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Volkswagen Atlas Tanoak design sketches

The idea was simple – “build a modern Volkswagen pickup truck” – but the execution was anything but.

The Volkswagen Atlas Tanoak concept vehicle unveiled at the New York International Auto Show reflects months of work by dozens of VW designers and engineers to build something that has not existed before; a real mid-size pickup,  designed for American tastes, from the highly flexible platform architectures of the Volkswagen Group.

The result was the hit of the show, precisely because it mixed style with utility in a way that many real-life pickups struggle to blend.

“Pickups are distinctly American,” said Klaus Bischoff, the head of VW Design. “If you go into this territory, you need to come up with something cool, and something that works. You can’t do something unserious.

“This” he said, pointing to the Tanoak, “is engineered to the bone.”

Outside of using the MQB platform, those “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.”

The team started with the three-row Atlas SUV but grew the chassis from there, until it was 214.1 inches long, with a wheelbase of 128.3 inches — 11 longer. It rides 9.8 inches off the ground, with a version of Volkswagen’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive and the 3.6-liter V6 making 276 hp. All of these figures are on par with production midsize pickups – vehicles Bischoff says his team benchmarked before setting out on a new VW pickup.

“We’ve gone for versatility, for functionality,” he said. “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.

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.

In automotive design, it’s called a light signature, and while the Tanoak was built only as a concept, Bischoff says its light signature might be one touch that has a future.

“The light signature gives identity to a product, and its recognizable, it works in the dark,” he said. “That is something we will [be] working on further and we want to make it happen.”

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