2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport Review: Looks Can Be Deceiving

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I was on my final haul of the season, moving the last two kitchen-table chairs, four large wooden flower boxes, two coolers, suitcases, and other miscellaneous items on an almost 12-hour trek north. It was a perfect assignment for the 2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport, which has the most interior space in the midsize SUV segment.

VW took its three-row Atlas, its top-selling vehicle, and sliced the bologna a bit thinner to create a two-row, five-passenger Atlas Cross Sport. The result is an outrageously large second row and cargo area, nice weapons to have in competition against vehicles such as the Chevrolet Blazer, Ford Edge, and Honda Passport. In other words, the VW is the ideal transport for the task ahead.

The cavernous interior—77.8 cubic feet of stowage is available with the second-row seats down and perfectly flat—swallowed everything with room to spare. Although the Atlas Cross Sport’s protective trunk mat is functional and even downright attractive, the cargo hold in general has a lot of plastic cladding with no real attempt to use some of that expansive space for clever storage cubbies. Just inside the liftgate, little indents to the side each can secure a gallon of milk, but that’s it. Add a 12-volt power outlet in the cargo area to the amenity count, however.

Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder

In terms of exterior styling, I personally am not a fan of the wide, square shape of the Atlas family, especially the expansive rear end, so I was surprised by the number of admiring looks and comments it received. The fast rear glass was a key driver of praise and comments from family and friends who thought the Cross Sport was a pretty slick, high-end-looking SUV. The five-passenger Cross Sport has the same wheelbase as the seven-passenger Atlas but is a few inches shorter in length and height. The R-Line version I drove adds a sculpted bumper, more chrome and piano black trim, and available 21-inch wheels. Inside, dark burgundy on the doors and perforated leather seats gives a sumptuous first impression. The infotainment screen and HVAC controls are nicely integrated into the dash and center console.

There is plenty more screen in front of the driver, too. with VW’s Digital Cockpit cluster. I like the ability to tailor the display with the push of a button to get more detail, see different gauges, or minimize the view to mostly black screen with a couple vital readouts. A quibble: I could not find a way to display the distance-to-empty figure in the instrument cluster, which is a standard piece of vital data. I had to dive into the menus on the center infotainment screen and into car settings to view the information. Happily, this appears to be solved for the 2021.5 model year, as almost all such Atlases will feature VW’s fresh MIB3 infotainment system, and this setup has a clear option to place distance-to-empty in the cluster via the settings.

All-Important Driver’s Seat

The Cross Sport featured an updated, leather-wrapped steering wheel, but I found it to have too little padding to feel truly sumptuous. The driver’s seat is heated and ventilated, and it was comfortable enough on a long trek. I especially appreciated the lumbar support. The front passenger gets a nice touch: a tiny cargo net near their left knee to stick a phone, book, or other small piece of detritus. The center console is deep, but it offers no surprises or functions inside; it’s a plain, rectangular box. Located at the bottom of the center stack, the Atlas’s HVAC controls look cheap and dated, being the same design—if not the exact same pieces—we’ve seen in VWs for years.

Thumbs up for the two USB outlets that allow separate devices to work simultaneously: a phone can run Waze while another device plays music. It sounds simple enough, but there are many vehicles that don’t afford this seemingly simple feature. Connecting my phone and using Apple CarPlay was quick and easy, and the Atlas Cross Sport also has a wireless charging pad.

One frustration that admittedly won’t be much of an issue for many people: You cannot change the units between miles and kilometers on the fly—necessary for the portions of my drive within Canada. In fact, most car settings are locked when the vehicle is in motion, which means pulling over, putting the vehicle in park, making the two-second change on the screen, and then merging back into highway traffic. In this instance, the safer (and more convenient) alternative would be to let my passenger change the setting while I drove.

The second row carries over the splash of burgundy on the doors and heated (outboard) seats. But look closer and there is plenty of cheaper-looking black leather and plastic in use, and the thinly padded armrests are further evidence of penny-pinching. There is a little leather pouch on the back of the front seats for storage, and passengers have air vents in the center console and on the floor, and there are also USB and 115-volt power outlets, although with the cavernous legroom it’s a bit of a stretch to access them.

The Driving Impressions

The biggest disappointment is how the Atlas Cross Sport drives. The Atlas Cross Sport has a 235-hp 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder as its base engine, but we were driving a V-6 SEL Premium R-Line with the 3.6-liter engine and all-wheel drive. It generates 276 horsepower and 266 lb-ft of torque, distributed via an eight-speed automatic transmission—but it did not feel this powerful when I stepped on the pedal. Acceleration is neither smooth nor push-you-back impressive, with the transmission upshifting too quickly to allow the engine to build up a head of steam. The SUV surges forward but does not feel powerful. Given how loud the engine is, it would be nice if the results of its labors matched the sound of its efforts.

The adaptive cruise control made highway driving downright unpleasant. The car is somewhat smooth as it decelerates behind a slow-moving vehicle, but it abruptly surges forward when the coast is clear to accelerate. And it is equally abrupt if you disengage the system by applying the brake—so much so my passenger kept waking up and asking what was wrong.

The automatic stop/start turns off the engine with a clunk and restarts it with a jolt, sending shudders through the whole vehicle when the V-6 comes back to life. I also found the steering to be too heavy, a contrivance to provide a “sporty” sensation that really only just makes more work for the driver. Finally, the dampers have difficulty corralling the 21-inch wheels and tires, particularly over rough pavement, and the four-wheel independent suspension thuds and clomps its way over impacts.

Such Safety Equipment

At least the Atlas Cross Sport has a nice selection of safety equipment, including forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian monitoring, active blind-spot monitoring, and rear traffic alert. The lane-keeping system has lane and traffic-jam assist, meaning it will work with the cruise control to keep you toddling along in stop-and-go traffic. In addition, at other speeds, it isn’t as intrusive as some other systems when working to keep the vehicle between the lanes. The digital displays show road signs and other pertinent information, too.

As equipped for my journey, the Atlas Cross Sport is a $51,050 vehicle. (It starts at $31,565.) Yes, it will easily accommodate five people and their gear, but especially at this price point, VW needs to upgrade some materials and address the unrefined driving experience to make the Cross Sport stand out on more than just its looks.

2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport Specifications
PRICE $31,565-$45,965
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, FWD/AWD, 5-pass, 4-door SUV
ENGINE 2.0L/235-hp/258-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4; 3.6L/276-hp/266-lb-ft DOHC 24-valve V-6
TRANSMISSION 8-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 4,100-4,400 lb (mfr)
WHEELBASE 117.3 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 195.5 x 78.4 x 67.8 inn
0-60 MPH 7.5-8.1 sec (MT est)
EPA FUEL ECON 16-21/22-24/19-22 mpg
ENERGY CONSUMPTION, CITY/HWY 160-211/140-153 kWh/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.87-1.06 lb/mile
ON SALE Currently

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