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Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport: Should You Buy the Four-Cylinder or the V-6?

On paper and in the real world, these engines are better matched than you might expect.

Aaron GoldWriterManufacturerPhotographer

Faced with the decision of buying a four- or six-cylinder version of any given car, the answer should be pretty obvious: Six. Six, six, six. Our conclusion is based not on some silly whim, but on the scientific application of More's Law. Often confused with Moore's Law, More's Law states that "More is better, and way too much is almost, but not quite, enough."

In the case of the Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport, Volkswagen's new mondo-sized five-seat SUV, which offers both a 235-hp 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder and a 276-hp 3.6-liter narrow-angle V-6, the answer is not quite so straightforward.

Some of us here at Automobile HQ expected the 2.0T to fail miserably in both the Cross Sport and the larger Atlas: Too much SUV and not enough engine. After all, the V-6-powered Atlas, while quick enough, doesn't exactly turn its driver into Shirley Muldowney.

But the numbers don't lie, and Volkswagen's turbocharged two-liter produces 258 lb-ft of torque, only 8 lb-ft fewer than the V-6. We'd be remiss if we didn't report the torque peak, which is only 1,600 rpm for the 2.0T and 2,750 rpm for the V-6; in reality the Atlas Cross Sport's eight-speed automatic lets the revs flow freely, so neither engine feels like its bogging down. Gear ratios in this double-overdrive transmission as well as the 3.6:1 final drive are identical for both engines, regardless of whether they are fitted with front- or all-wheel-drive.

Out in the real world, the engines are much better matched than you might expect. Off-the-line performance is similar, but once you get moving you can feel a slight power advantage in the V-6—it accelerates quicker with less throttle. The 2.0T can turn in a similar performance if you boot it a bit more, but there's no need for the accelerator to kiss the floorboard (or even violate the floorboard's personal space) to make a rapid getaway.

For floor-the-pedal-and-hope-for-the-best passing maneuvers, both engines are pretty evenly matched, even if the four-cylinder's thinner soundtrack doesn't quite convey the same illusion of power. We didn't run timers, but we'd have no hesitation overtaking on a two-lane road with either engine. If Volkswagen's 2.0T engine is reading this, yes, you may take that as a compliment. Oh, and sorry for that crack about your engine note.

What about those disparate horsepower numbers? The V-6 bests the 2.0T by some 41 horsepower, but unless you're planning a top speed run, that shouldn't make much of a difference. Both engines will cruise happily at super-legal highway speeds.

With all else being equal—and it very much looks like that's the case—the 2.0T does have a key advantage: Turbocharged vehicles don't lose as much power at higher altitudes. Where the V-6 starts to wheeze, the 2.0T keeps on delivering the power.

Our one concern is fuel economy. On paper, the 2.0T isn't much better than the 3.6: EPA estimates are 21 city/24 highway with front-wheel-drive and 18/23 with all-wheel-drive. Compare those numbers to the V-6, which is rated at 17/23 (FWD) and 16/22 (AWD). The numbers suggest the V-6 is drinking hard at lower speeds, but in our non-scientific experience, the EPA tests are favorable to small turbocharged engines like the 2.0T.

The Atlas Cross Sport is a heavy car, and it takes a given amount of fuel to move that mass no matter how many cylinders into which that fuel is being sprayed. Remember, turbocharged engines are basically displacement-on-demand engines—they pack in more fuel and air than the engine would normally ingest when power demands are high, and with a big vehicle and a small engine, demands are going to be high more than you might think. It wouldn't surprise us to learn that the 2.0T's real-world numbers are the same as the V-6, or maybe even slightly worse.

On the other hand, for steady-speed cruising at moderate highway speeds (cruise control set at 67), a small turbo engine can do a pretty good job, and might even exceed its EPA numbers. (This is all speculation, mind you—we've only had one drive in the Cross Sport.)

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One bit of good news vis-à-vis fuel economy: While many turbo engines require premium fuel, Volkswagen's 2.0T takes regular, so if fuel economy is similar between both engines, the fuel costs will be as well. Volkswagen charges a premium of $1,800 for the V-6 engine, so that's another argument in the four-cylinder's favor; that $1,800 buys you a slightly better soundtrack but not much in the way of real power.

The bottom line is that the 2.0T makes more sense than the V-6: Cheaper price, comparable power, better performance in the mountains and maybe, if all goes well, some modicum of fuel savings.

So if you're buying a Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport, which engine should you get? After careful analysis, we think the answer is pretty obvious: Buy the V-6. More is better.

2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport SE 4Motion w/ Tech Package Specifications
ON SALE Spring 2020
PRICE $40,065
ENGINE 2.0L turbo 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
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