Payne: Meet the Volkswagen Taos, successor of Golf, son of Atlas

Posted by Talbot Payne on June 3, 2021

Certain milestones crystalize new realities. When we Skyped my kids in college. When Amazon Prime promised it could deliver my gifts Christmas week. When my phone became my camera.

And when the Volkswagen Taos SUV replaced the Golf hatchback.

The 2022 VW Taos is a subcompact SUV with size. Starting at $24,190, it replaces the VW Golf in the brand's lineup to compete against SUVs like the Jeep Compass and Subaru Crosstrek.

So dominant are SUVs in the U.S. marketplace that VW has ditched its iconic Golf. Sure, the Golf GTI and R performance variants will live on, but as small-volume halo cars. That’s right, the Golf is now the VW brand equivalent of a Mazda Miata. How the world has changed.

In the Golf’s place now as VW’s entry-level compact vehicle is the Taos. Same MQB platform. Same four door-hatchback layout. Same 1.5-liter turbo-4. Same premium price over the Jetta sedan (which survives as VW’s entry-level vehicle … for now). Same $24,190 starting price. But, boy, has the brand focus changed.

And that’s important in a U.S. market where giant SUVs stalk the earth and a new generation of Americans demand that their transportation rides high like a Conestoga wagon. Still, it’s jarring for us VW vets who grew up ducking into low-slung Golfs and taking the back roads to our destination.

I didn’t so much duck into the Taos as slide in. Like jumping on a bar stool instead of stooping into a diner booth. SUV hip points are about half-a-foot higher than a car but it feels like much more. Barreling into a sweeper on Hadley Road north of Chelsea, I stabbed the Taos’ brake pedal to stabilize the Conestoga wagon on turn-in.

Detroit News critic Henry Payne took the 2022 VW Taos through Hell, Michigan's twisty roads - but no one will confuse the big subcompact SUV with a nimble Golf.

I’d never do that in a nimble Golf. That’s when it hits you. This isn’t a big Golf — it’s a mini-Atlas.

Atlas, of course, is the brand’s humongous three-row SUV. Made in Tennessee. All-wheel drive. Bold truck-like grille. Oh, yes, VW understands us Yankees now. It wasn’t always so.

VW resisted the SUV trend in early days with its first too-small Tiguan compact ute sampling the U.S. market like a Bratwurst maker forced into making — Gott on Himmel! — hot dogs!

But with the second-generation long-wheel-base three-row Tiggy, VW got it. Then came the Atlas, which (true to its namesake) put the brand on its back and carried it to new heights. Together with its sister, the two-row Atlas Cross Sport, it has outsold Tiguan to start 2021. Speaking of sisters, my own sis bought one and declared it the best V-dub she’s ever had (she’s owned several). She even gave it a nickname: Lassie. Remember when folks use to do that with Golfs? Gott in Himmel.

My nickname for Taos is Son of Atlas.

The rear seat is yuuuge. I sat behind myself with ease. Not only did my 6’5” knees have room behind the backseat, I had inches to spare. The Golf used to be roomy among its class peers (think Corolla and Mazda hatches) thanks to its squared-off styling. Taos benefits from the same design.

Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne and his 6'5" frame could easily sit behind himself in the 2022 VW Taos.

My expectations were that Taos would be a Hyundai Venue or Nissan Kicks-fighter. Small, cheap. I was wrong. VW leaves the $19K space to Jetta. The Taos starts a class higher, with my front-wheel-drive SE and all-wheel-drive SEL testers soaring as high as $34K. Want a VW hatchback that costs south of $20,000? Buy a used Golf.

The Taos niche on the menu has grown quickly in recently years to slake Americans’ insatiable appetite for all things ute. It’s aimed squarely at the Jeep Compass, Subaru Crosstrek, Chevy Trailblazer, Mazda CX-30 and Kia Seltos.

Think of it as the pasta serving at an upscale Italian Bistro between appetizer and entrée. These dishes are spicy meatballs. Much of that spice is communicated via outdoor ruggedness, like the all-new Crosstrek I cooed over last year with its tough mug and running-shoe-like cladding.

Interestingly, VW went after the Crosstrek five years ago with the Golf Alltrack — a raised (by 0.6 inches) Golf. Like the Crosstrek (essentially a raised Impreza hatchback), it seemed an easy solution. I loved it. Consumers didn’t. They passed over it as an SUV pretender. Tough crowd.

Golf Alltrack died quietly after the 2019 model year, clearing the way for Taos.

Upright Taos dresses up nicely in hiking garb. Further proof that Atlas’ size — not Golf athleticism — sets the tone for V-dub these days, the Taos offers only a 1.5-liter, 148-horse engine compared to the Alltrack’s 170-horse, 1.8-liter turbo-4. And Taos doesn’t even offer an engine upgrade like, say, the 250-horse Mazda CX-30 Turbo, which stands out as class athlete.

Indeed, I was particularly taken by the Taos SE with black trim and 18-inch black wheels. Like its targeted millennial demographic, Taos is also determined to accessorize outdoors chic with digital tech. Think an Apple Watch to go with your hiking boots.

A digital cockpit and infotainment screen come standard on Taos, with larger displays available. Tech such as rear camera, smartphone connectivity and auto headlights are standard as expected in this class — but then VW steps out of the rigid trim walk and offers the content-rich $995 IQ.Drive on even its base SE model: blindspot assist, adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, rear traffic alert, rain-sensing wipers, the works.

The 2022 VW Taos offers digital displays standard. They can be controlled from the steering wheel as well as by touch (console screen).

Winter-weary Michiganians will also appreciate that AWD is offered at entry trim (for $2,045) — another dramatic departure from the Golf class that only offered AWD as a performance accessory on the rambunctious, track-tastic $40K-something Golf R.

Ergonomics are quite good — with the caveat that V-dub continues to resist an audio mute button. Want to turn off your radio without shutting down the entire infotainment display? Ya’ gotta’ turn the knob aaaaaall. The. Way. Down. Gaaaargh!

Ahem. Otherwise, there are big knobs everywhere and information-rich digital screens so your eyes won’t be long diverted from the road.

Or off-road. Taos’ sheer interior size (its rear seat and cargo dimensions are only slightly smaller than Tiguan) will encourage families to pile in for long adventures. As such, Taos is another gas-powered threat to VW’s claimed electric future. With 410 miles of get-away-from-it-all range from its sippy, torquey 1.5-liter engine versus 250 miles for a much pricier ID.4, the Taos begs the question: Why EV?

Grunting along Unadilla Township’s back roads in the AWD Taos, my eyes began to wander looking for dirt roads to play on. A decidedly un-Golf-like thought.

What’s next VW? A pickup?

2022 Volkswagen Taos

Vehicle type: Front engine, front and-all-wheel-drive, five-passenger compact SUV

Price: $24,190, including $1,095 destination fee ($32,685 FWD SE and $35,440 AWD SEL models as tested)

Powerplant: 1.5-liter turbo-4 cylinder

Power: 158 horsepower, 184 pound-feet torque

Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic (AWD) or 8-speed automatic (FWD)

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.8 seconds (Car and Driver est.); top speed, 120 mph

Weight: 3,430 pounds (AWD as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA est. mpg 28 city/36 highway/31 combined (FWD); 25 city/33 highway/28 combined (AWD)

Report card

Highs: Roomy interior; digital displays

Lows: Lacks Golf nimbleness; mute button, please

Overall: 3 stars

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