2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport Review

Liz Kim | May 27, 2020

Introduction

Bigger is better, until it’s not. In order to give its customers a smaller and sportier alternative to its largest vehicle to date, the Atlas SUV, Volkswagen sent the vehicle to the surgeon for a nip and a tuck, turning the 7-passenger vehicle into one that carries five while making it look sportier with a faster roofline.

The 2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport is the result. It comes in several flavors: S, SE, SEL, SEL Premium, and variants with 4Motion all-wheel drive (AWD), a Technology package, and an R-Line design package. Two engine choices are available, a turbocharged 4-cylinder and a V-6.

2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport SEL Premium R-Line Pure Gray Front View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

For this review, J.D. Power evaluated an Atlas Cross Sport SEL Premium R-Line which includes a V-6 engine and AWD. To this, the test vehicle added extra-cost Pure Gray paint ($395), heavy-duty floor mats ($105), and a heavy-duty cargo mat ($130). The price came to $51,445, including the $1,020 destination charge.

What Owners Say…

Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the new Cross Sport version of the 2020 Volkswagen Atlas, it is helpful to understand who buys this midsize SUV, and what they like most and least about their vehicles.

Compared to the midsize SUV segment as a whole, J.D. Power data shows that Atlas owners are more likely to be male (61% vs. 56%), are younger in terms of median age (44 years vs. 56 years), and earn more in terms of annual household income ($147,321 vs. $116,933).

While the Atlas is made in Chattanooga, TN, buyers are less likely to agree that they prefer to buy a vehicle from a domestic company (35% vs. 56%). Furthermore, 47% of Atlas owners strongly agree that they avoid vehicles with high maintenance costs (vs. 65%), 42% strongly agree that a first consideration when choosing a vehicle is quality of workmanship (vs. 51%), and 52% strongly agree that a first consideration when choosing a vehicle is reliability (vs. 67%). When it comes to fuel economy, 43% of Atlas owners agree that this is a first consideration when choosing a vehicle (vs. 56%).

What’s the common thread for choosing the Atlas? The styling. J.D. Power data shows that 82% of Atlas owners like a vehicle that stands out from the crowd (vs. 69%) while just 29% agree that to them a vehicle is just a way of getting from place to place (vs. 37%).

Owners say their favorite things about the Atlas are (in descending order) the exterior styling, storage and space, driving dynamics in a tie with visibility and safety, and interior design. Owners indicate their least favorite things about the Atlas are (in descending order) the seats, infotainment system, climate control system, engine/transmission, and by a significant margin fuel economy.

In the J.D Power 2019 Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study, the Atlas ranked ninth out of 21 models.

What Our Expert Says… 

In the sections that follow, our expert provides her own perceptions about how the 2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport measures up in each of the 10 categories that comprise the APEAL Study.

Exterior

People who choose the Volkswagen Atlas love the way it looks, and it’s certainly striking, with a massive grille and titanic fender flares that wouldn’t look out of place on a full-size pickup truck. Every design cue expounds on the idea that this is a big, bold, and brash SUV.

2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport SEL Premium R-Line Pure Gray Rear View

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

The new 2020 Atlas Cross Sport charts a similar course, identical to the standard Atlas until you reach the rear third of the vehicle, where it trades in the utility afforded by a boxy design for the attractive sportiness of a sloped roof and angled rear liftgate. R-Line design emphasizes the look with restyled front and rear bumpers and exclusive machined-finish 21-inch alloy wheels.

Interior

Inside the Atlas Cross Sport, you’ll find a cohesive, well-designed cabin that’s also a touch bland. The SUV’s T-square exterior aesthetic extends to the interior, which is primarily composed of straight lines and right angles with few swoops or curves to attract the eye.

2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport SEL Premium R-Line Red Black Seats Dashboard

Photo: Christian Wardlaw

Though expected at the Atlas Cross Sport’s base price, the abundance of cheap-feeling plastics throughout the cabin is harder to accept at the as-tested price. But the huge panoramic sunroof and 2-tone leather interior go a long way towards assuaging complaints.

Seats

Slip into the front seats of the Atlas Cross Sport, and you’ll notice how much room there is between the driver and passenger, which makes the SUV feel roomy and huge at the same time.

Thanks to the test vehicle’s 10-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, it is easy to find a good driving position, but a little more cushioning and side bolstering would increase comfort. Passengers will appreciate the available 8-way power-adjustable front passenger’s seat.

Though the Cross Sport is shorter than a standard Atlas, it provides plenty of space in the second row, with lots of leg and shoulder room. However, similar to the chairs up front, the seat cushions in back are flat and featureless. Passengers will appreciate the USB charging ports and will find the 115-volt AC power outlet useful.

Climate Control System

Ranking low on Atlas owners’ lists of their favorite things about the SUV, the climate control system could prove displeasing on even mildly warm afternoons.

Tested in Southern California during the final weeks of spring, the system had trouble cooling the cabin when running errands in the suburbs of Los Angeles, especially when the engine’s automatic engine stop/start system engaged. Unfortunately, the ventilated seat function wasn’t of as much help as I would’ve liked, either.

Driving on the highway, the engine running continuously, resolved the issue. Shutting down the automatic stop/start technology using the button on the center console would likely help, too.

As far as operating the climate system is concerned, the controls are easy to access, featuring clearly marked buttons and three big knobs. Second-row air conditioning vents help to cool rear-seat passengers.

Infotainment System

Volkswagen offers three different infotainment systems for the Atlas Cross Sport, and the loaded test vehicle had the most comprehensive version.

Regardless of the system, they all provide the right number of buttons, knobs, and infotainment display shortcuts to make using them easy. However, the maximum 8-inch touchscreen display size is average at best, and the system proved less responsive and accurate than expected. If you get flummoxed by the VW-supplied software, you can always use Apple CarPlay or Android Auto smartphone integration for a more familiar user interface.

Digital instrumentation is available for the Atlas Cross Sport, allowing you to choose between different themes and further personalize the information you want to see. Better yet, it’s not just for show, proving genuinely useful in day-to-day driving.

Storage and Space

The Atlas Cross Sport excels at giving you space to store your stuff.

Volkswagen proves a useful upper dashboard tray to make it easy to keep an eye on your smaller items, and there’s a lower tray forward of the transmission selector perfect for your smartphone. (The test vehicle had a wireless charging pad there, too.) The glove box and center console bin are also generously sized, but the door panel bins are small and VW missed a chance to include one in the door panel armrests.

Open the rear hatch, and you’ll find 40.3 cu.-ft. of space behind the rear seat, significantly less than the 55.5 cu.-ft. that a regular Atlas provides, illustrating how the Cross Sport sacrifices cargo space at the altar of appearances. Fold the rear seats down, and where the regular Atlas astounds with 96.8 cu.-ft. of maximum cargo capacity, the Cross Sport supplies less at 77.8 cu.-ft.

Keep in mind, though, that the Cross Sport’s measurements are still generous in the midsize SUV category, and rest assured that the cargo area is wide and spacious.

Visibility and Safety

While the driver sits up nice and tall in the driver’s seat, it’s a bit difficult to gauge the Atlas Cross Sport’s dimensions, and thick roof pillars don’t help, creating some big blind spots. The test vehicle had a surround-view camera system and semi-autonomous parking assistance technologies that can help in this regard.

My test vehicle also came furnished with a full suite of crash prevention technologies, including forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning with lane-keeping assistance, adaptive cruise control, and blind-spot warning with rear cross-traffic warning.

Neither the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) nor the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has crash-tested the Atlas Cross Sport. The structurally similar standard Atlas got a 5-star overall rating from the NHTSA, while the IIHS gives it a score of Good in all crashworthiness parameters. However, the Atlas also gets a score of Marginal or Poor for headlight performance, depending on which set of lights the SUV has, disqualifying it from earning a Top Safety Pick designation.

Engine/Transmission

You can equip the Atlas Cross Sport with a 235-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine or with a 276-hp 3.6-liter V-6.

The test vehicle had the V-6, and while it is a bit burlier it is also tasked with moving 4,411 pounds of SUV before loading any passengers or cargo. When properly equipped, an Atlas Cross Sport with the V-6 engine can tow up to 5,000 lbs. of trailer, according to VW. 

Atlas owners do not rate this SUV’s engine and transmission high on their lists of favorite attributes. In my experience, the V-6 often feels overburdened for the task, offering unenthusiastic off-the-line acceleration in the drivetrain’s Normal mode (although it was livelier when merging onto freeways). Third-party publications say that it takes about eight seconds to get the Atlas Cross Sport from zero to 60 mph, which sounds about right.

An 8-speed automatic transmission transferred the power to the test vehicle’s AWD system, often hesitating to downshift in Normal driving mode. Putting the vehicle in Sport mode did hasten responsiveness a bit.

Fuel Economy

According to the EPA, a Cross Sport V-6 with AWD should get 19 mpg (16 city/22 highway) in combined driving conditions. This aligns with my 18.7-mpg average on a test loop with plenty of highway driving.

However, when you compare this number with similar midsize crossovers that offer average mileage ratings in the 20s, it’s no wonder that Atlas owners are so dissatisfied with this SUV’s fuel economy. In fact, full-size SUVs with 2-wheel-drive and supercharged Land Rovers are rated the same as the Atlas.

Driving Dynamics

Historically, Volkswagens deliver an enjoyable driving experience. Even air-cooled Beetles and Microbuses could be fun, if not for outright speed than for other reasons. But I didn’t find driving the Atlas Cross Sport to be as pleasurable as I’ve come to expect with most VW products.

In spite of the massive 21-inch wheels and tires, communication with the road was nowhere to be found, though grip certainly was good. And although the Atlas does give you a mostly serene commute, traversing bumps creates harshness in the ride quality, while pushing the SUV through sets of curves produces excessive wallow and roll on anything but glass-smooth pavement.

The steering is light and precise, but the turning circle of 40.5 feet, along with the Atlas’ sheer width and difficulty in judging where the corners are, makes you reconsider tight parking spaces. I had no beef with the brakes, however, and appreciated the quiet cabin.

Final Impressions

Most times when I test-drive a Volkswagen, I am in no hurry to give it back, as the time is usually spent pursuing fun adventures involving tight curves on lightly-travelled roads. The new 2020 Atlas Cross Sport doesn’t make me feel this same way. While it’s excellent family transportation, and offers plenty of useful features, modern technology, and undeniable utility, the driving experience itself is fairly forgettable.

Still, if you’re looking for a functional 5-passenger SUV wrapped in eye-turning styling, and one built in the USA (Chattanooga, Tennessee, which is just fun to say), the Atlas Cross Sport merits consideration. And as long as you can resist ladling on the optional goodies, it’s quite reasonably priced.

Liz Kim is a digital automotive journalist with 20 years of experience test-driving vehicles. In addition to JDPower.com, her work has appeared on numerous automotive websites. 

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