Torture Testing the Atlas Cross Sport in Death Valley

Death Valley this week, is a great place to test a car to its breaking point. You could design a lab to simulate the extreme heat and altitude of one of the world’s most extreme and alien regions, or you could just go there.

Its martian landscape falls to depths of around 500 feet below sea level before rising to heights of nearly five thousand feet above it. Nestled in the Sierra mountains, it’s not the type of place that makes you worry about a hypoxic lack of oxygen, but it is the type of place whose roads are steep enough that towing a 3,500 lb airstream trailer will test just how good your engineers are at designing cooling systems. 

Temperatures regularly rise into the triple digits and while I was there my Atlas Cross Sport reported temperatures as high 118 degrees.

That’s a little abstract, though. So here’s what it felt like to be outside in those temperatures: a sauna. No, literally. You know that smell inside saunas? That smell that’s almost a feeling in your nose, like the hairs in there are being singed by the heat? That’s what it felt like every time I stepped out of the air conditioning and into the heat. In the morning, when it was a cool 94 degrees, the Death Valley Oasis was a spice cupboard of scents. The hotel’s flowers and gardens were a smorgasbord of warm, floral smells. By midday, though, all I could smell my nose burning. 

So, yeah. It’s hot. Every car that stops for more than a few seconds has a puddle of condensation under it from the air conditioners working overtime. And they have to work because opening your window is like opening the door to your oven. Sure, automakers try to make sure that their cars won’t overheat before coming here, but there’s nothing quite like field testing to make sure. In fact, so common is this a place to test cars that VW’s Senior VP of Engineering for the North American Region, Thomas Drees doesn’t like to test here for fear of being spotted by spy photographers. 

Although he was tight-lipped about where VW does actually test, when they aren’t being accompanied by journalists and actually trying to get attention, he dropped hints that there were areas within less than 100 miles that he had tested at. 

So, what exactly do they test? Well, all kinds of stuff. But the idea here was to give us a hint of how tow testing works. Effectively, you find a hot place with big hills, strap a bunch of temperature gauges all over it and see what happens. The important spots are the ones where things could go wrong. Basically, that means anywhere there’s gas (tank, lines, etc) or fluids. They also look at the places where hot stuff would be anyway, like the exhaust tips (this is where they try to ensure that your tips don’t burn your bumper) or the engine. 

Now, this isn’t a laboratory. So, when they get weird results, they have in-the-field tests to make sure their sensors are working. Say, for instance, you’re getting a particularly hot reading for a temperature sensor in the middle of the car. Instead of sending it back to the lab or running the test again, the testers can just wait until they’re back at the bar and throw the sensor in a cup of ice. Because we know that ice melts at 0 degrees celsius, if the gauge reads zero in the cup you know it’s working and that you have a problem in the car.

So what does that mean? Well, in terms of the Atlas, it means that the towing package doesn’t just come with a hitch. It also comes with more powerful radiator fans, a more powerful alternator, an upgraded wire harness, and a bunch of other stuff.

What does it mean for the Atlas Cross Sport? Well, Volkswagen says that the Cross Sport will be able to tow 5,000 lbs when it has the 276 hp V6. If don’t want the sixer, you can also pick the 235 hp four-cylinder, just like in the seven-seater Atlas. That’s hardly surprising because under the skin this is basically the same as that.

Although it’s six inches short than the bigger Atlas and only has five seats, everything from its wheelbase to its passenger space, to its engine options will be the same as the Atlas’s. I can also confirm that it drives almost identically to the seven-seater. Again, not really surprising. 

What it will introduce to the lineup is a new face. With a new design that mirrors the Cross Sport concept, the five-seater should look a little meaner than we’re used to. Although that will preview a facelift coming to the seven-seater just a month after the Cross Sport launches in Q1 2020. 

Inside, too, there will be some changes. Don’t expect anything too extreme, but the Cross Sport has a new thicker steering wheel, slightly nicer door cards, and when I looked under the camouflage that I wasn’t supposed to see under, I saw an extra USB port under the infotainment screen. Each individual change is small, but together they seem to make the Atlas Cross Sport a little more comfortable in its size.

Volkswagen still isn’t revealing the price of the Cross Sport–in fact, they maintain that they haven’t even decided on one–but everything else in the segment starts at around 30 grand, so take from that what you will.

Volkswagen says that design, value, and AWD are the three biggest factors people buying five-seat mid-size SUVs look for. They also say they’ve focused on styling most of all. Which is cool, because so far it looks pretty good.