2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport prototype first drive review: SUV testing in the hot hot heat

We tag along for some hot-weather testing with Volkswagen’s upcoming midsize SUV.

Emme Hall Former editor for CNET Cars
I love two-seater, RWD convertibles and own a 2004 Mazdaspeed Miata for pavement fun and a lifted 2001 Miata for pre-running. I race air-cooled Volkswagens in desert races like the Mint 400 and the Baja 1000. I have won the Rebelle Rally, seven-day navigational challenge, twice and I am the only driver to compete in an EV, the Rivian R1T.
Emme Hall
3 min read
2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport
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2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport

It's hot as Hades in Death Valley. Time for some hot-weather testing.

Emme Hall/Roadshow

It's approximately eleventy billion degrees in Death Valley, California, in late July. Yet automotive engineers are out here every summer, doing hot-weather development testing for new cars that'll be sold in the not-too-distant future. Case in point: the 2020 Cross Sport prototype you see here.

You might remember the Atlas Cross Sport from the 2018 New York Auto Show , where it debuted alongside the Atlas Tanoak pickup truck concept -- both of which we got to drive (slowly). The Cross Sport shares its bones with the larger Atlas SUV, but is shorter in overall length, and only seats five passengers.

Watch this: 2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport goes to Death Valley

The Cross Sport Concept was powered by a plug-in hybrid powertrain, but the production version won't use anything so forward-thinking. The prototype I'm driving has the Atlas' naturally aspirated, 3.6-liter V6 engine, producing 276 horsepower and 266 pound-feet of torque. A smaller, 2.0-liter, turbocharged I4 will be the standard engine, however, with 235 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Both engines mate to an eight-speed automatic transmission, and you'll be able to spec 4Motion all-wheel-drive system with either powertrain.

Engine temperatures, battery lines, brakes, suspension components and more are all tested in these scorching conditions. Hot-weather testing is done to ensure every part of the car works flawlessly, even in extreme situations.

In order to really test the new SUV's hot-weather capability, Volkswagen engineers hook up a 3,500-pound Airstream trailer to put further strain on the car. The Atlas Cross Sport prototype has an optional tow package that includes an upgraded radiator and alternator, as well as a trailer-control module and different stability control tuning.

2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport
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2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport

The Cross Sport is about six inches shorter than its big brother, the Atlas.


Climbing out of the valley and up to 4,000 feet of elevation, the Atlas pulls its trailer with ease, and even in these 123-degrees-Fahrenheit conditions, the temperature gauge's needle never modes past the halfway point. The Cross Sport's towing package doesn't include a brake upgrade, but on the way down the steep slope, they offer surefooted stopping power with the extra load behind me. The transmission also has a manual mode, which allows me to slow via engine braking.

After unhitching the trailer, the Atlas Cross Sport prototype is a lot more spry. It's lighter than the seven-passenger Atlas, thanks to its six-inch shorter body and two-row seating configuration. The V6 engine has more than enough power to get it up and moving with a quickness. My drive time is brief, but in this short test, the Cross Sport prototype proves to be a competent on-road performer -- just like the regular Atlas.

The Cross Sport will slot below the seven-passenger Atlas but above the compact when it goes on sale next year. Given the fact that the Atlas is one of Volkswagen's strongest sellers, the company is smart to add this slightly smaller model to the lineup. Look for it to officially debut in the not-too-distant future.

2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport cool and camouflaged in Death Valley

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Editors' note: Travel costs related to this feature were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. While Roadshow accepts multi-day vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews, all scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms.

The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.