The Atlas is the car Volkswagen puts me in when it sends me to Hell. The last time I drove an Atlas, I was in Yellowknife, Canada, for a demonstration of how ice roads are built, and it was 40 degrees below zero. This week, I drove a prototype of the slightly shorter, more aggressively styled Atlas Cross Sport during its hot-weather testing in Death Valley, California, where it was 116 degrees Fahrenheit—a spread of 156 degrees. So whether you’re a fire-and-brimstone type or you prefer Dante’s frozen ninth circle, the Atlas is well-equipped to get you through Hell—and back.
But let’s back up a second. What exactly is the Atlas Cross Sport? As mentioned, it’s slightly shorter in overall length, despite riding on the same wheelbase as the normal three-row Atlas. The shorter rear overhang combines with a sloped roofline to give a sportier look that, while not quite as “coupe-like” as some other German SUVs, nonetheless gets the moniker. Because of the roof and the 5.7-inch shorter rear, the Cross Sport doesn’t offer the option of a third row, making it a five-passenger vehicle at most.
That’s not to say the Atlas Cross Sport isn’t spacious, though. The rear seat, much like its standard Atlas counterpart, is plenty roomy even for those of us over six feet tall. Behind the rear seat is a capacious cargo area that’s deep, wide, and flat—in other words, very useful.
Otherwise, the Atlas Cross Sport—which leans on development of the Chinese-market cousin, the Teramont Coupe, for its chassis structure—is essentially unchanged from the standard Atlas, complete with the same powertrain and suspension. That means the base engine is a turbocharged four-cylinder rated for 235 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, while a normally aspirated V-6 good for 276 horsepower and 266 lb-ft serves as the uplevel option. An eight-speed automatic transmission is standard across all models, and 4Motion all-wheel drive is available with either engine. When equipped with the V-6, maximum towing capacity is 5,000 pounds.
And tow with it we did! We tugged a small Airstream Bambi camper with a gross vehicle weight rating of 3,500 pounds and a base weight around 2,900 pounds—which means it likely weighed somewhere between those two figures as we towed it from 250 feet below sea level to more than 4,000 feet above in a V-6–equipped Cross Sport prototype. Acceleration was plenty peppy, though the transmission did have to dip down a few cogs while the engine held revs just north of 5,000 rpm to power up the climbs on our first leg while towing. The brakes were also ample for handling the combined weight of the Cross Sport and the rather light Airstream.
In fact, the whole experience of towing was completely serene, with the exception of rearward sight lines, which were completely blocked by the trailer. If you’re looking at an Atlas Cross Sport for regular powersports- or camper-hauling duties, you’ll want to invest in a set of strap-on side mirrors. The only other caveat to the towing experience was the use of a load-distributing hitch, a rather unusual move for such a light and small camper. Perhaps VW was trying to stack the deck a bit there, but it may also have just been a cautious and wise choice to combat trailer sway, considering the Bambi camper’s relatively short overall length and single-axle design, not to mention the average car writer’s subexpert towing credentials. We’ll have to evaluate it for ourselves once the production Atlas Cross Sport hits the streets.
After the 80-mile towing loop, we took the Cross Sport on a spirited drive down a freshly graded 20 Mule Team Road, a curvy and fun gravel road carved right into the desert floor. Swivel the center-console-mounted terrain selection knob over to Off-Road mode, and the stability-control program ups its game, ready to push more power to the rear wheels (in AWD-equipped models like the prototype we drove), while allowing a bit more apparent slip than in the on-road Normal mode. It’s certainly no rally car, but neither is it bothered by a quick run down a twisty dirt path.
That ultimately may be the highest praise I can give the Cross Sport, as well as its standard Atlas counterpart: Despite driving them in some of the harshest environments our planet has to offer, neither one did anything untoward; they just worked, keeping occupants comfortably cool (or warm), stable, safe, and headed down the road with no more fuss than a 72-degree cruise to the beach.
So has Volkswagen hit a home run with its new two-row Atlas? We’ll have to wait for the camouflage to come off before we can judge its design success, a factor VW acknowledges is the primary consideration driving purchases in the segment. But beneath the skin, we can confirm the Cross Sport is the same dependable, spacious people mover you’ve come to expect from its bigger brother, and easily up to the challenge of anything you’re likely to throw at it. The Atlas Cross Sport will enter production in the first quarter of 2020, and goes on sale the same model year as a competitor to the Honda Pilot, Ford Edge, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Nissan Murano, and other similar two-row crossover SUVs.