Big but not so powerful or efficient. Cliff Leppke – CleanMPG – Dec. 29, 2021 2021 VW Atlas Literary critic Susan Sontag wrote the primer on Camp. Her 1964 article in Time magazine set the tone for our understanding of what’s Camp and what’s camp. It's an affluent exaggeration, relishing in style for style’s sake. Camp as a sensibility in mass culture, as critics then dubbed it, is unnatural, deliberately artificial, too much to be real. VW’s Basecamp treatment, a brawny set of dealer-installed embellishments, lets you accessorize your Atlas—like turning Barbie’s Ken into GI’s Joe. As such, it drives close to Camp but doesn’t cross into it. Its inspiration is the 2019 NYC auto show’s Atlas Basecamp concept. You pick the level of your Atlas’ transformation and the price. The tab can climb to $4,500 or more than the unadorned Atlas. Air Design USA makes and/or paints the bumper inserts and body cladding. From a graphic standpoint, the mountain/mesa cliche graces the body sides, wheel arches and it’s echoed to some extent in the grille now flanked by new-smaller IQ.Light (LED matrix) headlamps, which debuted last year on the Atlas Cross Sport. Fake twin exhaust outlets further its sense of imitation. If you dress the Atlas’ bod, don’t forget its shoes: Fifteen 52’s 17-inch special alloy wheels with valve-stem protectors. My SEL tester clad with Continental tires, actually seem better suited to everyday driving. They’re sort of against the grain of large-diameter wheels clad with low-profile rubber. As such, they actually absorb impacts better. Plus, these Contis provide better dry-road road sense then you’d expect. The Basecamp Atlas is all about the show, as there are no meaningful mechanical upgrades such as a height-adjusting suspension or additional horsepower. VW recommends a trailer kit but the Air Design’s website shows skid-plate like embellishments for those who don’t tow. In sum, the full Basecamp treatment, which lets you attach special badges to the front fenders, doesn’t seem as outrageous as opera windows, hood ornaments, padded vinyl roofs and Continental spare tires. But you still get the sense that sometime in the future we’ll see some of these plastic doodads as stylistically corny. The 2021 Atlas’s calling card is its voluminous interior. All seven perches in this chariot are ready for adult-sized movie goers, although the well-stuffed folding chairs lack human-body contours. The middle-split row kneels for third-row access. But why VW snubs the driver—no overhead lift handle—is perplexing. If you ever needed a grab handle in a new VW, it’s this high rider. Once in the driver’s throne, you find the brand’s newly minted steering wheel, fresh logo and fancy switchgear. Lots of buttons are gerrymandered into the hub or spokes. While some are awkwardly shaped, their textures or elevations make sense, which helps you manipulate a variety of functions by feel. And those who want toasty hands can enable the steering wheel’s heater with one simple click—none of the 2020 Tiguan’s infotainment menu goofiness. And those wearing gloves can manipulate items such as radio volume’s rocker control. This Atlas has VW’s bright Digital Cockpit and other items poached from VW's passenger car part’s bin. They look slightly out of scale compared with the large dash vents. As do the tidy door-release levers. But you can configure gauges to suit—I preferred the analogue-style tachometer flanked by a speedometer with fuel economy and navigation aids embedded in them. You cannot adjust panel brightness while driving—an annoyance. While the fancy video screen is tres chic, the dashboard and door panel inserts look plastic-icky—unacceptable when the MSRP with Basecamp finery tops $50K. You get Formica’s version of bleached wood circa 1950s dinette table. If it must be fake, why not flaunt it with an Abstract Art experiment or rubberized treads? At night, LED ambient lighting, strung from the dashboard into the doors, adds interest. And VW’s contrasting stitching on seats and door panels lighten the otherwise Noirish interior. Due to wintry weather, I opted for the snow mode driver’s setting. A handy console knob lets you rotate or press to customize the 4Motion driveline. I varied VW’s ID Drive’s level of intervention—its name for the driver-assist pack, much of it now standard. Due to a nine-inch snowstorm plus another existing eight inches of the white stuff, the high-and-mighty Atlas accumulated an avalanche-ready load of snow on its roof. While braking, this icing slid forward onto the windshield and hood. Anyhow, the traction setting allowed sufficient wheel spin and it was easy to rock. And VW’s inelegantly mounted front sensor did better than most at keeping snow, ice and salt spray from addling its mind. On a dry highway, the Atlas has nicely weighted steering and some road sense. On slush, the now numb tiller didn’t communicate ruts. Yet, the Atlas conquered mother nature’s whipped-road toppings. All said, the 17-inch wheels, tires and suspension make it easy to guide this super-sized VW. Some wind rush works in, modest really, and there’s some suspension pounding. Yet, it seems nicely damped. Body roll in the slalom is obvious but otherwise well behaved as the rear follows the front, as if the wheelbase were shorter. Its size makes tight maneuvers on older city streets difficult. The parking cameras and sensors, in contrast, proved helpful. In the go department, the 3.6-liter V-6 direction-injection narrow-angle mill is adequate. It hums pleasantly and during my test it sucked gas at 17 mpg. An eight-speed automatic buttons to this unusual if perhaps complicated engine, which hasn’t been updated in more than a decade. It might not reflect today’s idea of thriftiness—although a start/stop feature tries gallantly to keep idling to the minimum. Winter demands (heater, say) meant it shut down for brief seconds and then restarted. You can turn this off. Loading via the easy-open liftgate (a swift kick underneath the trailer hitch triggers it) requires a stretch, as the floor is some distance forward of the bumper. All aft seats fold flat for generous luggage space. I easily stuffed it with a circa-1965 Snow Bird snow blower’s frame and other items, which needed a welder’s attention. Mission accomplished, thanks VW. The automatic climate control worked well. Mid-rear riders get their own settings, plus there’s a CD/DVD player in the glovebox. The SEL comes with a Fender branded sound system. Its subwoofer resides in the spare tire. Atlas is currently VW’s best-selling model in the USA, it’s known as Terramont elsewhere. Until recently, it had a dubious distinction; it was on Consumer Reports’ 10-least reliable list. Now CR recommends it. During my weeklong fling, the satellite radio refused to change channels—this rebooted itself overnight. The vehicle went into auto stop and then shutdown and enabled the theft alarm. When I opened the car’s door, the Atlas honked like a Brinks setup. Throttle tip in sometimes induced more oomph than expected, ABS kickback was mild, the auto-fold mirrors jammed in snow (jammed mirrors and windshield wipers functioned properly once liberated). One interesting note, press the steering wheel’s center cap and you’ll hear vintage VW Beetle like beep. Who’d think such a big bruiser would emit a charming if tiny note? And that detail seems to cross the line into Camp. You’d expect an outdoorsy Atlas to growl like a bear. No, it only looks like it should.