The all-new 2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport trades third row for space and style

Volkswagen built its brand on small cars like the Beetle and the Golf—simple, space-efficient, affordable cars built for the everyman. Times change, however and product preferences along with it—both the Beetle and the Golf are no longer offered in the U.S. market, save for performance models like the GTI and the Golf R. In their place are portly, squared-off crossover SUVs that trade subtlety and driving engagement for interior space and a higher seating position.

In 2019, Volkswagen sold 81,508 examples of its massive three-row SUV, the Atlas. That number was good for third-best on VW’s sales chart last year, chasing only the Jetta sedan and the two-row Tiguan crossover. The Atlas and the Tiguan, VW’s two existing crossover offerings, accounted for a staggering 53 percent of the company’s sales volume last year. Americans love crossovers, and Volkswagen is endeavoring to give them more of what they want. Now, a third offering that will slot between the Tiguan and the Atlas is entering the picture.

Meet the Atlas Cross Sport, a two-row crossover based on the three-row Atlas, albeit with a more raked roof and a greater emphasis on style than utility. If this seems like microsegmentation, take a peek at the likes of the Mercedes GLC and GLE coupes, as well as the BMW X4 and X6, for proof that there is sufficient interest in model variants of this sort. That VW hasn’t employed this strategy already is more a testament to how late the brand is to the SUV fray, than anything else.

Volkswagen invited journalists up to Vancouver, British Columbia to drive the Cross Sport from downtown Vancouver up to the skiing paradise of Whistler.

2020 Atlas Cross Sport Aurora Red front three-quarter on road action

The Cross Sport is based on VW’s widely used MQB platform, a modular architecture that in America underpins every Volkswagen model aside from the Passat. That near-ubiquity cuts manufacturing complexity and offers surprising flexibility when it comes to what resides atop the structure. Much of the same monolithic styling of the three-row Atlas can be found on the Cross Sport, with a bold character line running the length of the car that becomes especially pronounced over the wheel arches. A 117.3-inch wheelbase is shared by both models, but the Cross Sport trims just over five inches in overall length and sits roughly two inches lower, courtesy of a more sloped roofline and trimmer rear end than the three-row Atlas.

Even with a sloped rear glass, ditching the third row brings up cargo capacity behind the rearmost seats from 20.6 cubic feet to 40.3 cubic feet. It’s worth noting that the three-row Atlas still beats the Cross Sport for overall volume while carrying five passengers. Still, VW hopes that the smaller footprint and sharper styling of the Cross Sport will appeal to empty nesters (known in the industry as DINKS: Dual Income, No Kids) with desires for a large vehicle without the need to haul around young children, a cavalcade of sports equipment, and the occasional stray Happy Meal toy.

Volkswagen’s interiors take a frill-free approach to key aspects like the infotainment and center stack design—a welcome respite from other flashy, but also more complicated and onerous systems from some other automakers (we’re looking at you, Lexus). The abundance of hard black plastics below the eyeline, however, is less welcome. Buyers will do well to opt for one of the alternative interior colors instead of the standard black—beige or perhaps the new burgundy red leather option offered on higher-trim models to brighten up the otherwise staid cabin.

Especially from the second row, that cabin feels particularly airy. This makes sense, given that the standard three-row Atlas prioritizes space first and everything else second, and in the Cross Sport the second row can be moved even farther back. The Cross Sport bests the Jeep Grand Cherokee and the Ford Edge (two of the vehicles away from which VW hopes to lure buyers) in cargo volume behind the first row, as well as overall size, but falls just short of the Honda Passport in both categories.

2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport
Nate Petroelje

Two engines are available under the hood: a 3.6-liter narrow-angle V-6 producing 276 horsepower and 266 lb-ft of torque, or VW Group’s EA888 workhorse, a 2.0-liter turbocharged inline-four good for 235 horsepower and 258 lb-ft of torque. Both engines pair with an eight-speed automatic transmission and power either the front wheels, or all four courtesy of VW’s 4Motion all-wheel-drive system. All-wheel drive models have a dial on the console near the cupholders with four selectable drive modes: Onroad, Snow, Offroad and Custom Offroad. These modes adjust drivetrain and stability control systems to suit various road conditions.

Departing from sprawling, rain-soaked metropolis of Vancouver in a loaded Atlas Cross Sport V6 SEL Premium, one thing is immediately clear: despite shrinking five inches relative to its the regular Atlas, this is still a large vehicle with a substantial footprint, especially in a cramped city like Vancouver.

The narrow-angle V-6 and quick steering pair well for around-town driving, but as we began to head north out of the city, the Cross Sport’s speed-sensitive variable electric-powered steering assist was noticeably overactive. The steering response was almost excessively quick, which feels out of sync with a car this size. When the front end darts one way or the other under only moderate input, the chassis—compliant and relaxed while cruising—unsettles as the rear hustles to catch up to the front end. (Our test cars wore snow tires, which didn’t help the situation.)

Near Shannon Falls, we swapped into a Cross Sport 2.0T SE with the Technology package (which adds remote start, easy-open power liftgate, and adaptive cruise control, among other goodies) and began the final voyage to Whistler. As we gained altitude, the forced-induction motor tugged the large vehicle down the road without hesitation or stress. The eight-speed transmission’s operation was only noticeable when the Cross Sport got rolling from a dead stop, where the surging turbo engine and short first gear conspired to produce a lurchy take-off.

All Cross Sports will have the latest version of VW’s MIB II infotainment system. Opt for anything but the base-spec S model and you’ll receive an eight-inch glass-covered screen. The system’s layout is fairly intuitive—a few touches is all you need to navigate the essential menus and access any function. Thankfully, there are still hard buttons and dials for many of the climate control adjustments, as well as knobs to adjust the radio station and volume so you can make on-the-fly adjustments without taking your eyes off the road. On the SEL Premium and SEL Premium R-Line, sound pumps through a 12-speaker Fender Premium Audio system. While more speakers typically suggests better quality, the standard six-speaker system in lower-trim models will be just fine for most Cross Sport customers; true audiophiles will most likely appreciate the more tech-focused interiors that Audi serves up in the much-pricier Q5.

2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport
Nate Petroelje

Prices will start at $31,565 for the front-wheel drive 2.0T S and run up to just over $50,000 for fully loaded SEL Premium R-Line with the V-6 and 4Motion all-wheel drive. Fifty grand is a lot for most people to stomach for a Volkswagen, so mid- to low-spec Volkswagens should be the sweet spot for most buyers. Get too trigger-happy with the options, and suddenly you’re knocking on the door of a modest Q5.

The 2.0T SE with the Technology package and 4Motion comes in at $38,865, presenting the best balance of features and cost of entry. Features like leather seats, a panoramic sunroof, and built-in navigation are nice, but they’re not as essential as adaptive cruise, heated seats, and remote start, all of which are included in the SE with Technology. On top of that, the turbo-four is by no means a consolation prize compared to the V-6, which will be useful primarily to customers interested in the $550 towing package.

The three-row Atlas has experienced impressive growth since it was first introduced, (year-over-year sales were up 39 percent in 2019) and as the Atlas nameplate gains popularity, so do the chances of the Cross Sport’s sales success. While we’d endorse all empty nesters buzzing about in tartan-seated GTI hatchbacks, we’re not naïve—larger, taller vehicles like the Cross Sport are where the market is increasingly headed. Still, among its segment, the Cross Sport will have a hard time coaxing buyers away from established nameplates like the Edge and the Cherokee. The Cross Sport is stylish and space-efficient with a better-than-average 4-year/50,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, but it doesn’t distinguish itself in any meaningful way that it will entice buyers to cast off their existing brand loyalties.

For now, Volkswagen will rely on the Cross Sport’s size and spaciousness as initial attractors to what is, on the whole, a well-executed new product. If the three-row Atlas’ current trajectory is anything to go on, its suave little brother has bright prospects.

The Atlas Cross Sport has a starting MSRP of $31,565 and will be available later this year.

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