2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport first drive review: Higher style, same relaxed fit

VW's latest five-seat crossover bundles sharp looks with the same virtues and vices of its larger sibling.

The 2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport is for when you want a stylish large-format crossover SUV, but only need five seats.
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As might be painfully obvious during these shaggy, shelter-in-place days, a haircut and a shave can make all the difference. Fortunately, Volkswagen's decision-makers clearly didn't need a global crisis to learn that particular lesson. The company's latest effort, this new 2020 Atlas Cross Sport, has been in the works for some time, and it stands as ready proof that a new 'do can work wonders to enhance one's appeal. 

Starting with the company's largest vehicle, the family-minded Atlas three-row SUV, VW designers haven't just given the Cross Sport a radically different coif, they've given the model its own mission, too. Thanks to its slicked-back roofline and a third-row-ectomy, this newly stylish five-seat crossover has been charged with enticing young families and empty nesters into showrooms. (Perhaps not coincidentally, both demographic life stages typically bookend three-row vehicle ownership.)

With the exception of its prominent fenders, visually, the standard three-row Atlas is one of the more conservative (borderline bland) designs in its segment. As such, it's a bit of a surprise that VW has managed to coax such a dynamic and complete look out of the Sport Cross while changing relatively little. It isn't just the Sport Cross' more steeply raked rear window that stands out -- it's the way the entire vehicle looks so dramatically lower, as if VW has been quietly harboring an old-school hot-rod customizer in the bowels of its Chattanooga factory

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This SUV's chopped top isn't an optical illusion. Despite maintaining the same ground clearance as the regular Atlas, the midsize SC sits lower in overall height by 2.2 inches, and it looks like it might as well be half a foot. Additionally, this model's greenhouse sports increased tumblehome on its sides, lending it a more planted, muscular look reinforced by more aggressive bumper caps front and back. And while this SUV is 5.7 inches shorter in overall length, it rides atop the same 117.3-inch wheelbase as its three-row kin. While there are plenty of these slant-back "coupeovers" on the market these days (a neologism coined by my Roadshow cohort Emme Hall), there aren't as many in the non-premium segment. And frankly, to my eye, most aren't as well-balanced visually as this VW.

Like its larger MQB-platform-mate, the 2020 Atlas Cross Sport is available with a choice of two engines: a 2.0-liter turbo-four offering 235 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque or a naturally aspirated 3.6-liter V6 with 276 hp and 266 lb-ft, both paired to a mandatory eight-speed automatic transmission. Front-wheel drive is standard and 4Motion all-wheel drive is optional with either powerplant. For my test, I was handed the key to this loaded Aurora Red SEL Premium R-Line with AWD and the V6. At $51,210 (including $1,020 for destination), it's ostensibly the pinnacle of the 2020 VW Atlas Sport Cross Range. 

While I didn't have the occasion to load up my test car with five folks, or stuff its cargo hold with 40.3 cubic feet of gear (77.8 with the rear seats folded), I managed to incorporate everything from a toilet-paper-hoard run (I mean, weekly grocery schlep) to a freeway loop and knocking around on some empty backroads. My drive impressions back up what VW's product experts say: The Cross Sport has been engineered to drive like its bigger brother. "There is no difference in how they are tuned," Lauren Mulvihill, VW's Atlas family product planner tells me. That means you can expect reasonable levels of power and a comfortable ride paired with easy inputs, including light steering and pedal responses. Even with my top-shelf tester's massive 21-inch tires, ride quality issued by the front strut and rear multilink suspension setup is more than acceptable. Furthermore, even though my tester is riding on Pirelli Scorpion winter rubber, the Sport Cross' noise, vibration and harshness levels feel smartly controlled, delivering a suitably serene cruising experience scarred only by large potholes. 

Paradoxically, this similar tuning also means that VW has declined to take advantage of the Cross Sport's modestly lighter weight (roughly 100 pounds) and newly toned appearance to engineer a more athletic vehicle. That's true both in terms of actual performance numbers and intrinsic seat-of-the-pants feel. Perhaps it comes down to my R-Line's racier-looking bumpers and bold wheels, but after a week at the wheel, that decision strikes me as a missed opportunity. While there are a plethora of drive modes including Onroad, Snow, Offroad and Offroad Custom, in order to get to Sport mode, you have to put it in Onroad and rifle through sub-profiles to get to it -- Eco, Normal, Sport and Custom. There's also an "S" detent on the gear lever, making it possible to adopt a sportier shift logic, but none of these really help this vehicle uncover hidden levels of athleticism or engagement. 

I'd be curious to see if an equivalent 2.0T model might actually feel sprightlier coming out of the corners, owing to its superior low-end torque and slightly lighter weight. As it is, the Atlas Cross Sport V6 accelerates to 60 mph in about 7.5 seconds, and goes down the road in a confident, pleasant manner. That said, it always feels like the large vehicle it is, and it's never particularly fun to drive. 

Admittedly, VW's blueprint isn't atypical for this class. With the exception of the more overtly athletic Chevrolet Blazer, most rivals tend to skew more towards luxury, while some hew towards an off-road bent. As the lone European in this field, however, delivering some sort of stereotypically Germanic handling dynamics and feel could have further set the Atlas Sport Cross apart from this burgeoning crowd.

Packing a solid 8 inches of ground clearance, improved arrival and departure angles and a brace of off-road tech including Hill Descent and Hill Start Assists and two separate drive modes, the Sport Cross should be up for the sort of modest rough stuff that typical CUVs see. Campground two-tracks, gravel roads, muddy flea-market parking fields and so on -- you know the drill. You can even schlep a 5,000-pound trailer, just like the three-row Atlas. (VW's recently announced off-road-minded Basecamp accessories for the standard Atlas seem like they'd work well on the Sport Cross, too.)


Regardless of engine choice and the number of driven wheels, Atlas Sport Cross fuel economy is on the disappointing side for this class. The best-case scenario for efficiency, a FWD 2.0T, clocks in with EPA efficiency estimates of 21 miles per gallon city, 24 highway and 22 combined. Go for an AWD V6 like my tester, and the numbers fall to a less-than-impressive 16 city, 22 highway and 19 combined. (Based on my week of mixed driving, at least those numbers seem attainable in the real world.)

Given this model's family-oriented roots, it should come as no surprise that there's a ton of driver-assistance systems baked in from the base S trim on up. All Atlas Cross Sports come fitted with forward-collision warning with auto brake, blind-spot monitoring and rear-cross traffic alert. Adaptive cruise control enters into the range on SE models equipped with an optional tech package. 

On the inside, three-row Atlas owners will find themselves right at home, though they might be envious of a couple of minor Cross-Sport-only upgrades: Namely, some fancier stitching on the door panels and a sportier-looking leather-wrapped steering wheel. A Sport-Cross-exclusive Dark Burgundy leather on SEL trims goes a long way towards amping up the cabin's style and premium feel, but my tester's wide, flat seats are instead clad in basic black. As you might expect, preserving the larger Atlas' wheelbase has had significant ramifications on the way the Cross Sport feels. The Ford EdgeHonda Passport and Nissan Murano simply don't feel as accommodating as this VW, whether you're in the front seat, or particularly, in the second row. The latter is yawningly massive, with class-leading legroom -- over 41 inches -- and only a slight reduction in head clearance in exchange for that sportier roofline. 

Like the Atlas, ergonomics are first-rate, with easy-to-use temperature controls and intuitive MIB II infotainment systems. Base S models (from $30,545 for 2.0T FWD spec) make do with a modest 6.5-inch capacitive touchscreen that includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration, plus SD and USB-C ports, and mid-range SE models (from $33,945 2.0T FWD) bump their head-unit game up to include an 8-inch screen with five USB ports, SiriusXM and voice control. SEL trims go a step further by including VW's Discover Media head unit with navigation, but all Cross Sports come with LTE Wi-Fi and a complimentary five-year Car Net telematics subscription, too. 

VW's Digital Cockpit sits in a gauge binnacle that looks like it was designed for a bigger screen. Once noticed, this detail can't be unseen.

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SEL models also get loaded down with premium niceties like a heated steering wheel, ventilated seats and panoramic roof, plus a 480-watt, 12-speaker Fender audio system that feels worth the upgrade. Those creature comforts also come paired with a bushel of additional safety gear, including brighter 900-lumen LED cornering headlights and lane-keep assist with centering, plus road-sign recognition tech. Traffic Jam Assist makes its appearance for the first time on a North American VW model on SEL models, too. Designed as a stop-and-go commute easer, TJA is a hands-on Level 2 partial automation system that will handle accelerating, braking and steering at speeds of up to 37 mph.

VW's 10-inch TFT Digital Cockpit display replaces analog gauges at this trim level, too, adding a higher-tech feel. Unfortunately, the surrounding binnacle looks like it was designed to accommodate a larger screen (future proofing?). In any case, once you notice this detail, you can't unsee it. In that same vein, while there's a lot of comfort and convenience equipment on offer, like its Atlas three-row sibling, the cabin of the Sport Cross never truly manages to feel luxurious. Blame VW's excessive use of hard plastics, some unsubstantial-feeling switchgear and a general lack of design pizazz. 

Overall, this crossover has a lot to recommend it. Even if it doesn't quite manage to come across as a bargain Audi Q8, it still feels like a lot of SUV for the money. It's stylish, surprisingly practical, and it offers gobs of advanced safety and convenience tech. If your personal wish list prioritizes cabin space over fineness of furnishings, and if you don't take the "Sport" in "Sport Cross" too literally, this sharply tailored, relaxed-fit 2020 Volkswagen Atlas Sport Cross could be just your ride.

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