You know how sometimes in movies, the camera will focus on an object that completely and unequivocally conveys that a character has gone mad? Think All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy in The Shining. Well, the 2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport is one such object, and it’s confirming that the modern American car market has lost it.
I’m not saying the Atlas Cross Sport is a bad vehicle, because it’s not, at all. It’s capable and handsome enough. It drives competently if a bit uninspiringly, and it can certainly be practical. I suspect Volkswagen will sell a metric assload of these things.
But the target buyers for the car, as explained to me by Volkswagen, seem to have been generated entirely within the strange bubble of modern car marketing, a bubble that has twisted the needs and desires of people to such a degree and so completely that I’m not even sure most of us are capable of realizing what’s happened. I’ll talk about this in more detail a bit later.
And then there’s the design of the Atlas Cross Sport. It’s supposed to be a smaller, sportier version of the Atlas, a two-row SUV instead of a three-row, the sort of coupé version to the Atlas’ wagon, or, if you’ll indulge me in some historic VW analogizing, the Type 3 Fastback to the Atlas’ Squareback.
I think the Type 3 siblings are a good example of how this idea is supposed to work: You have one basic platform and design language, and you can make two cars that are clearly related, but with dramatically different characters so that they appeal to different groups.
There were significant stylistic and practicality differences between the Fastback and Squareback—one is clearly a roomy wagon, one a fastback coupé. They have the same parts and everything below the windows is almost the same design. It’s just that their different rooflines diverge enough to make two very separate cars.
The same concept applies to the regular Atlas and the Atlas Cross Sport—they’re the same from the beltline down, just like the old Type 3s were. Same wheelbase, same platform, same engines, same driving style.
But the difference here—and I think the mad part—is that the Cross Sport is like a 63/64th-scale Atlas. Yes, it has no third-row option, but the differences in size and look are incredibly—I think, ridiculously—subtle.
Here are both cars, side by side:
The Cross Sport has an updated front end and all-new LED lighting, which I’m told will be applied to the full-size Atlas as well. Aside from some bits of trim, they’re the same from below the windows down. The Cross Sport has a different windshield and rear rake, a more inward-tapering greenhouse, and a more raked roofline.
That sounds like a lot, and, fundamentally, are the same sorts of differences between a Squareback and a Fastback, but look how small these changes really are on the Atlas/Cross Sport:
See the blue outline there? That’s the Cross Sport’s revised design. Outside, it’s about five inches shorter in length, two inches in height, same width, same wheelbase. Visually, the most obvious thing is the rearmost side window is now a little triangle instead of a larger window. You lose a few inches of headroom in the back seat, gain a few in rear-seat legroom, and have a smaller—but still pretty vast—cargo area.
Still unsure? Here’s a little flipbook of the Cross Sport roof flipping on and off the regular Atlas roof, via the arrows:
Honestly, that two-tone effect makes it look way more dramatic than it actually is. VW should offer that as an option.
OK, I think we all get it now. It’s an Atlas without a third row and a more raked C-pillar. In person, where reality isn’t a slideshow that can flip between the two looks, you barely notice a difference from a normal Atlas.
They’re both really big vehicles, they both have the same sort of look and presence, and if you really notice the slightly more raked rear, then you’d have to give a shit about Atlases in a way that I’m not sure is possible in a normal, well-socialized human being.
Did this really need to be a new model with new sheetmetal? Why didn’t VW just make a two-row Atlas trim level? It would have accomplished everything the Cross Sport does, and looked about as good.
Or, if VW really wanted a sportier variant of the Atlas, and they were committed to reworking all that metal, why wouldn’t they do more? What’s the point of a coupe version that requires the average person to Google pictures of the car to confirm they’re looking at the sporty one?
It’s not like the Cross Sport isn’t attractive for what it is—it’s got a nice crisp design, overall that I think works well. It does have some unfortunate details, though, like some of the worst fake exhausts I’ve seen:
Some trim levels divide the fake exhausts into four fake exhausts, two on each side, which in no way helps sell these stupid things as real. They should take them and make the insides a little step/pocket for your foot to help you load stuff on the roof rack, and then they’d at least have a reason to exist.
I do like this full-width rear reflector, though:
The point is, the Cross Sport looks just fine, but so does the normal Atlas, and these two vehicles are so close in look and size and use that I think it’s sort of unhinged that Volkswagen decided this needed to be a separate machine instead of a two-row Atlas.
What’s also bonkers is what I alluded to earlier: the target market for the Cross Sport. The demographic I heard referenced more than any other by VW’s PR people was “empty nesters.” You know, parents who have either had their kids finally move out or kicked them out or gotten rid of them in some way, leaving just the two of them in peace to finally enjoy all of the hobbies and vices and things they couldn’t do while directly responsible for the lives of their offspring.
Traditionally, “empty nester” cars have been smaller and sportier, fun things that could give up the practicality of a family car. Think Miatas or Porsche 911s. BRZs if you’re sporty or a Camry Solara if you’re... not. Or other convertibles or coupés or things like that.
But even if this thing is marginally smaller than an Atlas, that’s not what the Cross Sport is, at all. It’s still huge. It’s a station wagon on big tires, like all SUVs, and as such it could absolutely, no question be a viable, practical family car for a family of four, or even five.
And yet, when I suggested this to the marketing and PR people, they looked at me as if I was an absolute drooling simpleton.
“This tiny little thing?” they seemed to say. “Why, it only has four doors and two rows of seats and 40 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seat up, and 70 cubic feet with the back seat down! How could any family possibly manage to cram themselves into something like that?”
I felt like I was going nuts. There were people there honestly trying to convince me that there’s no way this could make sense for a family. That’s how we’ve all gotten here in America with SUVs. The idea that, somehow, this big-ass thing is best suited for just two people is absolute madness.
I mean, look at the cargo area here, with all the seats up:
It’s huge. Even with that two-point-something inch shorter roof, it’s vast. It’s suited to an empty nester couple if, say, that couple liked to take weekend road trips but simply can’t imagine traveling without a small piano.
The Cross Sport is bigger than any family car my family had growing up, except maybe for the Ford Country Squire, but even then in length only—this brute towers over the old Ford.
It’s also sort of similar to that old Ford in one other, far less flattering way: fuel economy. Well, it’s not that bad, but it’s, OK, nevermind, it’s bad:
There are full-sized pickup trucks that get better mileage these days. A four-cylinder Volkswagen should not be delivering the same mpg as a six-cylinder F-150.
There are two engine options, same as the Atlas: that two-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, and a 3.6-liter V6. The four makes 235 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque, and the V6 makes 41 more horses and eight more pound-feet.
I mostly drove the V6, and while it’s certainly adequate, it’s not really a terribly thrilling engine. It does the job and keeps to itself while it’s doing it, like a competent landscaper, or something, but it’s hardly exhilarating.
And yet for all that lack of thrill, the V6 can get as low as 16 mpg in the city with AWD, 22 on the highway, for 19 combined. That sucks.
The four is a little better, with the FWD setup managing 21 city/24 highway, 22 combined, but, let’s be honest, that’s not exactly great either.
All of this just reminds you that, yes, this is a big-ass vehicle, and very clearly—to eyes and brains not under the influence of PR LSD, maybe a lot more car than just two people really need.
Why doesn’t VW push the lovely Arteon for this “empty nester” market? It’s got room for four people and luggage, it can at least get into the 30s mpg-wise on the highway, and looks a hell of a lot cooler than the Cross Sport, if you ask me.
I mean, I know why they don’t: because somehow, we’ve all been convinced we need huge SUVs, and we’re all under a spell of collective insanity.
More than half of VW’s sales last year were SUVs, and that’s where all the growth is, and that’s what’s going to sell this year, too. VW’s not run by fools, and they’re just building what people want. It seems very likely what they want will be things like the Atlas Cross Sport.
But that doesn’t mean I just have to blindly accept that. The car is, fundamentally, fine for what it is. No, it’s not really engaging to drive, but it sure as hell is easy to drive, and it comes with all the modern shit that makes cars really, really easy to drive, including dynamic cruise and lane-keeping assist and even a traffic jam version of dynamic cruise that will let you pretty much ignore the gas and brake pedals at speeds under 37 mph.
(I think VW’s aware that it’s kind of a snooze to drive, because the driving portion of the trip, from Vancouver to Whistler, was really pretty short.)
The interior looks good and is comfortable, and, happily, VW has included some options with two-tone seat colors that will prevent the interior from becoming the default sea of black on black on black materials.
You know what this car could be great as? An Uber car. It’s roomy, easy to drive, plenty of cargo room for airport runs, all that. Well, only if there were, say a super-stripped down base version that was cheaper, because, even though it’s less than the normal Atlas, it’s not all that cheap.
The four-cylinder, FWD trim levels start at $30,545, about a grand less than a base Atlas, and go up to almost $48,000 for the loaded, R-Line four-banger. The extra two cylinders start at $37,345 and go up to nearly $50,000 for the V6 R-Line with AWD.
Those prices are about on par with competitors like the Kia Telluride, which is also an excellent big SUV, and also gets similarly uninspiring mpgs and is way, way bigger than most couples without kids would ever need.
So, overall, what the hell is the Atlas Cross Sport? In a word, unnecessary. Everything this is and does could have been done with a two-row version of the Atlas.
VW’s idea to make a sportier, less dependent on practicality and space SUV is not necessarily a bad idea, but if they’re going to bother, they really should have pushed it further, because, as it is, who really gives a shit?
And, as far as this thing being great for single people or couples or empty nesters or whatever, it’s time to splash some water on your face and wake the fuck up.
Sure, if you’re a couple who regularly refinishes furniture or has two to four big-ass dogs, maybe a pair of Great Danes that you dress up like Sherlock Hound and Woofson, then perhaps this thing would be a good choice.
But for normal couples looking for a car? What’s wrong with a Golf, or even better, a GTI? That’d be a way better car to get after the kids are gone! It’s still plenty practical, and actually will be engaging to drive!
Break away from this stupid spell of SUV everything, because that’s precisely the madness that causes shit like this, a fractionally smaller version of a huge SUV marketed, bafflingly, as a sort of rakish little runabout.
It’s not. The Atlas Cross Sport is an Atlas with one less row of seats and a slightly more slanted roofline. That’s it. Don’t be fooled into buying a gas-sucking huge, numb-driving beast (though admittedly fine and practical) just because that’s what everyone else is doing.
You’re better than that, and your car can be, too.