2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport First Drive Review: A Focus Group Gone Right

First Drive / Comments

The Tennessee-built midsize SUV portrays American stereotypes in the best way.

Volkswagen could have simply prepared a homologated version of its European Touareg, but instead, the company took a different approach. When it comes to American customers, the conservatively styled Touareg would not likely make the kind of splash the German brand would be looking for. After all, how could American customers ever notice yet another crossover utility vehicle? And would they be willing to pay up for it, unlike last time?

Instead, to speak to American customers, Volkswagen created a McMansion of a two-row SUV. A model with the pricing and content that's comparable to the rest of the competition, yet with the wheelbase and footprint of a larger three-row SUV. The result is the 2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport, and we just drove it around the beautiful mountain roads of Whistler, British Columbia to let you know if it's worth your hard-earned American dollars.

2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport SEL R-Line V6 Front Three-Quarter CarBuzz
2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport SEL R-Line V6 Rear Three-Quarter CarBuzz
2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport SEL R-Line V6 Front CarBuzz
2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport SEL R-Line V6 CarBuzz

Exterior Design: Sculpted Like A Titan

Consider this to be a focus group gone right because when it comes to the design of the Atlas Cross Sport, we picture a radically American design as if the folks from the Chattanooga, Tennessee assembly plant designed it themselves. It's wide, brawny, and it carries more Americana themes than some of the domestic brands do. To that end, the Chevrolet Blazer is made in Mexico, and the Ford Edge is made in Canada. Does that matter to an import-minded customer? Probably not. But it may matter to a customer that's looking for something locally sourced. As they would with their food, and their clothes.

There's something incredibly brawny about the VW Atlas Cross Sport... as if it were modeled after the fabled titan Atlas himself. It carries heroic proportions from the side profile. Just look at that running line that encircles the entire vehicle, which also tricks you into thinking the belt-to-roof ratio is closer than it actually is. Because when you get inside, and experience the vast interior space, as well as the available panoramic sunroof, the Atlas Cross Sport isn't exactly claustrophobic.

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2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport SEL 4Motion Side CarBuzz
2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport SEL 4Motion Rear Three-Quarter CarBuzz
2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport SEL 4Motion Front CarBuzz
2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport SEL 4Motion Rear CarBuzz

And if good lighting is your priority, every trim level of the Atlas Cross Sport will get both LEDs and fog lamps to help accentuate a more premium look. Quite frankly, this will be the biggest selling point for the Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport and the determining factor as to whether or not we think it's worth the premium on higher trim levels (more on that later). To further separate itself from the larger three-row Atlas, the Atlas Cross Sport slopes the roofline, and clips the corner of the tailgate to create a more aggressive silhouette. The front fascia design is also different from the larger Atlas on sale today but both vehicles will soon share the same looks as the Cross Sport. Not a bad move, if you ask us.

The only reasonable quip we have with the exterior design of the VW Atlas Cross Sport is the fake cutouts in the lower rear bumper of where exhaust pipes should be. It's a disingenuous design trend that should be criticized at every turn.

2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport SEL 4Motion Front Three Quarter CarBuzz
2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport SEL 4Motion Bridge Front CarBuzz

Interior Design: Familiar, Clean, And Confident

As touched on previously, the interior of the VW Atlas Cross Sport is generous, especially in the second row. Keeping the same wheelbase, Volkswagen pushed the rear passenger seats back to increase legroom by a full three inches, while the lack of a third row still leaves significant cargo room in the rear - more than any other two-row SUV in the segment. The tradeoff of the rakish exterior looks is a slight reduction in rear passenger headroom, losing just one inch. Most of us won't notice the difference there, but we will certainly appreciate the ability to stretch out our limbs.

The front features a familiar layout, with a copy/paste application from the standard Atlas to the Atlas Cross Sport. Top trims receive an LCD instrument panel to the more basic analog gauges, while the center stack remains tidy, practical, and fairly easy to use. Colorful drive mode displays can be cycled through via a rotating center console knob, allowing for various modes such as all-terrain, sport, and custom. Audiophiles will appreciate the premium Fender audio system, which is available on higher-end trim levels. There are USB ports everywhere you expect to find them, as well as two of them for second-row passengers.

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2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport SEL R-Line V6 Steering Wheel And Nav CarBuzz
2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport SEL R-Line V6 Second Row CarBuzz
2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport SEL R-Line V6 Second Row Heated Seats, USB Ports CarBuzz

Trunk & Cargo Space: Cavernous Capacity

At 40.3 cubic feet and 77.8 cubic feet with the second row folded down, the 2020 Atlas Cross Sport has the carrying capacity for even your most cumbersome hobbies. You can see in the photos above just how cavernous it is behind the second row. Compared to its rivals, the Cross Sport's cargo volume is behind that of the Honda Passport (50.5 cubic feet), and ahead of the Hyundai Santa Fe (35.9 cubic feet).

Volkswagen
Volkswagen

Engine, Performance, & MPG: Competent, With Room To Grow

On the 2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport drive event were both four- and six-cylinder variants, which are the only two engines currently available. The standard 2.0-liter turbo comes in at 235 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque, while the optional 3.6-liter V6 returns 276 horses and 266 lb-ft of twisting force.

Standard tropes can be used to describe the driving experience. It's not going to blow the doors off anything and it won't really evade a lot of bogeys when the road begins to weave around the mountains. The steering is numb in any setting, although "sport" mode does firm the effort up a bit to what we found to be a more appropriate level. But given that the Cross Sport couple hundred pounds lighter, it certainly feels more athletic than its big brother while leaving plenty of room for more streetable performance. Maybe we'll see the GTI sub-brand make an appearance here, at which point the Ford Edge ST may have something to worry about.

2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport SEL R-Line V6 CarBuzz
2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport SEL R-Line V6 Engine Right CarBuzz
2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport SEL 4Motion Badge CarBuzz

Wind noise is fairly hushed inside the cabin, and while the testers were all equipped with various sets of non-standard snow tires, which can be noisy, we didn't find much of that noise to transfer inside, either. Both engines seemed to perform as sufficiently as can be expected, while the eight-speed automatic transmission did nothing out of the ordinary.

Our short time with either engine option in the Atlas Cross Sport kept us from getting a good read on its real-world fuel economy numbers. But to that end, the base model achieves an EPA-estimated 22 combined MPG with the turbo-four and front-wheel drive, while the 4Motion AWD version gets 20 combined MPG. Meanwhile, both the FWD and AWD versions of the VW Atlas Cross Sport V6 come in at 19 MPG combined, according to our trusty government.

2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport SEL 4Motion Turbo Four CarBuzz
2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport SEL 4Motion Engine CarBuzz

Reliability: We Had A Navigation Issue

The single problem we experienced during our short time with the VW Atlas Cross Sport was an odd hiccup with the navigation system. For at least 10 minutes, the map screen would be "loading" our destination, which didn't stop until we touched the screen a bit and began selecting menu items. Miraculously, the destination loaded up. We're not sure why this happened, and it didn't repeat itself. So we're willing to pass it off as a simple fluke.

2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport SEL R-Line V6 Front Row CarBuzz
2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport SEL R-Line V6 Steering Wheel And Door CarBuzz

Pricing: Not The Cheapest Date

The studious marketing team at Volkswagen will logically tell you that, being without a third row, the Atlas Cross Sport doesn't appeal to the same kind of customer as somebody who would consider, say, a Kia Telluride. Logically, they're right. Although at this juncture, we feel it's important to point out just how much vehicle you can acquire for your hard-earned dollars. And it puts the two vehicles basically on top of each other.

Sure, the VW Atlas Cross Sport enters the arena with an approachable starting MSRP of $30,545, undercutting both the Ford Edge and the Jeep Grand Cherokee - the assumed mainstay rivals in the two-row midsize SUV segment. But the SEL trim level with 4Motion all-wheel-drive we sampled came in north of $42,000 with the smaller four-banger. Meanwhile, the Jeep Grand Cherokee engine lineup doesn't just offer a V6, it starts with it. The same is true of the larger-yet-similarly-priced Kia Telluride.

2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport SEL 4Motion Bridge High View CarBuzz

For the record, we also sampled the 2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport SEL R-Line with a V6 and it came in with a price tag north of $51,000. The most affordable V6 trim level, the SE w/Tech, is $37,345. It doesn't help that the output of the V6 is just 41 hp and mere 8 lb-ft more than the standard turbo-four. We would like to see greater spacing between the base and optional motor to help justify the extra $7,000 for the larger engine.

Of the two trim levels we were able to test, we'd choose the Atlas Cross Sport SEL with the standard four-pot. Simply because the interior is just as good as the V6 model, packed with tech and leather, and we'd easily spare the extra horsepower in order to save the cash.

2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport SEL 4Motion Bridge Rear CarBuzz

Verdict: An American Spirit In Disguise

So if not for being the basement bargain of the segment, nor the most athletic, what is the greatest unique selling proposition of the 2020 Atlas Cross Sport? Simply put, it all comes down to the design language. And we're smitten with the Americana looks. This is amplified by the fact that it's an American-built utility vehicle specifically for American (and Canadian) customers. So if you're import-minded but want to support the home team at the same time, the Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport is worth more than just a look.

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