girlfriend of mine drove an utterly decimated Mk. V Jetta Sedan which she’d acquired in some sort of dicey deal. I remember finding it surprisingly robust given its lot, and quite dynamic to drive. We traveled all over the Midwest in it – from central Missouri to Des Moines to Chicago to Kansas City and back again. I mocked, but it was everything one could hope for in cheap transportation and quite a bit more. It turns out, Volkswagen was shooting high. As Tony Quiroga recalls for Car & Driver:
During the press launch of the outgoing Jetta back in 2005, Volkswagen touted that car as a less expensive alternative to an Acura TSX or Volvo S40. Volkswagen pointed to its growth in size, high-quality interior, new rear suspension, and refined demeanor as evidence that the Jetta had moved out of the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla class.
In terms of premium compacts, my experience is quite limited, but it’s no wonder the company has struggled to find a place in the market for this product: in German, “Volkswagen Jetta” literally means “people’s car jet stream.” The first component is infamous, of course, because of the Nazis and their horrid Beetle, but the second seems to be almost entirely unknown. In my research, I had to specifically investigate the Jetta’s name before reading anything about it. When an American thinks of “Jetta,” they unconsciously dissociate the word from the “jet” sound and make largely unsophisticated jokes. (It’s also Regular Car Reviews’ most hated car.) Now, the name has become a marque in and of itself: in China, Volkswagen began selling several different models under the JETTA brand last year. This also was news to me, and I try to keep up with the industry.
In 2011, the Mk. VI Jetta was released with an outdated base, 115-hp powertrain and a “hard plastic [interior] that wouldn’t look out of place in a Chrysler Sebring.” (Quiroga insults, to clarify.) Compared to the Mk. V, “Volkswagen made it clear that the targets are once again the strong-selling Civic and Corolla.” Once again, I’m at a loss for experience in the equivalent extra-Volkswagen competition, save for the Chevrolet Cruze and Kia Forte. (Surprisingly, GM actually produced a diesel version of the Cruze and AutoGuide compared it against the Jetta TDI.) It’s been too long since I last drove my ex’s Mk. V to really have much to say, but I do remember a particular solidity about the steering – perhaps because it was still hydraulic. Once again, I’ll rely on Tony:
Less obvious cost cutting includes the loss of adjustability for the center armrest, a lack of lumbar adjustment in most models, no more power-reclining seatbacks, and a simpler stability-control program that can no longer be shut off or even reduced.
When I began searching for my first ever truly modern car in February 2019, I surprisingly only needed to pass up a single option in the Kansas City area before I found The One: a 2014 post-Dieselgate example with ~65,000 miles on its odometer in “Deep Black Pearl” with a “Cornsilk Beige” interior which had been previously owned only by a single Michigan cyclist. I’d been without a car since dailying/living in a 1976 Lincoln Continental the year before, in Portland, and my friend had driven me around everywhere in his Wrangler for a full month (thanks, Jack!) I’d walked around and cold-idled another, high-mileage Sportwagen, but I was committed to getting something with a light-colored interior after the red velvet cake Lincoln and my dank smoking room-dark XJR.
Three of us walked into a dealership in the middle of a frigid Kansas afternoon – Jack, my girlfriend Sierra, and I. We hovered by a smart, gleaming little Golf GTI whilst my salesman, Charles, retrieved the car I had found online. After he finished copying my driver’s license while the little diesel warmed up, the four of us set off into suburban Lawrence. Back when the Mk. VI Golf was released, I attended a Volkswagen dealership event in which Mk. V and Mk. VI GTIs were driven back-to-back – I’m assuming to reassure buyers that yes, they really had made it better (though I was quite vocal in my disagreement about this, to the dealer’s chagrin.) The car I bought immediately reminded me more of the former – perhaps I just enjoy the increased body roll of a 50,000+ mile suspension – albeit with a much longer wheelbase and significantly more torque. Rowing through the gears, I was immediately impressed and bewildered by the characteristics of the 140-horsepower, 236 lb.-ft.-developing diesel powerplant. The diesel engines I grew up around in tractors, combines, and other heavy machinery were designed to more or less remain at a constant, relatively low RPM for the majority of their use cases. It’s not a screamer, but the idea that a diesel engine can rev at all was something that took a bit to wrap my head around. However, it is almost immediately evident that carrying on to the 6000 RPM (?) redline is a futile and incorrect practice. There is nothing at all to be found up there.
I’ve driven some quick straight-line cars in my time, but none of them have delivered their power anything like the Jetta’s long-distinguished 2.0L inline-four. It’s very odd having comparatively so little actual horsepower, yet so much torque – I’d heard Jeremy Clarkson complain about diesel power coming in “great lumps,” but I’d already started to find them extremely (and positively) amusing in my first few minutes. When asked, the oil burner will produce protracted front tire squeal and torque steer from a stop, which is odd and hilarious coming from such an otherwise docile automobile. Also hilarious: Charles likely noted that Jack, Sierra, and I were (and are) entirely unafraid of facing The End when a very near collision during our test drive did not perturb us in the least, but left him huffing and puffing from adrenaline. He was a star, though, throughout the more than four hours of deliberations required for his institution to reckon with my credit history. Eventually, I ended up spending almost exactly $12,000, which was probably too much, and named my new automobile Martin – “Marty” for short – after Martin Winterkorn, the former CEO of Volkswagen AG who bore more than his share of the blame for Dieselgate, including charges of fraud by the German government. Dirty diesel rolling coal in prison.
By “post-Dieselgate,” I mean that my new car was a part of Volkwagen's $10 billion buyback program, so the Michigander sold it back to the manufacturer for its “fair replacement value” – between $12,500 and $44,000 according to Car & Driver on behalf of FTC chairwoman Edith Ramirez. To be technical, the powerplant is a 2.0L EA189/CJAA turbodiesel four-cylinder. “The EA 189 was one of the most important engines in the company, destined not only for millions of Volkswagen-brand cars but also for a wide variety of other brands from the parent Volkswagen Group, like Audi, Skoda and Seat, as well as some light utility vehicles,” said The New York Times regarding the “clean diesel” “scheme.” In original spec, 236 lb.-ft. of it arrived between 1750-2800 RPM, but my (admittedly, unscientific) perception indicates that post-update, the torque was coming a bit later. If I thought you were interested, I would attempt to detail exactly what my car was then subjected to by a dealer, but suffice it to say that it was made less fuel efficient and a bit less powerful, to my displeasure. For a complete and comprehensive video on the scandal, try Regular Car Reviews. I’d also recommend the following reading from Jalopnik, The Verge, The New York Times, and The Independent.
My own views on Dieselgate are entirely irrelevant, but I will note that buying back a buyback car for such a price felt like a favor to my dealer and that it’s pretty cool to have my own copy of VW’s Extended Emissions Warranty Notice, not to mention the fact that I actually made use of it (which I will discuss later.) From my perspective, the automotive industry is the most heavily-regulated business space in the world and I’d suggest a company like the Volkswagen Group feeling like they should cheat on emissions testing might indicate that the standards of the test could be unreasonable and/or unrealistic.
After returning from almost two hellish, extremely confusing years in Portland taking public transport, Martin became a vehicle for a rediscovery and newfound appreciation for my Missouri home – the great Missouri River, especially. Not since owning my Miata had I driven so much in the country. Sierra and I visited Cooper’s Landing in the wet and ventured down to Springfield, Missouri (very far South,) near which we discovered Hodges Speedway – a then-abandoned dirt oval surrounded by demolition derby casualties and the large trucks used to haul them around.
Somewhere North of Kansas City, I opened the taps all the way on a very long straight and reached 125mph, which is either the aerodynamic VMax, an electronically limited limit, or both. Surprisingly, the modern People’s Car feels quite stable at this speed – were it not my own automobile, I’m not sure I wouldn’t just travel this fast everywhere. In the past few years, Interstate 70 – which cuts Missouri just about in half from West-East, connecting St. Louis and Kansas City with my hometown in the center – has become significantly faster-paced than I remembered it before moving to Portland for two years. 80mph used to be the accepted number, 70 (the actual speed limit) was the unenforced minimum. In my old Toyota pickup, I could travel at 65 without attracting too much criticism. Now, however, one must maintain 85 to keep up with traffic, especially when traveling with commuters. 90-95 will no longer garner judgmental looks and 100mph left-laners are given a pass.
“I’ll bet that’s great on the highway” is probably the most regular comment received from passersby and riders right after “is this a diesel!?” (Really, the fact of my Jetta’s existence as a manual-equipped diesel wagon seemed to utterly astound a great many people.) There is truth in this general supposition: the ability of the diesel powerplant to deliver hill-climbing torque at low RPM is simply unmatched by gasoline powerplants of the same displacement, which means that “highway” driving entails virtually zero downshifting – arrive in sixth gear, set the cruise control, take a nap. Everything else is taken care of. There is a definite luxury in the knowledge that one is no longer needed in the process at speed – luxury that is NOT present in a gasoline-to-manual Jetta drivetrain. From Hackaday:
[Diesel] has a higher volumetric energy density than gasoline, and thanks to low volatility, diesel engines can run at significantly higher compression ratios without risking detonation. These benefits allow diesel engines to produce significantly more torque than similarly sized gasoline engines.
“Diesel engines are typically poor when it comes to power to weight ratio, as their high compression ratio and torque output demands heavier materials in their construction,” notes Lewin Day, meaning steel engine block. Here we arrive on my singular dissatisfaction with the Jetta: its weight. While traveling from Kansas City back home in the East one day, I decided to satisfy a longtime bucketlist item and stop by a weigh station. As I drove up to the scale, the police-uniformed attendant looked up at me from his glass box and gave the standard white guy smile frown. It took a moment for the scale to register Martin, but it eventually displayed a whole 3440lbs. My little “compact” wagon… weighed significantly more than one and three-quarter tons – just 528 lbs. less than the full-sized, supercharged V8-powered Jaguar saloon car I call the automotive love of my life, and almost a full 200 lbs. more than its GLI sedan sibling. There was one single advantage to this weight: we were able to use Martin as a ballast to help re-spool the winch cable on Jack’s Wrangler.
After discovering this figure, I did what I could to diminish the weight easily without tearing into the seats or removing some of the car’s fourteen airbags. Upon lifting up the base of the “car-go” area in the rear, I found a full steel spare wheel – some 30 lbs of it at least – which I immediately removed, along with some sort of flapping cargo restraint that I can only suspect was designed to keep objects (like dogs, perhaps) in the cargo area from sailing into the passenger compartment during an accident (it’s called the “luggage compartment cover” in the owner’s manual.) Ideally, I intended to one day strip out all of the interior except for the driver’s side chair, but it ‘twas not intended to be.
After driving the Jetta for about a week, I was on the short commute back home from the office when I noticed that the cooling fans were running at what sounded like maximum capacity. Then, at a red light, I felt some rough dips in the engine’s idle. When I reached home minutes later, I turned off the ignition and removed the key only to find the fans still spooling. I was convinced I had already broken the car somehow in rough driving, but in reality, Marty was in the process of Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF) Regeneration – a procedure designed to clean the little shitpot under the hood by heating it up some thousands of degrees to burn off built up diesel exhaust soot. At least, this is the way I understand it.
Otherwise, I disagree with most reviews about the “diesel rumble” being bothersome. Perhaps it’s because this is by far the most modern car I’ve ever spent this much time with – the only car I’ve ever spent so much consecutive time with, in fact – or because I did, indeed, grow up sitting (and standing) right next to 8-liter turbodiesels at full chat for hours on end. Compared to my mother’s 1.4L gasoline-powered Mk. VII sedan at idle in her garage, there is a more pronounced clacking, but it’s nothing you’d have any trouble sleeping through. I would know! Whilst driving for Uber and Lyft through one of the warmest summers on record, I idled away many hours parked on the street with the (averagely effective) air-conditioning on. I idled when I wasn’t online, too – I would even go as far as to say that I made idling one of the trendiest activities of Summer 2019.
What’re you up to man?
Nothin’ much yo. Just over here idling.
For more than six months, my primary income was from Uber and Lyft driving around Columbia, MO – a distinctly academically-dominated demographic. Frankly, I can’t think of any vehicle more suited to what ridesharing actually entails than a diesel Jetta wagon. It’s a relatively spacious and comfortable place to be for four adults – certainly when no trip lasts longer than thirty minutes – with a ridiculously stout cargo capacity. I was able to fit 9 freshman fraternity guys in for a short trip once. Their faces were all genuinely somber as one expressed “it’s really hard having 8 friends when we try to go out.” (No, you’re not supposed to accept those rides.) It was a challenge carrying some 1500 lbs. of Sad Boys, mostly for the brakes. Once, a group of young men and women began to make fun after noticing the DIESELGEEK decal I’d stuck on my side’s rear quarter window (which I’d acquired with a new shifter bushing kit.) “So are you a diesel geek?” they asked, jeering to themselves, to which I responded: “you know, it’s so weird you mention that because I know this place that sells these stickers…” They no longer seemed amused.
All of the cars I’ve owned have been attention-grabbing in their own way – my old Toyota pickup was adored by the locals; my Miata was adored by other Miata owners. My XJR was gorgeous and my Swamp Continental seemed to be passionately coveted by absolutely everyone over 40. With the Jetta, though, I did not expect any unusual attention whatsoever, yet I must confess that more conversations were started about it than of all of the others, combined. Ridesharing will do that, yes, but it is ridiculous how many people of all races, classes, and ages were enamored by – or overly curious about – Martin.
What is this a Jetta, dude? Is this a Jetta? Whoa! Dude, is this a stickshift!? Dude I think this is a stickshift. BRO. I can’t believe you’re driving a stick right now. He’s driving a stickshift car! Wow I think this is a manual car! Oh shit this is a diesel!? It’s a diesel too?! No way! I can’t believe you’re out here driving a diesel Jetta wagon bro. Is this a stickshift? You can drive stick!?
Early one morning, a ride was requested from the local news station just out of town – a fascinating place. News vans parked in a converted horse stable. They farm televisions out there. A few minutes into the ride, after picking up the young woman, I noticed in the rearview mirror out of my eye’s corner that she had put down her phone to watch my right hand with total bewilderment. Eventually, she asked “what are you doing to the car?” She’d never heard of a manual transmission before. I did my best to explain, but when she asked “but why wouldn’t you just buy a regular car?” I did not have a sufficient answer. Unlike many automotive enthusiasts, I think it’s totally okay that people are allowed to exist independent of this knowledge. There are many, many other things in life to worry about. 80% of cars sold in the United States are shipped with automatics and expecting every young person who lives in an urban environment to think about automobiles as anything beyond simple transportation is asking a lot.
While we’re on the topic of manual transmissions, it’s relevant to mention how excellent the Jetta TDI is as a vehicle to teach first timers how to operate one. With the clutch in, the engine will not rev beyond 3500 RPM thanks to an electronic limiter, which dramatically reduces the number of obligatory stalls when learning clutch control. The learner can simply hold the accelerator to the floor as they get the hang of declutching instead of having to receive shouts of “more gas!” repeatedly. Of course, being a diesel further eases those stresses with much more readily available torque. Sierra was able to grasp the basics this way in a single night, which is unprecedented in my experience. She found particular comfort in the suggested gear indicator on the instrument panel’s main information display, which is very conservative, naturally, but also apparently relief from some great anxiety regarding the question which gear should I be in right now?
I have derided Facebook for my entire adult life for its shitty design, inaspirational effect on its users, and its massive intellectual power, but strangely, through Jetta ownership, I was able to find a community on the service that couldn’t be found elsewhere. Groups like TDI Scumbags, VW TDI Owners, VW TDI support group, and VW TDI Owners Performance and Tech Talk are full of absolutely hilarious and insightful content that I’m genuinely glad I didn’t miss.
On Instagram, I found @jp_eurogarage’s Mk. IV diesel sportwagen, which I adore. I especially love its idle. @projectownersclub posted a video in December, 2018 of a very rusty diesel Mk. III with a straight vertical stack spewing smoke all over its owner’s yard. A video was shared on one of my Facebook groups captioned “when you only drive manual” in which a very generic-looking white man with moustache finds himself gagging in a car with a traditional automatic transmission. The wholesomeness of these posts is often adorable, and not only on Facebook. VW Vortex is an active and helpful forum/blog for TDI owners that I found to be invaluable when researching modifications.
For the first time in my personal automotive history, I felt the desire to modify one of my own cars. Perhaps the most famous appearance of the Jetta Sportwagen in The Web Era was driving instructor Austin Cabot’s 2014 Sportwagen in one of Matt Farah’s infamous One-Takes. You can find the full list of modifications on the car’s WheelWell page. I intended to emulate Austin with a few modifications including Dieselgeek’s Sigma 6 shortshift kit and “high performance” shifter bushing kit (which I did get around to buying, but never installed.) For those interested in engine/ECU tuning, Malone Tuning has a beautiful tool to help you customize your order.
Instead of installing the shortshift kit right away, I decided to splurge on a bespoke Raceseng Ashiko weighted shift knob, which made throws immediately better. The issue these products are combatting is the particularly disconnected gearshift which Volkswagen has been notorious for the past few decades. The best way I can describe it is that it feels like you’re just operating a lever instead of shifting a transmission, if that makes sense.
The knob itself is beautifully machined and extremely satisfying to hold. I also “deleted” (removed, in other words) the (likely) faux-leather shift boot after realizing that I’ve always hated the sound and sensation of them, but hadn’t been willing to modify my previous cars in any way. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s actually quite personally noteworthy that I was able to traverse the unseen boundary into mod culture. The result was a slightly more mechanical-feeling shift that would’ve certainly been vastly improved by installation of Dieselgeek’s kit.
Another aspirational goal of mine for Martin: H&R’s Sport Springs Set paired with a set of Firestone Firehawk Indy 500s. The goal was to sure up some of that body roll and torque-induced wheelspin. I suspect the result would’ve been a very, very sticky Martin. Unfortunately, I would not get the chance before I killed him in an accident on December 22nd of last year.
Average: 29.84 mpg
Total Gallons Pumped: 644
Total Spent: $1726.94
Total Miles Driven: 19506
According to my fuel logs, (they are public, yes, though not necessarily 100% complete,) I averaged close to 30 mpg over 78 fillups and just over 19500 miles. Considering that I was ridesharing most of that time and driving quite obnoxiously for all of it, you should be very impressed. “Diesels tend to get about 30-percent better fuel economy than their conventional counterparts,” says Consumer Reports in a comparison between diesels and hybrids dating back to 2013. From the Union of Concerned Scientists:
Much of the reason for diesel vehicle’s high fuel economy has to do with the diesel combustion process; however, some of the increase in fuel economy is due to the simple fact that a gallon of diesel fuel contains more energy than a gallon of gasoline.
The joy my Sportwagen brought me was not expected. My plan to make myself a more reasonable person (and driver) by buying a “boring” car was obviously foiled by the diesel’s torque, the community’s dynamism, and my own communion with mod culture. I spent more consecutive time driving the Jetta than I have in any other automobile and was able to truly enjoy it. After my experience owning a diesel-powered Volkswagen, I would very much like to try driving/owning the Golf GDI – a performance-oriented diesel version of their excellent hatch. Truthfully – given the way I killed Martin – I did not deserve his kinship, but I’m certainly grateful I had the experience.
This is the most ridiculous press release I've ever seen.
Since signing up for Volkswagen U.S.' “Media Site” a few days ago for the sake of my VW Atlas Review, I've been treated to a few exquisite emails including this press release at 8AM today, which details how to make “virtual reality” googles using:
The template is actually by way of Google Cardboard, which tech media declared “officially over” in the Fall of last year. “Watch the VW ID.3 get built right in front of your eyes!” the release declares. If anyone on Earth actually plans on doing this, pleasecontact me.
VW's Jumbo new offering is titanic to live with and genuinely amusing to drive, but is it a condescending German prank on America?
Upon meeting an elderly recently immigrated German friend of my mother's for the first time yesterday, she exclaimed He looks German!... and so tall! Both of these compliments were relatively true, but certainly not extremely. I am more German-looking than not, perhaps. Supposedly, I am half a product of a very large family whose elders are only one and two generations from German royalty – my legal last name is on a state sign in front of a small black castle somewhere in Der Vaterland. I slacked through two years of high school German language classes – Frau Rosa once took me aside to ask you’re not going to shoot up the school or anything, right? (Sorry Frau & peers.) Though my much-older half siblings grew up mostly in the town of Schweinfurt, I have never actually set foot in Germany, yet I’ve come to identify with and admire its culture enough to (perhaps unjustly or inappropriately) feel comfortable joking about Deutsche peculiarities as vain self-mockery.
Despite all of this (carefully nationalism-free) affection, the real truth of myself is an American one. I have long since broached the point of no return: no matter how hard I might try, I would never be able to mold the Me another perceives in such a way that I’d become observably German-native. I’m just a midwestern boy with a Germanic name on his paperwork, and therefore have more in common with Volkswagen’s newish entry into the dramatically different full-size Sport Utility Vehicle segment. The Atlas bears a remarkably good name (annoyingly, literally everyone's reviews seem to begin with a comment on how decipherable the new name is for Americans) – especially among new automotive products introduced to market in recent memory. Honda’s Clarityshould be clever alongside the definitively 21st-century Insight marque, but violates an unfortunately universal law in the industry: never name a car for a state of being (Introducing the New 2020 Honda Ambiguity [Insolence, Fugue, Debacle, Setback]) ~especially~ one so obtusely irrelevant to the product itself. Insight comes from a chat with a colleague over coffee, but Clarity is a metaphysical, zealous plane that sounds our ever-inadequate platitude alarms in a very unsettling manner. Um... Is Honda doing okay? It not only ends up irritating and off-putting: after Hannah’s season of The Bachelorette, it’s just dumb, lazy, and foul.
After decades of trying to force Yankees into models that many found too small, VW has figured it out: Big-ass SUVs are what Americans want, and the Atlas is designed around the biggest asses you can imagine.
In contrast, the fucking Nissan Kicks ages so swiftly and uncomfortably that it’s pitifully tacky before it even hits the lot, which is particularly disappointing considering the most cleverly bestowed Juke name was. One marvels at the situation Nissan has found itself in: young American black men love our brand, but they also love shoes! Atlas, though, is on par with Honda’s Odyssey inspirationally, though a smidge more grounded through the distinctly Earthen science of topography, just as it should be. Originally billed as a replacement for VW’s Routan minivan, the three-row Atlas is Volkswagen’s newest bid for the Panic Room-loving American parent demographic. Therefore, it’s crucial for us to examine it thoroughly for any signs of condescension from the Germans and their brand “whose business in the US is built on providing small, fun-to-drive cars like the Golf, the Beetle, the Jetta, and the Passat.”
From our perspective, what we have here is a German take on the American family SUV. 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.
Unavoidably, the most notable, remarkable, and extraordinary item to note about the Atlas is simply that it is fucking fat. Just about any review you watch or read will mention this. Even CNET calls theirs “a very broad boy.” After I first read the number – 5997 lbs. – I was never able to escape it throughout the entirety of my time with it. Three tons is unbelievably, inexcusably, violently, hopelessly heavy. Hopelessly not because it stands out in its segment, but that it does not. Obesity is still a problem in America, but it's our automobiles now. While we continue to worship safety and fuel economy together, we skew the triangle (the other side is performance) further and further, and yes – a good portion of the blame can be placed on our obsession with SUVs. I spent 2018 driving a 1976 Lincoln Continental Mk. IV around – the second-longest two-door car ever sold at 228.1 inches from its pointed nose to its massive ass. Despite being a full thirty inches longer than the 2019 Atlas, my 460-powered mammoth yacht weighed some 700 pounds less, and it was filled with real wood. I'm no expert in physics by any means, but I can tell you that every pound has expounding effects on the energy required to move, turn, and stop a vehicle, which just about sums up the ultimate formula to pulverize efficiency. When our friends at the IIHS say that “fuel economy can be improved without sacrificing safety,” they are just... fundamentally wrong, (though technically correct.)
I'm not entirely sure why the Atlas weighs so much, but its mass is inevitably a major variable in just about every facet of its experience as a product. The best potential hoot to be had from it as a driving device should be sought by ordering it to shuffle briskly on curving country blacktops in Sport Mode with all the assists (save for lane-keeping) on. Not to be too crude, but it's fun to make the fat fucker run. Through your ass, you can feel the suspension squirm and struggle to redirect all 266 lb.-ft. of VR6 oomf between 4 wheels beneath an entirely separate war against the physics of such top-heavy body roll.
Scrambling is definitely the correct verb. Pleasantly light steering in Comfort Mode (where I'd advise you leave it in virtually any situation) combined with a supple-ish ride from multilink suspension provide a trace of a past luxury sentiment not unlike the energy exhibited by my old Connie through and through. It's all about the sensation of power. Not in the horse sense, but in the satisfaction achieved from the manipulation of maximum mass with minimum effort. Comparatively, the level of actual ego-stroking is of course quite miniscule, and unfortunately, it is the numbness that is most noticeably left over with very little gain.
Also unfortunate: I did not end up making the opportunity to truly test whatever offroad capabilities the Atlas may posses in any sort of formalized test. My example came with Hill Descent Control and Hill Start Assist, and I was able to find a small hill just steep enough to trigger the former. I cannot say I'd put my money on the Atlas winning the Dakar as it is, but we now know it can handle wet grass on a mild incline. What about county road gravel? Realistically, these are the two extremes 99% of Atlas' will ever face in their usable service lives. I found an entirely quiet section of back rock road and walked through the steps to disable all of the traction and stability control assists before stomping on the throttle, but was unable to provoke any significant wheelspin. In an episode of Autoline After Hours, Michael Loveti (Vice President, Product Line Mid/Full-Size, Volkswagen Group of America, Inc.) confirms the drivetrain really isall-time all-wheel-drive, (though the dual exhaust ports in the rear are unfortunately fake,) and that the Atlas is actually based on the MQB platform, which is astonishing. Prospective buyers should definitely have a listen.
This theme of “thoroughly German, yet somehow distinctly Americanized” occurs over and over and over and over again in the Atlas' story. Its horizontal lines match both the Jetta and Ford's Explorer. In that way, surely it is a success. I cannot imagine a better execution of its marque's directives as stated by Mr. Loveti than what I drove.
Cover the Volkswagen logo and you might think the Atlas was made by someone else. The hard lines and boxy shape are a sharp departure from the rest of the VW lineup. But look at its competitors here in the states, especially the Ford Explorer. It’s almost like Volkswagen tried to build its own Ford with the Atlas.
Even though it has been on the market for only a year, the Atlas had become VW's second-most-popular car in the German automaker's lineup in March 2018, showing that the American car-buying public's thirst for crossovers and SUVs remains unslaked.
In the splitting of already fine hairs, it's the new Telluride that makes a stronger case over the Atlas, thanks to its price advantage, its plush and thoughtful appointments, and its slightly more comfortable third-row.
Freedom through security. In truth, neurotypical people are naturally driven to minimize risk, yet also to romanticize the sick, inhibitionless madmen – to envy them both internally and externally (in a most restrained way.) Collectively, our authority in (or mastery of) risktaking remains pathetically irrational. If we were to itemize our ability to asses risk into a sixth physical sense, it would rank just as poorly against the rest of the world's creatures (or perhaps neck-and-neck with those of the squirrel or the deer.)
So many struggles of the too-often-cited “Human Condition” are grounded in the incompetence of this sense. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that risktakers in general are a very special topic amid The Middle Class – those who occasionally find themselves atop just enough excess to call it “capital.” This equates in day-to-day life as only the most potent – yet almost entirely inert next to the cushion of multi-millionaires – subject, catalyst, and indicator of dire fret. By far the most widespread affectation of this petty affliction spreads like divine wrath over the upper forty percent of this Middle Class. Thus, we must ask ourselves how safe doth the Atlas make me feel?
My Atlas’ interior was finished in Titan Black Leatherette, which sounds both grandiose and a bit like a kink. “Volkswagen is known for good build quality and tight-feeling interiors,” writes Danny Geraghty for Auto123, “but I found I was encountering just a bit too much hard plastic, making for a somewhat dated feel.” Perhaps my loaner was less worn in because neither I nor my girlfriend found anything wrong with the Atlas’ interior quality – even after bombing gravel roads to the point of sustaining a left-rear puncture, we did not encounter any annoying squeaks or rattles. She spent an entire afternoon sleeping in the passenger’s seat reclined and described it as “comfy.” For The Car Connection, Senior Editor Andrew Ganz writes:
It’s not much to behold, with a chunky shape as conservative as they come that is not offset by a distinct lack of flair inside. Instead, the Atlas is quietly competent and exceptionally good at carrying seven humans—even seven adults.
Standard with the SEL trim is Volkswagen’s “Digital Cockpit” instrument panel, which I like much more than I expected to, though its color options are already dated and unfortunately unchangeable. Ageability is an inevitable issue with these sorts of bespoke graphic design decisions automakers are making now, but at least you’ll be able to tell your friends that your Volkswagen has a digital dashboard “just like the Rolls-Royce Phantom,” which is, of course, the ultimate Queen of timelessness in the industry. Perhaps it’s telling that the only layout I found acceptable for the digital dash was the one with simulated analog needles for the tach and speedo, and how often do you really use a compass in day-to-day driving? For that matter, how useful could a digital compass in the speedometer’s center hub really be in an “offroad” situation? It’s a bit petty, but I also really despise the typeface shared across the instruments and infotainment system. It’s just… bad.
In Platinum Gray Metallic, the Atlas looks authoritative enough in a very ordinary way. Unless you’re on the lookout for one, you’d hardly notice it, and you certainly wouldn’t expect what you see to cost as much as it does. That is why I’d prefer any one of the other exterior finishes, especially (in order): Pure White, Tourmaline Blue Metallic, Pacific Blue Metallic, and Fortana Red. The real wonder is how VW managed to execute a seven-seat SUV with its existing design language. Though the Atlas is by far Volkswagen’s largest vehicle, it fits neatly within their lineup.
My only authentic Road Rage experience in some 5000 miles of rideshare driving occurred on All Hallow's Eve when I stopped – no more illegally than usual – on the opposite corner from a popular downtown Mexican restaurant called The Nap with hazards and all courtesy interior lights shining. The car immediately behind me hesitated no more than necessary, but the Biggest Big Infiniti behind them (a QX80 – the Atlas' competitor) just... stopped. There was honking and frenzied, hoarse screaming of what the fuck are you doing? and such.
I responded with pleasantly amused but relatively-encouraging glances at the impersonal black mass of the Infiniti's windshield through my mirrors. I rolled down the Atlas' driver's side window and politely gestured that they go around me, but failed to coax any movement whatsoever from the ugly behemoth through at least two full cycles of the nearby traffic light. There must be some aquatic authority in the bulbous black ass of the QX80, for no one behind it seemed willing to pass either. The driver waited significantly longer than you'd imagine before emerging, huffy. She was wearing a classic poofy black North Face vest some sort of slate gray turtleneck. Nothing below these were stimulating enough to retain any memory of. Uggs?
How positive are you that the truth has absolutely zero consequence: contrasted silver-beige eyeliner and little eye contact, dirty-ish straight blonde hair over a spray-tanned face, exhibiting zero anxious tics or hesitation. She was obviously the New Matriarch, and she was obviously much more of an authority on traffic law than I. As she approached, she scanned the street as one naturally does when they enter a busy one... except it was completely empty, thanks to her blockade. She first informed me that I was “not supposed” to be stopped there. I tried to listen and respond with as much sincerity as possible as I realized all at once that my behavior had genuinely perturbed this woman – that her choice to leave the huge hideous warmth of the guppy wagon to speak as humans to one another required great courage.
I inserted the next logical question which I'd been screaming telepathically: can you not get around me? I began to pity her when I then saw in her face the distinct possibility that going around as a concept had not occurred to her whatsoever. She stuttered a wee bit in retorting “I could go around, but I don't want to get a ticket.” Here, one of the most fascinating avenues of suburban psychology is explored: Guppy Mom is not being ingenuine with this expression, nor has she had an untoward experience with law enforcement, ever. Guppy Mom did know her excuse was bullshit – nobody has ever been written a traffic citation for carefully circumventing an obstacle in the road. Given the opportunity to interrogate this kernel of entirely uncompromising obedience to utterly delusional traffic law superstitions, I think we'd simply discover a life of unnaturally positive interactions with LEOs. We must conclude, then, that the source of her fear was either myself or the Atlas.
Granted, to her I am still a Young Man, and am therefore instinctively programmed to believe myself more informed than literally everyone – even the very foundational architects of modern civilization. Her Stucco Highness may have felt a representative of these builders (edgy take: she is in fact their servant.) Her own folks surely complain regularly about their distaste for disrespect, and my gig-economy, Austin Powers-looking ass was somehow disrespecting the order laid down by her would be (entirely fantastical) forefathers. Though her expression of her quaint fear of such “ugliness” (if you will) is hard-headed, an ugliest decision of hers (or her kin) idled behind me, its giant seafood-looking mouth gaping, unhinged. It'd almost be more redeemable if it was a hardcore, chronic mouthbreather. (The QX80 is actually powered by a comparatively oldschool V8.)
Freedom from fear is the sum desire of all the most primitive compulsions we share. Ultimately, the only efficient and reasonable response to Mrs. Guppy's kind in such a situation is to very kindly oblige, which I did, of course, with great respect and great pity. In the months since this encounter, I'd been wondering what was missing from the outline of this Atlas review. I recently realized that it is this analysis of fear as a factor for the American carbuyer.
Though it has been disproven over and over again for decades, consumers often cite safety as their primary motivation for buying full-sized SUVs. Mrs. Guppy's Great Guffaw led me to realize why this particularly disconnected supposition/folktale continues to thrive so uninhibited by the truth: the brand image, physical presence, and actual driving sensation must communicate and “feel” safe – these are far more integral to buyers' perception of a product than the testable reality. Even the people of the world's most Christian nation do not have faith – they trust not unless they see with their own eyes; feel with their own asses. They entrust their souls to the Word of the Lord, but not their lives to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (I recently gave both of mine to NHTSA for All Eternity.)
The Collegiate Take
The two or three nights I spent Uber/Lyft driving around my college town shuttling Halloween party traffic in the Atlas were expectedly uneventful. I had to create a preset text message to send immediately upon connection with a rider to communicate as succinctly as possible that I was not going to be arriving in the Jetta Sportwagen on my profile but instead in the Atlas, and to transparently try to make sure that was okay. (No, drivers are not supposed to do this and you should reserve the right to bail on a ride should you find yourself opposite my own position in this situation because nobody refused me.)
Hello! Just a heads up: My Jetta is in the shop so I'm driving a gray 2019 Volkswagen Atlas
(It's VW's largest SUV and has 7 seats.)
If this is inconvenient or uncomfortable for you, please let me know.
I made a point to try and ask most of the riders if they had any thoughts on the Atlas without sounding like I was just desperately fishing for compliments on my own car, but I don't remember any significant thoughts being imparted whatsoever – certainly nothing negative. Folks here are just too polite – they won't speak up no matter how many times you insist that you do not own the car. We experienced this phenomena years ago when we tried to interview people on the street regarding the horrid Nissan Murano CrossCabriolet. Regardless, there's no reason to expect young people to have anything to say about the Atlas – it is neither extraordinary nor cheap.
[Atlas] was designed and built specifically for American families, and buyers and critics alike are letting us know that we’re hitting the mark with this seven-seater SUV.
It's immediately evident from the outside that the Atlas is the most Americanized product in Volkswagen's lineup – indeed, in its entire history. For Car Magazine's review, Ben Barry notes “the square-jawed front, Jeep-like wheel arches, and the suggestive utilitarianism of the stampings in the bonnet and roof” before remarking on just how much more you can spend on the Porsche Cayenne's cousin, the beloved Touareg.
Ultimately, the Atlas is far from a dynamic, agile machine, but it feels comfortable and unintimidating to drive, and perfectly at home on US city streets and the slower-paced driving of California highways.
‘VR’ stands for V-Reihenmotor, which translates to V-Inline, describing both vee and inline cylinder layouts. That is, of course, contradictory. The unit is actually a very narrow-angle V6, displacing 2861cc, with two offset banks of cylinders at 15 degrees to one another. Unlike a conventional V6, but exactly like an inline six, there’s just one cylinder head. The result is a six-cylinder engine that’s both much narrower than a typical V6 and shorter than a straight six. In fact, it’s more comparable in size to a four-cylinder than a six, which meant it could slot easily into a Golf floorpan. A creative and borderline ingenious engineering solution.
The Atlas' 3.6L VR6 makes 276 hp and 266 lb-ft. of torque. Though other reviews cited highway mileage figures of 23-25 mpg, I was able to coax a whole twenty-eight miles-per-gallon on a live Periscope stream without air conditioning or cruise control through a two-way simulated 20 minute commute, through which I suffered for the hard data. My average before resetting the odometer for that feat, though, was 14.7mpg. “Good range and miles between trips to the gas station are criteria I look for in a good car, and the fuel-gulping Atlas rates low in this department” may be the blandest statement of all time, but MotorTrend does have a point – with the same 18.6 gallon fuel tank shared between the four and six cylinder models, the latter realistically has 250 miles of range between fillups, which is pitiful for a modern vehicle in just about any segment. Crossing one State is not enough.
It's a straightforward conversion from Atlas to Atlas Cross Sport. In the name of perceived sportiness, out goes that most minivan of things: the third row of seats.
Normally, I'd be disgusted with such a thing, but from where I'm sitting, the Cross Sport appears to be what the Atlas should've been all along. The third row seats in my example wasn't any more comfortable than that of a 10-year-old minivan, so removing them for the sake of the second makes perfect sense. According to Car & Driver, the 2021 Atlas will “adopt” the Cross Sport's styling, though there are some technologies – like road sign recognition- which are exclusive to the Cross Sport.
Instead of getting 20.6 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third row in the Atlas, you get 40.3 behind the second row. Fold that down and it becomes 77.8 cubic feet to work with. And that’s from an SUV with the same wheelbase as the upcoming 2021 Atlas at 117.3 inches, yet it is 5.2 inches shorter and 2.2 inches lower to the ground.
Once we got the steering fixed, my opinion of the Atlas did grow sunnier, though it's still not perfect. Maybe it's not fair to compare the driving experience to my previous long-term vehicle, the slightly smaller Mazda CX-9, but in my opinion the Mazda still sets the ride and handling bar for the competitive set. Setting the Mazda aside, if you hop behind the wheel of one of the newer competitors like the Kia Telluride, there's a noticeable disparity in the refinement in ride quality and body control in the Atlas... Volkswagen should have made the GTI of three-row SUVs, not just another minivan alternative.
The 2018 Volkswagen Atlas does little wrong, but it's light on personality and a little low-rent inside—and it guzzles fuel. It's worth a look, but mostly rivals do more for less.
Volkswagen’s first substantial entry into the SUV market is well-named, relatively well-endowed, fairly bland for its price tag, and very, very heavy. Also, Start/Stop is still unbearable – thanks Obama – but the Atlas is not a scam.
Volkswagen traditionally tuned its suspensions closer to the European ideal, firm but well-damped, which incidentally made even non-enthusiast Volkswagens more pleasant than average to drive (with a few recent exceptions). But Volkswagen made a conscious decision to soften up the Jetta for American tastes, beyond what softening Volkswagen traditionally applied, and it seems like this philosophy scaled up to the much larger Atlas. Maybe the soft ride impresses on test drives, but a firmer setup would likely make life nicer for occupants over the long haul.
I'm working on car reviews again(!) and I'd like to invite you to join me on mastd.racing.
It's now been three years since Eugen Rochko's Mastodon gained the attention of the tech world. (I actually interviewed him for Extratone.) Since the early days of this new, gorgeous, federated social network, mastd.racing has been a home for racing and general automotive enthusiasts. It's still relatively quiet and signup is currently invite only, but I'd love it if you'd join me using my invite. I'm also working on my review of the 2019 Volkswagen Atlas SEL w/4MOTION and will be posting it here before the end of this week.
In a rare successful attempt at hosting a 60 minute endurance race at Mount Panorama this evening, I ended up having a very satisfying (and sweaty) battle with Kendog0259 in which we traded the lead back and forth in the last 20 minutes of the race.
I didn't place all that well in today's Nation's Cup race (the very first.) I doubt I'll be able to participate in tomorrow's first Manufacturer Series race (Gr. 4 cars at Spa,) so I thought I'd record and upload this go. Note how I got too eager and bumped a player off course in the very last corner of the last lap. Disappointed with that. Sorry again.