First Drive: The Atlas Cross Sport Sure Looks the Part

How Crossy and/or Sporty is this Atlas? Let me tell you! It’s handsome, its interior previews improvements that will soon come to the full-size Atlas, and is otherwise chunky. Volkswagen has solved the Atlas’s biggest issue (its interior), but a few small problems persist.

Yes, Volkswagen has succeeded in making the Atlas shorter (but kinda not really? The wheelbase is the same). In that spirit, I have shortened this review into three limericks but not really because there’s still reading to do if you want to understand them.

THE MOST IMPORTANT PART

There was once was a car called the Atlas
That was designed to be the opposite of matchless
They’ve improved it all sorts
With the Atlas Cross Sport
By making it handsome but not statless

The Atlas and the Tiguan may be the only reasons we get any Volkswagens in the US and Canada at all anymore. They bring new customers to the brand and plenty of them. But whereas we have romantic visions of designers on easels drawing cars by hand, it felt more like the Atlas was designed on a spreadsheet. It was designed to join a segment. Volkswagen looked upon the midsize segment and said: “Yes, one of those, please.”

The benefit of hindsight tells us that that was a good decision, because money. But it did lead to some sacrifices.

The benefit of hindsight also tells us that the Atlas’ interior left much to be desired. It was acceptable, but only just. The Atlas Cross Sport, pushes the needle closer to good, even dipping into it. Gone is the god awful faux wood veneer (even that description feels generous) and in come the colorful seat materials, a nice new steering wheel, and the solid trim choices.

And that was deliberate, so the Cross Sport can only be considered a success on that score. Volkswagen is proud to say that it is taking the Atlas Cross Sport in a stylish direction, rather than an off-roady one. This, my powers of foresight tell me, is another smart decision.

Focusing on style rather than off-roadiness—or, let’s be honest, in this segment, with one exception, it’s more like off-fauxdiness—was savvy. The MQB platform is an excellent and flexible platform but that doesn’t mean it’s limitless. Yes, you can go off-roading in anything. You can cast a Llama as Hamlet, but that doesn’t mean it will be as convincing as a lion. By focusing on style, VW has given itself a task it can achieve.

And it has achieved it. The old Atlas felt like a Golf whose vents and screens and trim pieces had been moved farther apart until the interior was big enough for seven passengers. The Cross Sport’s interior feels cohesive. Like it was designed to be the size that it is. Outside, too, it’s an improvement. The new grille is much nicer and the profile looks great. Good job, VW.

All that said, VW is moving into a busy segment, so it had better be good.

Oh, hey look. A metaphor.

HOW DOES IT COMPARE?

To unlock the auto business there is a narrow key
And VW thinks they have found it with the narrow V
It’s not too small
And can carry it all
But now they’ve picked a fight with the Grand Cherokee

When VW made the decision to make the Atlas Cross Sport, they, reasonably, saw all of the sales in the two-row midsize SUV and decided that it wanted a piece of the pie. The pie is pretty well spoken for, though. This is the segment that the Honda Passport, the Ford Edge, the Grand Cherokee, and many more all fight in.

That means that the Cross Sport’s sizeable 40.3 cubic feet of trunk space is going up against the Passport’s 50.5 cubic feet. Its V6 also has to compete with the Jeep’s Hemi. And its 20 mpg combined (4-cylinder AWD) has to compete against the Edge’s 23 (2.0 AWD).

The truth is, though, that VW’s copy of Excel hasn’t stopped working. The Cross Sport’s fuel economy isn’t great, but it is by no means unique in that quality. It may not, officially, have as much trunk space as the Passport, but it is among the larger cars in the segment.

And with 5,000 lbs of towing capacity in V6 guise (2,000 lbs as an I4), it compares well against the Ford and the Honda, which can only tow 3,500 lbs. I suspect most people will opt for the V6 just because it feels like the right engine for a car this size, but be forewarned that you’ll get pretty dismal fuel economy of 19 MPG combined. 

The V6 is nicer to drive, though. The four-cylinder chucks out impressive power and torque numbers ( 235 hp, 258 lb-ft), but it’s a little harsh off the line. Whether that’s gearing or VW’s attempt to convince buyers that they won’t want for speed, I cannot say, but the result is that the V6 is much smoother and more confident.

The transmission, an eight-speed automatic unit, still displeases me. It feels like it’s in the wrong gear a shocking amount of the time and never more than at low speeds. Otherwise, it’s fine, though. The ride isn’t exactly cloud-soft, but it’s more than acceptable and the handling inspires the appropriate amount of confidence.

The starting price of $31,565 is right on, too. Like the other SUVs in the segment, though, that amount creeps up steeply, with well-equipped models easily costing 10 grand more.

IN CONCLUSION

There once was a car known as Cross Sport
A wider audience it did court
It prolly will,
It’s pretty chill
And it doesn’t feel like a last resort.

Put briefly, this is a big improvement over the Atlas. And VW feels similarly because most of what I’m praising this car for, apart from (specifically) the red interior and the roofline, will become available with the next generation of long-roof Atlas, which is good.

And some of the Atlas’s weaknesses as a family SUV, the lack of screens, the sneaky storage spaces, and the clever little touches that Honda and Toyota are so good at, don’t matter quite as much on the Cross Sport, because it isn’t quite as specifically a family crossover. The Cross Sport feels well-judged for the segment and it will undoubtedly help VW’s sales figures lean even more heavily onto the side of the SUVs.