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 …
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