Volkswagen Atlas Tanoak sketch by Alexei Altmann

Volkswagen Atlas Tanoak Concept – How Designers Created a Vehicle to Cater to US Tastes

While US-based customers might be buying more and more SUVs, Americans’ love of their pickup trucks will never wane. The vehicle typology accounts for the highest growth rates after the SUV and shows no sign of slowing. Obviously, having a vehicle in the segment is a necessity if an OEM is to play the game, and that’s exactly why Volkswagen developed and showed the Atlas Tanoak Concept at the New York auto show this year.

US buyers are crazy about pickups. They’re not solely reserved for commercial duty as they are in Europe, and their buyers don’t necessarily live out in wide, open spaces. A lot of the people driving about in these distinctive trucks live in large cities as well, as anyone who’s been stuck on the 405 Freeway in Los Angeles can attest.

Because US customers cover more miles than any other market in the world, they like to drive vehicles that offer plenty of space within the cabin. Buyers are also looking for vehicles that offer a larger and more versatile load area, a higher ride height and easier ingress/egress pickup trucks offer over a conventional sedan. While the latter still account for the second-largest vehicle segment in the USA, sales volumes and the share of SUV and pickup models continue to rise.

In the USA, four of the ten best-selling vehicles are compact SUVs. While two pickup trucks have claimed the top spot on the bestseller list, the third spot has now been taken by an SUV. These all-rounders, much loved all over the world, are also proving to be increasingly popular among Americans, with almost half of all new vehicles coming from this segment.

In the first two months of 2018, sales of compact SUVs increased by eight percent and sales of mid-size SUVs increased by just under five percent. These vehicles offer the image, ride height and versatility that simply cannot be matched by low-riding four doors, even those in wagon form (there’s always been a stigma associated with wagons in the US).

While the trend currently points to SUVs – a segment that’s been growing particularly quickly in the USA – pickup trucks also account for a large percentage of sales volume. This is why automakers that haven’t traditionally sold pickups in the market are now clamoring to fill the void. Enter the Volkswagen Atlas Tanoak concept, a vehicle that’s been specifically designed to cater to North American buyers’ tastes.

The design team started with the three-row Atlas SUV but extended the chassis by 280mm. The Atlas Tanoak concept stands 5438mm long, 2030mm wide and 1844mm tall, and rides 245mm off the ground.

It has been designed as a five-seater with a dual cab from the outset. Behind the dual cab is a cargo box measuring 1627mm in length, 1450 in width and 530mm in height. Its powertrain consists of a 3.6-liter V6 mated to a version of Volkswagen’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive.

All of these figures are on par with production midsize pickups – vehicles Klaus Bischoff, head of VW Design, says his team benchmarked before setting out on a new VW pickup.

“Pickups are distinctly American,” says Bischoff. “If you go into this territory, you need to come up with something cool, and something that works. You can’t do something unserious.”

Named after a species of tree native to the Pacific Coast and grows up to 45 meters in height, the mid-size Atlas Tanoak concept is the first pickup based on the Volkswagen Group’s modular transverse matrix (MQB) platform. Its cargo box has been designed to transport bikes, boards and smaller boats.

Outside of using the MQB platform, the ‘bones’ that lie underneath VW models from the Golf to the Atlas, Bischoff says the instructions for his design team were less specific than emotional: “Do an authentic pickup truck that’s bold, muscular and masculine, with a strong identity.”

Volkswagen is keen to play up to buyers’ wants in the segment too, making their lives easier.

“We’ve gone for versatility, for functionality,” Bischoff says. “We always think from the customer side: What does the customer expect from Volkswagen? What should be different? When you buy a Volkswagen you go for something that is engineered, well thought out.”

One example of well-thought-out details is the extendable roof rail. While pickups are great for hauling loads, they can struggle with longer objects. The Tanoak’s rail sits flush with the cabin when not in use, but slides out to help carry longer items on the roof.

A newly developed cargo bracket in the cargo bed – which can be released from its parked position near the rear window of the dual cab and moved to the side wall of the cargo box – also creates a carrier system that can be used to transport canoes, for example. This system enables an easy and secure fastening option via fixed mounting points at the cargo bracket and on the roof.

But the Tanoak also has an on-target aggressive look, from the tow hook and winch embedded in the front bumper to the rear tailgate embossed with ‘Atlas’ – much like VW’s last Rabbit-based pickup carried the Volkswagen name on its tailgate. The interior sports a thoroughly advanced digital display, and an interior ring of color-changing LEDs. Even the headlights are dramatic – a pair of LED strips built into the grille that animate across the front.

While the Atlas Tanoak was built only as a concept, Bischoff says its light signature could likely be implemented in future vehicles. “The light signature gives identity to a product, and it’s recognizable, it works in the dark,” he notes. “That is something we will [be] working on further and we want to make it happen.”

The Volkswagen Atlas Tanoak concept unveiled in New York reflects months of work by dozens of VW designers and engineers to build something entirely new from the German manufacturer: a mid-size pickup designed for American tastes based on the flexible Volkswagen Group MQB platform architecture. And it looks likely to be a production contender in the not too distant future.


Founded in 2012, Form Trends tirelessly covers the automotive design industry in all corners of the globe to bring you exclusive content about cars, design, and the people behind the products.