Volkswagen’s sales foundation has shifted over the past few years. Once, we considered VW a small car company, producing cheap, practical and great-handling cars like the Golf. Nowadays, though VW is an SUV company — especially Stateside. Two spacious American-built crossovers, the Tiguan and the Atlas, constituted more than 50 percent of VW’s American sales in 2019.
Naturally, VW is reacting to its new reality by altering its vehicle lineup, which was slanted 11-2 in favor of passenger cars in 2019. Out went much of the Golf family; in, for 2020, comes the new Atlas Cross Sport. It’s a sportier-looking, smaller-but-still-midsized version of the standard Atlas, with that coupe-like sloping back roofline that’s all the current rage. It loses the third-row seat, because its active buyers care not for carpool flexibility.
Like the standard Atlas, the Atlas Cross Sport can seem like an anomaly. Other manufacturers have taken their SUVs in traditionally Teutonic directions, striving for elegance, precision and performance. But already-German VW laser-focused on making a crossover that would tick every box for an American focus group. It looks upscale, can accommodate large people, and take on a lot of stuff. Plus, it’s affordable, with an MSRP starting just above $30,000.
With the Atlas Cross Sport, Volkswagen is betting your friends, relatives, and acquaintances don’t care much about lackluster capability and uninspired driving dynamics. Judging from recent VW SUV sales performance, it’s probably the right bet.
The Atlas Cross Sport is large and contains multitudes.
Like the standard Atlas (and much of America), everything about the Atlas Cross Sport feels super-sized. The hood is a vast expanse that reminded me of driving a full-size pickup. The passenger area is wide and long. Plus, eliminating the third-row opens up a few inches of extra legroom for the reclining second-row.
The trunk has more than 40 cubic feet with the seats up. How big is that? I forgot my son’s giant off-road-ready stroller was in the trunk before I went grocery shopping, and still crammed 10 Trader Joe’s bags in the trunk’s other half. If you’re a tall person who lugs around hockey equipment, the Atlas Cross Sport is your vehicle.
The Atlas Cross Sport has Toyota 4Runner-esque fuel economy.
The fuel economy for the Atlas Cross Sport underwhelms. I drove the larger 3.6-liter V6 version — which a strong majority of customers will buy — with front-wheel-drive. The EPA rates that combination at 17 mpg city and 23 mpg highway, which translates to 19 mpg combined. The all-wheel-drive version, meanwhile, offers 16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway, about the same as a V8-powered Ford F-150. That’s Toyota 4Runner territory, without any of the off-road prowess.
Compare the Atlas Cross Sport to another popular, spacious, mid-size five-seater: the Subaru Outback. That family carter earns 29 mpg combined with the base engine and 26 mpg combined with the turbo. The Atlas Cross Sport does edge out the (nine-year-old) Jeep Grand Cherokee fitted with a 5.7-liter Hemi V8, so at least that’s something. Still, if you want to see the glass as half-full: gas prices so low right now, buyers may not care as much about fuel economy.
The Atlas Cross Sport is not a tall GTI.
The Atlas Cross Sport drives almost indistinguishably from the standard Atlas — which means well enough, but nowhere near as sporty as its budget-Q8 looks might suggest. Both Atlases are built for comfort, not for speed. The steering is soft and uninspiring. Power, at least from the V6 model I drove, was adequate — though the eight-speed automatic was hell-bent on limiting revs, which stops you making the most of it. And don’t think this results in an off-road advantage; while the AWD version should handle snow, the fact that the Atlas Cross Sport offers wheels up to 21 inchs is just one of many clues that it’s a definite road dweller.
The Atlas Cross Sport will meet the needs of most American drivers. It will be serviceable for school runs, Costco trips and the odd tour down straight highways. Yet it will continue to annoy me — because I drove a GTI right after this. I know what sort of great driving dynamics Volkswagen can achieve, yet they chose not to emphasize here.
Price as Tested: $40,710
Drivetrain: 3.6-liter V6, 8-speed automatic, FWD
Power: 276 hp, 266 lb-ft
Fuel Economy: 17 mpg city, 23 mpg highway
Volkswagen provided this product for review.
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