First Drive: 2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport
It’s the brainchild of Volkswagen’s American division.
THE PROS & CONS
- What's Good: Spacious and comfortable cabin, Convincing four-cylinder engine, Class-competitive tow rating
- What's Bad: Lukewarm performance and handling, Mediocre fuel economy, Questionable fit and finish
WHISTLER, B.C. – In 2019 alone, sport utility vehicles represented 41% of total Volkswagen sales in North America. It’s therefore safe to assume that even though the German carmaker remains true to its core products—the Golf, the Jetta and more recently, the Arteon—it needs to widen its SUV offering if it wants to survive on our continent.
Wolfsburg therefore gave full control to its Volkswagen American arm to develop, what it believes to be, a vehicle that’s better suited for our market.
Hence the birth of the Atlas Cross Sport, marking the brand’s latest entry into the popular midsize two-row SUV segment. It’s an Atlas, but shorter, that was conceived to take on vehicles like the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Ford Edge, Chevrolet Blazer, Hyundai Santa Fe and Honda Passport.
We flew to Whistler, British Columbia, to drive it during its global launch.
Copying and Pasting a Winning Formula
Since the Atlas is currently doing rather well for Volkswagen, the Cross Sport downright takes all its qualities (and flaws) and simply shrinks them to fit a tighter, more coupe-like package.
The Cross Sport is therefore identical to its big brother from a mechanical standpoint. Same stretched MQB platform, same engines, transmission and interior components. Even the suspension and brakes are carbon copies of one another.
It is however considerably more stylish than a standard Atlas, incorporating a reworked front fascia, which will eventually make its way to its big brother next year. The Cross Sport also gets model-specific 18 or 21-inch wheels, bespoke colors, unique interior design cues like contrasting color packages for seats and door panels. A slopping roofline and a stubbier, redesigned rear end give it a budget Audi Q8 demeanor we rather like.
Power is, again, a copy/paste act. Two engines are available, either a turbocharged 2.0-liter four good for 235 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, or a naturally aspirated 3.6-liter V6 pumping out a claimed 276 horsepower and 266 lb-ft of torque.
An eight-speed automatic gearbox is the only way to get the power down for both engines, with 4MOTION all-wheel-drive offered as standard equipment in Canada, a feature that will also be carried over to the regular Atlas next year.
Towing also remains intact, with a class-competitive 5,000 pounds (2,267 kg) for the V6 and 2,000 lb (907 kg) for the four-cylinder. And you don’t need to purchase additional equipment to achieve those numbers.
Pricing kicks off at $38,995 for an entry-level four-cylinder model and stretches all the way to $56,185 for a fully loaded V6-powered R-Line.
Where the Atlas Cross Sport walks over its competition is in overall passenger and cargo space. It’s a longer overall vehicle than a Jeep Grand Cherokee by a full 64 mm, with more than ample rear leg and headroom, even with the new roofline.
Cargo volume also kills the segment with 1,141 liters for trunk space, besting both Grand Cherokee and Edge, but it’s still a tad below a Passport (1,167 liters). The Cross Sport however slightly beats its Japanese rival in total cargo capacity. Lower the rear seat flat and this Volkswagen will give way to a massive 2,203 liters of room versus 2,200 liters for the Honda.
It’s also a comfortable and stylish place to spend some time in. Our tester had the contrasting red on black leather seats which looked rather cool all while offering more than ample lumbar support. The Cross Sport also inherits the standard Atlas’ infotainment interface which is downright superb to say to least.
It’s a clean, uncluttered and easy approach to a touch interface and one that still leaves room for physical redundant controls. It also comes with standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility and there’s an optional Fender audio system. This is hands down one of the best systems in the business.
But Not the Most Engaging
The Atlas Cross Sport therefore accomplishes big, comfortable, and capable rather well. It’s also cleverly packaged, allowing it to comfortably slot itself within an increasingly crowded segment.
Sadly, things start falling apart the moment you drive it. We felt the V6 engine was underpowered, providing lukewarm acceleration at best. The main issue is that it needs to rev to generate its full potential, a trait that doesn’t factor well with its 4,000-pound (1,814 kg) curb weight.
It’s also not the most frugal V6 we’ve driven. We recorded a 14L/100 km average from our drive from Vancouver to Whistler. Volkswagen’s official numbers aren’t much better either, claiming 12.7L/100 km for combined driving.
Handling was also clumsy in the corners, where the vehicle’s weight and size was felt, with body roll being all but too apparent. Steering is also entirely dead, with inconsistent throttle response, especially at low speeds.
Finally, we were deeply disappointed by the Cross Sport’s overall material quality and fit and finish. Volkswagen once defined its respective segments through vault-like craftsmanship and overengineered components.
Here, however, door panels and interior trunk linings are made up of thick, easily scratchable hard plastics. Light switches feel like they’ll fall out of the ceiling when hitting them, and the entire cabin feels like it was built to save costs. Plus, we’re really not fans of the fake, cheap-looking, chrome exhaust tips.
Compare this to a recent Hyundai product or even a Chevrolet, and the Cross Sport feels like it should cost at least $10,000 less.
Not All is Lost
There is, however, some hope. The vehicle’s architecture remains rock-solid and buttoned down over road imperfections, a last bastion of its German roots. The automatic gearbox is fantastic, responds quickly, and in Sport mode, adapts adequately for optimal engine performance. Its only real flaw is the lack of steering-mounted paddle shifters, something the target buyer will probably never need anyway.
Finally, we were genuinely impressed by the four-cylinder engine, even if it’s the less powerful option. Torque not only kicks in lower in the rev range than the V6, it’s a much livelier unit that adds a bit of soul to an otherwise unenergetic product. Its reduced overall mass also gives the Cross Sport a tad more agility in the corners. But just a tad.
Don’t, however, expect to save much at the pump with this engine either, as you’ll save maybe 1L/100 km in combined fuel economy. That said, if towing isn’t part of your priority list, we’d say forget the V6 and go straight to the four-pot.
All in all, Volkswagen has done a good job of understanding what consumers want in this segment. The Atlas Cross Sport provides all the room, all the comfort and all the styling at an aggressive price point. And to be fair, it’ll probably sell well because of these qualities.
However, with Korean, Japanese and even American rivals dishing out more frugal, more engaging to drive and better put together vehicles in this class, the Cross Sport sadly comes through as a mediocre alternative instead of an overachieving segment leader.
2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport
BODY STYLE: Midsize two-row SUV
CONFIGURATION: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive
ENGINE: 2.0-liter turbocharged four cylinder (235 hp / 258 lb-ft) / 3.6-liter V6 (276 hp / 266 lb-ft)
TRANSMISSION : Eight-speed automatic
FUEL ECONOMY: V6: 12.7 combined /14.3 city /10.7L/100 km highway / Four-cylinder: 11.7L combined / 12.6 city / 10.4L/100 km highway
OBSERVED FUEL ECONOMY: 14L / 100 km (V6) – 10.8L/100 km (I4)
CARGO CAPACITY 1,141 liters (2,203 liters total)
PRICE: $38,995 – $56,185 (as tested)