The chopped version of the big German SUV finds itself in an awkward spot.
VW’s large SUV offers good functionality and space for a family, as I noted when I first drove it in 2021, but felt it didn’t get enough respect as a reasonably-priced three-row SUV. Unfortunately the Atlas doesn’t get much love from buyers because there are more long-standing American options that often get picked as repeat purchases.
The German marque wanted buyers to give the Atlas another look, so it followed the crossover coupe trend, carving up the big SUV to give it slightly smaller proportions and smarter styling lines. Does that make it a better choice in a field full of bigger SUVs?
The Key Details
The VW Atlas Cross Sport’s competition includes the Chevy Blazer, Ford Edge, and Honda Passport (which I reviewed not long ago, in its off-road TrailSport trim) Compared to its full-size variant, the Atlas Cross Sport has a tapered roofline, taking away the option for a third-row seat. Losing five inches of overall length and two inches of height, I definitely like this shape more than the big body Atlas I reviewed after its refresh a couple years ago.
VW offers the Atlas Cross Sport with its 235-horsepower (with premium unleaded) 2.0-liter turbo standard and the 276-horsepower 3.6-liter VR6 as an optional upgrade on upper trim levels. Front-wheel-drive comes standard, with VW’s 4MOTION all-wheel-drive optional, and the AWD option allows Atlas Cross Sport drivers to also tick a box to add VW’s Active Control, which enables several terrain drive modes. Trim levels are SE and SEL, with technology package options to add more goodies.
Base price for the 4-cylinder Atlas Cross Sport is $35,150, and all-wheel-drive adds another $2000 to the sticker. Opt for the VR6, and the price begins at $41,070, with 4MOTION taking the figure up to $42,970. My tester is the base SE trim, with the tech package and added panoramic sunroof, hitting a total price of $40,575.
The Functional Family Hauler
Big SUV or not, the Atlas Cross Sport is nice to drive, providing dynamics you expect from VW. The steering is remarkably sharp for a vehicle of this size. You will be reminded of the Atlas’ proportions, and the suspension is nicely tuned for a hint of response, but without feeling harsh at all. Just don’t go tossing the Atlas around, thinking you’re in a GTI, because this is still a big car. The base 4-cylinder isn’t so hot in a big SUV, more suited to the GTI hot hatch it’s shared with. Having to lug around 4,400 pounds is a task the 3.6-liter VR6 is better at, which I appreciated having in the three-row Atlas I tested a couple years ago.
Seats are big and cushiony, but could use a bit more lateral support, and I’ll go into other thoughts on the seating surfaces in a moment. Despite not having a third-row seat, the Atlas Cross Sport still boasts a cavernous interior that five passengers will be comfortable riding in, so long as there are kids in the back seat. Cargo space in the rear hatch is gargantuan, with a pair of bins straddling each side of the boot, but I do wish there was a hint more organizational features designed into the Atlas Cross Sport.
VW’s updated MIB3 infotainment system is on-board, with an 8-inch touchscreen that incorporates wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. There’s also a wireless charging pad tucked under the center cluster. Volkswagen’s digital cockpit is standard on all Atlas Cross Sport models, and I appreciate how tidy the instrument cluster layout is, no matter which view you choose. I stuck with the more conventional look, but there’s a massive map view that’s helpful when you’re on a road trip.
Some Positive Points
When VW gave the Atlas a refresh a couple years ago, it was a big improvement. Not that the first generation was unattractive, but this new Atlas looks sharp and clean. No overly fake flares and angles, and no absurd body cladding to give a false impression of ruggedness. Even the vents in the front bumper are real.
Inside, Volkswagen was practical with the Atlas’ function, providing lots of spaces to tuck away your stuff, while being intuitive and close within reach. Since the switchgear in the Atlas is based on parts used in VW models for over a generation, we avoid the capacitive touch button setup that was my only big gripe in the Mk8 GTI I reviewed last year. There are real buttons and knobs everywhere you want them, even if they’re the same bits you get in the base model Golf that costs half as much as the Atlas.
Not So Wonderful Things
The base 4-cylinder SE trim of the Atlas Cross Sport has no drive modes for the powertrain nor terrain. You’ve got to upgrade to the bigger engine and then tick another option box to get both of those features, so the setup is a bit plain if you want more customization and personality. Because the four-banger is and engine more appropriately used in smaller, lighter cars in VW’s lineup, it’s working overtime in the Atlas, making a dent in its fuel economy. EPA estimates are 21/25/23, but I only achieved 20 during my week-long test.
When I discussed the comfort of the seats earlier, I didn’t dive into the coverings themselves, which is made from leatherette. I’ve felt some decent faux leather over the years, and the grade used in the Atlas Cross Sport is not great. The stitching work along the edges and door cards looks a bit cheap, and the fake carbon fiber look weave along the bolsters doesn’t make much sense. Not great from what should be considered a somewhat premium brand and model. The Honda Passport I reviewed holds an advantage here, but the Atlas is nicer inside than a Chevy Blazer or Ford Edge.
VW’s MIB infotainment works nicely, and has a responsive touchscreen, but having a very spartan UX theme and iconography makes you have to extend the time looking at the screen to tap the right app or make adjustments, which isn’t great while driving. Opt for the technology package if you’re buying a base model Atlas Cross Sport, which fits dual-zone climate control, keyless access, and remote start, even though I think those should be standard on a car in this class in 2023.
It’s Not Bad, But It Doesn’t Stand Out
VW did a good job of making the Atlas more attractive by offering this Cross Sport body style. I think it’s the right Atlas to get, if you want a big VW as your family car. By taking away some of the dimensions of the three-row Atlas, you’re still getting an SUV that feels big while only being a two-row seating model. While it’s better than many of the competitors VW feels it has, the Atlas Cross Sport slid into another class, almost by accident.
Now viewed as a two-row SUV, there are other crossovers that are more attractive than the Atlas Cross Sport in several ways. The Honda Passport is good, reliable, and looks the part as a rugged smaller SUV, but it’s not as great as engaging to drive. Instead, I think Mazda’s new CX-50 I recently enjoyed is the right choice for a two-row midsized crossover, not just because of its cooler styling, but its interior is more upscale, and the driving impressions are better than any affordable crossover I’ve tested.