A nip and tuck to the Atlas’ profile gets you the more athletic looking Cross Sport model.
The Volkswagen Atlas is a big, three-row beast of an SUV with its wide body and horizontal design elements. The 2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport is only slightly less so. The new variant shrinks the SUV’s body slightly and tweaks the roofline for a sportier profile and more athletic curb appeal, allowing it to better do battle with the new Passport — itself a scaled-down version of the Atlas’ closest nemesis, the Honda Pilot.
LikeNew profile looks better, doesn’t cost much spaceEven basic cabin tech checks all the right boxesComfortable ride over rough surfaces
Don’t LikeFuel economy is just OKLots of body movement at higher speeds
The Cross Sport lowers the Atlas’ roofline to 67.8 inches (down 2.3) and shortens the SUV’s overall length to 195.5 inches (5.2 less). The result, along with a bit of a nipping and tucking of the profile, is a much more muscular and athletic take on the standard Atlas’ stiff, brick-like aesthetic.
The slightly shorter length visually pushes the rear wheels out to the vehicle’s corners, giving the Cross Sport a more aggressive-looking stance, while the lower roofline and exaggerated wheel arches make the Atlas appear lower and leaner. Personally, I think the Cross Sport looks the way the Atlas should have all along.
Sculpting its sheetmetal saves this Atlas variant about 200 pounds, depending on the trim level, but the more svelte shape doesn’t help as much with aerodynamics and efficiency as I’d hoped. The Cross Sport still has the same 0.34 drag coefficient as its more squared-off sibling and largely the same fuel efficiency across the spectrum of engine options. At best, I’m talking 21 miles per gallon city, 24 mpg highway and 22 mpg combined for the front-wheel-drive four-cylinder. At the other end of the spectrum is the all-wheel-drive V6, at 16 mpg city, 22 mpg highway and 19 mpg combined.
The underpinnings haven’t changed. The Cross Sport sits on the same 117.3-inch wheelbase with 8 inches of ground clearance and retains its wide boi status at 78.4 inches across. I’ve always thought it weird that the Atlas classifies as a midsize SUV despite its imposing curbside stature.
The Cross Sport V6 4Matic gains one combined mpg despite unchanged city and highway estimates, so there must be some small aerodynamic advantage being rounded off.
Of course, the tidier exterior design costs the Cross Sport a bit of interior volume, but not as much practical space as you might think. By the numbers, there’s 40.3 cubic feet behind the second row and 77.8 cubic feet with the seats folded flat. That’s a loss of 15.2 and 19 cubes, respectively, compared to the larger Atlas, but it’s all lost space near the ceiling. The Cross Sport still does a fantastic job swallowing up bulky items — including a 52-inch wide entertainment center — with room to spare.
Taller drivers and passengers may notice the loss of about 2 inches of headroom on both of the Cross Sport’s rows (39.4 inches front, 37.8 inches rear) and there’s no missing the lack of a third row option. There’s just no room for it in the Cross Sport’s shorter chassis.
Soft ride, relaxed performance
The Cross Sport looks more athletic, but it’s no more agile than before. The SUV’s ride is just as soft as the standard model and just as comfort-focused. Despite the reduced curb weight, the Cross Sport feels big with numb steering that lacks much of the car-like nimbleness of its competitors around town.
On the highway, the Atlas’ vague steering and soft suspension makes the SUV feel almost truck-ish. I constantly have to make small steering corrections to make up for bumps, dips or crosswinds nudging the Cross Sport to and fro. There’s a lot of vertical and lateral body movement at speed over my local (and very uneven) highways, meaning the SUV never really feels settled. It isn’t so fiddly as to feel unsafe or scary, but the Atlas requires just a bit more mental energy to keep centered within its lane than, say, our long-term Honda Passport — that’s not exactly what I mean when I say I want an engaging drive.
With such a wide body, there often isn’t much wiggle room between the lane markers.
Two engines are available to Atlas Cross Sport buyers: a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder and a 3.6-liter V6, each mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission. Either can be had in front-wheel drive configuration or, optionally, Volkswagen’s 4Matic all-wheel-drive system.
My example’s V6 engine brings 276 horsepower and 266 pound-feet of torque to the party. Compared to the 2.0T, it’s got 41 extra ponies, but only 8 more pound-feet. In practice, the V6 doesn’t feel that much more potent on the road than the I4, possibly due in part to the automatic transmission’s comfort-tuned programming somewhat dulling responsiveness in favor of smoothness and economy.
Tech and safety
The Cross Sport features an identical list of standard and optional driver aid tech as the larger Atlas. There’s a good loadout of features including adaptive cruise control that works well in stop-and-go traffic, automatic emergency brake assist, pedestrian detection, blind-spot monitoring and automatic high beams.
My example also features lane-keeping assist and lane-departure alerts that are unobtrusive and helpful. However, it doesn’t do as good a job holding the center line as Honda’s lane-keeping tech or Toyota’s now-standard Lane Tracing Assist, leaving the Atlas wandering somewhat between the markers.
The Atlas’ standard 8-inch display is home to smartphone connectivity and a refreshingly simple interface.
VW’s cabin tech is still among the best in the class, mostly because of its smartly chosen features and relative simplicity. There’s not much to the menu structure, so it never really gets awkward.
My example’s upgraded 8-inch display plays host to standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay connectivity, and is nicely positioned just a short reach from the driver’s seat. The optional navigation software gets me where I need to go without issue and works well with the voice recognition that Volkswagen’s running these days. If you’re feeling deja-vu from my previous Atlas review, that’s because this is the same setup you’ll find in the dashboards of nearly every new VW in the automaker’s lineup, and that’s not a bad thing.
Only the top-level SEL trim offers VW’s Digital Cockpit instrument cluster, which is a shame. The full-screen instrument cluster looks great. It’s not as flashy or powerful as Audi’s Virtual Cockpit digital dashboard, but VW’s setup is still very customizable and worth considering.
2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport: Slightly smaller, much better looking
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Competition and price
The 2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport starts at $31,565 for the base 2.0T S model, including a $1,020 destination charge — that’s exactly a $1,000 savings over the larger, three-row model — and tops out at the $50,815 V6 SEL Premium R-Line with 4Motion all-wheel drive. The mid-tier SE trim is the sweet spot, getting you most of the creature comforts and safety tech, priced reasonably between $34,965 and the $43,260 as-tested price of this V6 SE with Technology, R-Line and 4Motion upgrades, as well as premium Aurora Red Chroma Metallic paint and a panoramic sunroof.
The Atlas Cross Sport rides comfortably, boasts a solid mix of features and tech and retains much of the standard Atlas’ spacious cargo and passenger capacity despite its more svelte shape. It’s also surprising just how much better the reshaped rear end looks. However, the Atlas Cross Sport isn’t my favorite ride in this class.
I’d like a tighter ride to go with the Cross Sporty looks — or at least the option for a sportier R-Line suspension to go with the badges and bumpers. For now, the Atlas Cross Sport’s primary competition is the Honda Passport which gets the nod from me thanks to its comparably robust tech and more car-like handling. It’s just more pleasant and less mentally taxing to drive. Toyota’s upcoming Venza will also prove to be an interesting cross-shop, depending on where the dedicated hybrid model’s price and efficiency lands.