Power276 HP / 266 LB-FT
Towing5,000 LB Max
DEATH VALLEY, Calif. — If you’ve never been to Death Valley in July, stand in front of an open oven for about 10 minutes. The heat is both brutal and pervasive, affecting everything from your choice of clothing to your appetite to your endurance. It has a huge effect on machines, too, which is why automakers flock there during the summer to test their vehicles. If a car’s electronics or air conditioning can work in Death Valley, it can work just about anywhere. To give us a taste of what these vehicles go through during development, we flew out to the California desert to drive an early prototype of the upcoming Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport.
It was interesting to see the car being put through its paces in the desert heat. We saw Acura, Honda and Mercedes-Benz out testing camouflaged prototypes, too. The Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport were designed for North America, and internally Volkswagen considers the U.S. to be a “hot country.” In Death Valley, Volkswagen and other automakers perform temperature, durability and tow testing. They also test the intake and cabin filtration systems, too, to make sure the fine dust won’t muck up anything inside. Parts expand and contract in the heat, so Volkswagen checks for buzzes and rattles. Hot-weather testing led to changes on the tow package like upgraded radiator fans, a larger alternator and an additional fuse box. If you’re going to sell a car in America, it needs to come to Death Valley.
Although all the prototypes were covered in that oh-so recognizable black and white camouflage wrap, we’ve actually already seen the Cross Sport two-row crossover twice already. The first was a flashy concept that debuted at last year’s New York Auto Show, but the real preview came with the Teramont X at this year’s Shanghai Auto Show, representing about 95% of the final styling of the production crossover.
How does it differ from the Atlas we already have? Volkswagen chopped 5.7 inches from the rear of the Atlas and created a sharp, raking roofline. It’s a shorter, two-row version of a three-row crossover, and in that respect it’s a bit like the Honda Passport. But unlike that vehicle, the Cross Sport shares its wheelbase with the Atlas.
That also means that Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport have the same rear seat legroom. Headroom is down slightly, but it’s still pretty spacious inside. The same can be said for the front seats, too. Volkswagen didn’t give us the Cross Sport’s final specs, so we won’t know cargo volume for another few months. The Cross Sport will be lighter than the Atlas, too, but we couldn’t get a firm number from the engineers. The cargo area is deep and the seats fold flat, though the sharply raked glass cuts into the usable space.
Outside of the headroom and diminished cargo volume, the two Atlas siblings are nearly identical. Even the Cross Sport’s updated front fascia will carry over to the regular Atlas when that model gets a mid-cycle refresh in the near future. Outside of a new steering wheel, the pair share the same basic interior design, too. We did like the stylish red and black two-tone interior, a combo that’s unavailable on the three-row Atlas. We’re hoping that Volkswagen gives the Cross Sport some sporty flair to further distance itself from the standard Atlas.
Much of the dash was covered in camouflage, but a quick peek revealed the same center stack and infotainment screen. Overall, the interior itself is clean and well organized, though it lacks the Honda’s seemingly endless amount of storage and cubbies. It also feels cheap in places, especially the plasticky door panels and center console. That said, nothing in this class can be considered luxurious.
The Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport both pack Volkswagen’s ubiquitous 2.0-liter turbo inline four making 235 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, as well as a narrow-angle 3.6-liter V6 turning out 276 horsepower and 266 pound-feet of torque. All but the base trim come equipped with the V6. An eight-speed automatic is standard, as is front-wheel drive, though Volkswagen’s 4Motion all-wheel drive system is optional. We only had an opportunity to test a V6 model with all-wheel drive. Acceleration was adequate, though it’s far from brisk. The V6 often feels underpowered and overwhelmed, though the Cross Sport was quiet enough that the engines struggles were fairly muffled outside of full-throttle acceleration. We felt the same sluggishness when driving the Atlas for the first time. Despite the name, the Cross Sport is not a sportier version of the Atlas, just a more stylish one.
We tested the Cross Sport’s 5,000-pound towing capacity (with a V6, all-wheel drive and optional towing package) with a roughly 3,500-pound Airstream trailer. We don’t have a rating for the models without the tow package, but we expect it to be the same as the Atlas’ 2,000-pound capacity. Getting up to speed was an arduous affair, even on level pavement. On a long uphill grade, the Cross Sport’s engine was pegged at about 4,000 rpm. You had to leave the cruise set to avoid losing steam on the climb. The cruise helped when heading back down, too, braking and shifting to keep vehicle at a constant speed.
The pavement in Death Valley is smooth, though there are some big dips that could send you flying if you come in too hot. The unbroken asphalt means it’s not the best place to test a vehicle’s suspension, but a short blast down a gravel road provoked only a minor shudder on big bumps. It’s still a prototype, but Volkswagen says the tuning won’t differ much from the production car. The steering was smooth and light, and the turning radius — with or without the trailer — was fairly tight for a vehicle of its size. Outside of the engine, we walked away mostly impressed. For better or worse, it drives basically the same as the three-row Atlas.
The standard Atlas starts at $31,890, and while we don’t have pricing for the Cross Sport, expect a base price of around $30,000. That puts it right in line with competitors like the Honda Passport, Chevy Blazer, Nissan Murano and Ford Edge. Like those models, the Atlas Cross Sport is aimed at younger shoppers willing to forgo a bit of space in the name of style. People want the capability of an SUV, but don’t need space for seven people. Based on Volkswagen’s research, styling is the number one consideration when purchasing a five-seat SUV. Since the Atlas launched in 2017, Volskwagen has seen SUV sales increase from 17% of its volume to more than 50% in June 2019. With the loss of the Golf Sportwagen and Golf Alltrack, expect that number to climb even higher.
The 2020 Atlas Cross Sport will be built at Volkswagen’s factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee, alongside the regular Atlas and Passat and goes on sale early next year. Look for a debut sometime this fall, with our full first-drive review following sometime soon after that.