Volkswagen turned an anodyne press release announcing two vehicles on display during Monterey Car Week into a text worthy of a double take and perusal. The superficial news is that the Atlas Cross Sport and Atlas Tanoak concept pickup will make their West Coast debuts after impressing crowds at the New York Auto Show. The double take comes when realizing that in six short paragraphs, VW hinted about a production Tanoak three times.
The first hint spoke of how the Atlas crossover is “on the way to a model range,” and that “the SUV assembled in the U.S. has the potential of developing new segments.” Since we already know the Atlas Cross Sport will come perhaps as soon as next year, the smaller mini-Atlas is neither “potential” nor in any “new segments.” The second hint refers to the changing nature of Pebble Beach; once a public fair for high-net-worth collectors, VW wrote that the event has “long since also become an automotive looking glass into the future,” and that “Manufacturers showcase what will and may become a reality.” The final hint put it bluntly: “The Atlas Tanoak Concept may be on the cards.”
The question of a real retail Tanoak has been media gristle since the New York debut. Just a month after the show, PickupTrucks.com surveyed the issues involved, and a month after that we dreamt up a production Tanoak rendering. Autoweek also sounded off, saying local execs from the top down “want to build this pickup, they may need to build it and they’re actively gaming out scenarios that would justify doing so.” VW wants to double its market share here from 2.1 percent to 5 percent within a decade, and needs more vehicles in more hot segments in order to do so. That ties in well with another line in VW’s Monterey release: “The Atlas Tanoak would be launched in Northern America’s vehicle class with the highest volumes.”
The automaker also needs more production for its under-utilized Chattanooga, Tenn., plant. The U.S. facility can spit out 180,000 vehicles per year, but right now builds the Passat and Atlas. Based on the Passat’s current sales freefall, those two models won’t crack 100,000 units in the U.S. this year, and even the addition of the Atlas Cross Sport won’t make up the difference. The Tanoak uses the Atlas’ drivetrain, a 3.6-liter V6 with 275 horsepower and 266 pound-feet of torque tied to an eight-speed transmission. Building the Tanoak, based on the same MQB platform as the other models built in Tennessee, would boost overall plant, MQB, and supplier economics.
The unibody Tanoak, sized more like compact body-on-frame U.S. pickups as a concept, is most often compared to the unibody Honda Ridgeline. However, the Ridgeline doesn’t have a low-range transfer case — nor does the Atlas crossover — and VW said the Tanoak would get crawler gears if it were made. That kind of feature, and its unabashed VW-ness, might give the Tanoak a look into a lifestyle segment filling up quickly, especially now that Hyundai has confirmed its plan to launch the Santa Cruz pickup here by 2020.