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2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport First Drive

Built to please the bean-counters, the Atlas Cross Sport pleases us as well

Aaron GoldWriterManufacturerPhotographer

VANCOUVER, British Columbia—Our mission at Automobile is to find the passion in each and every vehicle we drive, but some cars are all about the business case—and such is the deal with the Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport. This is not an engineer's dream or a stylist's pet project to forge a new design language for the brand. It's a machine to make money, and we have no doubt it will fulfill that goal. Happily, it's also good to drive and something that will appeal to Automobile readers.

The business case is simple: SUVs account for more than half of new car sales and, as of 2018, 53% of Volkswagen sales—and that's with just two models, Atlas and Tiguan. Since introducing the former, Volkswagen's average transaction price has risen by some $4,000, which is a bit like property values in Dayton suddenly rising to Los Angeles levels. You don't need a business degree, or even an IQ much above room temperature, to envision the cry at VW HQ: More SUVs, please.

The Atlas Cross Sport couldn't have been any easier to develop: The engineers cut the third row out of the Atlas and made the roofline a bit swoopier. They didn't even bother to change the wheelbase, which is bound to make it a hell of a lot easier (and cheaper) to build at the Chattanooga, Tennessee plant where the Atlas is also forged.

The strange reality of the big-ish crossover SUV market is that two variations of the same vehicle appeal to two very different buyers. Families want a third row (Atlas, Pilot, Explorer, Q7, Telluride) while adults with no or grown kids want a vehicle of similar size without that family-friendly element (Passport, Edge, Q8, Grand Cherokee, Blazer). The fact that two structurally similar vehicles can attract two very different audiences is a gift to the automakers. No wonder they're eager to take advantage of it.

Not that Volkswagen has done nothing aside from shortening the Atlas, mind you (and technically, they've only shortened it by 5 or so inches); it's also been dressed to appeal to a different mindset, primarily with more daring multi-tone interior choices. The faster rear roofline looks great on the Atlas' chunky body, and there's a definite Audi-esque feel to the styling which can't be helped (VW does, after all, own Audi).

There are distinct advantages to Volkswagen's parsimony vis-à-vis keeping the same wheelbase as the Atlas. More cargo room than pretty much all of its competitors is one, and the Atlas Cross Sport's cargo bay looks big enough to be rented out as a private room on Airbnb. The back seat has been moved rearward slightly, stretching rear-seat legroom by nearly three inches while only giving up an inch or so of headroom. That's a boon for the grown-up friends that will ride back there. The longer wheelbase also keeps the ride steady and, in our opinion, gives the Atlas Cross Sport a nice stance.

The interior is exactly what we expect from Volkswagen, with simple, easy-to-read controls that aren't fancy but do minimize distraction. Both the analog gauges in lower trims and the LCD instrument panel in pricier Cross Sports work just fine, and as always we appreciate the straightforward stereo and climate controls.

We are a little puzzled about some of the trim choices, though. We sampled a top-of-the-line SEL Premium that had a rather cheesy slab of faux carbon fiber on the panel ahead of the driver. The mid-range SE we drove next had wood trim that fit the character of the vehicle much better.

The soft-top dash topper is nice enough, but it's let down by stitching apparently molded into the plastic. We're pretty sure in 40 years people will laugh at this, just as we laugh at the stick-on "wood décor applique" Ford used in the 1980s. The lower dash bits are made of hard plastic that sounds cheap when you rap on it with your knuckles. The two-tone interior options do a nice job of brightening up the cabin, and if you prefer the somber look of the Jetta you had in college, the monochrome choices will suit you just fine. We found plenty of USB power jacks and, in the SEL Premium, a wireless charger that actually keeps phones in place so they can charge.

The Cross Sport drives exactly as we expected, which is well enough. Our drive route from downtown Vancouver to Whistler was neither long enough nor challenging enough, but it gave us just enough time for us to make a nodding acquaintance with the Atlas Cross Sport's well-sorted chassis. For a vehicle that feels this wide—and it feels very, very wide—the Atlas is rather tidy, with steering that feels light in town and loads up nicely on the road. The ride is smooth and, like the Atlas, surprisingly quiet.

Volkswagen is offering the Atlas with both a 235 hp 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and a 276 hp V-6. The Cross Sport weighs a couple hundred pounds less than the Atlas, and the V-6 felt spry enough. The 2.0T surprised us: Its torque output of 258 lb-ft is not far behind the V6's 266 lb-ft, and it was unaffected by altitude as we climbed from sea level to 2,200 feet. Its off-the-line pull isn't as strong as the six, but foot-to-the-floor it does the job nearly as well, and unlike a lot of 2.0Ts we know, its engine note is actually quite pleasing, if not as meaty as that of the V-6. The 2.0T will be available with both front- and all-wheel-drive in all Atlas Cross Sport trims, while the V-6 can only be had at the upper end of the range.

Fuel economy is another story. The AWD model we drove is rated at 18 city/23 highway, versus 16/22 for the V-6 AWD. We know that EPA numbers favor four-cylinder turbos, so real-world could be lower—maybe even worse than the V-6. We'll have to wait for a full test to find out for sure.

Pricing will range from $31,565 for a four-cylinder front-wheel-drive Atlas Cross Sport S to a $50,815 for an AWD V-6-powered SEL Premium R-Line. So no, not cheap, especially at the higher end. Such is life in the Volkswagen showroom.

All in all, we're inclined to give the Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport our stamp of approval, and we won't be alone. The marketing folks will like it because it fills a gaping hole in the Volkswagen lineup and gives older customers another good reason to stay in the brand. We like it because it's easy to use, handy to live with and satisfying to drive. And we're sure Volkswagen buyers will like it because it follows the same well-trodden path of the brand's other products. Once again, Volkswagen has proven that great things can come from humble origins.

2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport quick facts

  • New five-seat version of the Volkswagen Atlas
  • 2 inches shorter than the Atlas with same 117.3" wheelbase
  • Engines: 235 hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo, 276 hp 3.6-liter V-6
  • Fuel economy ranges from 21 city/24 highway (2.0T FWD) to 16/22 (V-6 AWD)
  • Price range: $31,565-$50,815 (including destination)
  • For: Good looks, solid ride, huge back seat and trunk
  • Against: Some cheap interior bits, still looks a bit like the matronly Atlas
  • Best competitors: Jeep Grand Cherokee, Ford Edge, Honda Passport, Audi Q8
2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport SE 4Motion w/ Tech Package Specifications
ON SALE Spring 2020
PRICE $40,065
ENGINE 2.0L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/235 hp @ 4,500 rpm, 258 lb-ft @ 1,600 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
EPA MILEAGE 20 mpg combined
L x W x H 195.5 x 78.4 x 67.3 in
WHEELBASE 117.3 in
WEIGHT 4,288 lb
0-60 MPH N/A
TOP SPEED N/A