Style matters, but it's far from everything.
You know that guy who wears a fake Rolex solely to impress? On the surface, sure, you can hardly tell the difference. Look closer, however, and you notice what gives it away: A Rolex doesn’t tick. This Atlas Cross Sport SEL is the fake Rolex of the car world. That sounds harsh, but it’s because from a big carmaker like Volkswagen, a vehicle that looks as good as this, you come to expect so much more, and especially at this example’s $43,095 MSRP. If you’re ready for a literary massacre, though, read until the end as some hope will be offered.
Start at the outside, and that’s why the Cross Sport exists - to look at. It’s pretty, elegant, and even muscular with its big haunches filled by 20 inch wheels. To simplify, it looks like an Audi Q8, and not even a discount Audi Q8. Compared to the normal Atlas, the roofline has been slightly raked to give a more sporty profile. What this does to the inside is limit the Cross Sport to two rows only, versus the three in the regular Atlas. Only two rows, but the Atlas Cross Sport is a vast piece of metal. Some cars can be large, yet look smaller, but this is not one of those. It’s big, and it looks even bigger. Unfortunately, the looks are really where the plusses of this vehicle end and the minuses begin.
Powering the giant is a small 2.0L turbocharged 4-cylinder, rated for 235 horsepower and 258 foot pounds of torque. Sounds decent enough on paper, after all, as BMW has gotten away for the past 8+ years with engines with almost exactly the same power ratings from the same sized engine. Except, those BMW engines achieve better economy and way faster on the road. 0-60 took 8.03 seconds in the Atlas, while 50-70 passing required 4.24. On a decent freeway grade, that passing time slowed to 6.38. It’s funny because, at slower speeds, the engine feels plenty peppy enough, but once you ask for more, it just doesn’t really seem to increase in power, running out of puff early. For example, a BMW X3 takes only 6.2 seconds to hit 60 with a 248 HP 2.0L according to Car & Driver. So where’s all the VW’s power going then?
The EPA gives a dismal fuel economy rating, too, claiming an estimated 18 city and only 23 freeway. In my driving at least, I was able to increase the highway number to a respectable 28.7. However, that’s still less than what a much more powerful V6 Highlander achieves and even more less than what that same BMW engine would get. Overall, though, I only averaged 19.5 MPG, almost 2 less than the 21.3 I got in the V6 Highlander. Any four-cylinder vehicle averaging under 20 MPG just doesn’t cut it. I’d be interested to know what the optional V6 would get.
Driving wise, it’s merely okay. The steering is greatly overboosted, as you can navigate any corner with just one finger; It’s that light. There’s also no feel, and for a vehicle with Sport in the name, it clearly has no sporting intentions when it comes to the twisties and overall body control, feeling sloppy and cumbersome. Pulling away from stops, the throttle response was occasionally too aggressive, causing it to lurch away rather annoyingly. On the plus, it was quiet with a decent ride, shrugging off most bumps, but larger imperfections and potholes did seem to upset the chassis and cause a crashing effect felt through the car. The 4Motion all-wheel drive system thankfully did prevent any torque steer, too. If looking for a sporting SUV, this Atlas is a sport in name only.
Now, onto the interior. I’m sorry, but for over $40,000 and it being 2020, it simply does not work. The leatherette seats don’t feel particularly nice, and they have next to no support. Driving around just about any corner saw my shoulders leaving the confines of the seat - and I’m a small bloke! Squeeze the seats near an edge and it feels like mush.
The aesthetic and design of the interior is very 2010, having nothing that steals your eyes away in showmanship. Lots of hard plastics dominate the space, too. It’s big, though, cavernous even. The seat can be lowered an impressive amount, but by that time, the vehicle just feels even larger. Rear seat space is enormous, but passengers did not like the seats. Where the third row would go is now a gigantic cargo area, so points there, and the large moonroof was a nice touch as well.
The gauge cluster had VW Group’s neat navigation screen integrated in, but it’s distracting at times. The cluster itself had way too many options and unnecessary information. It was also tough to control, with there being literally 5 different buttons on the steering wheel to click through your onboard info. Weirder, the interior had a smell not unlike crayons. It was more noticeable on warmer days with the Atlas sitting outside.
The Atlas Cross Sport SEL is impossible to recommend. Once you get past the looks, it’s not great to drive, has a thirsty and weak engine, and an interior wholly undeserving of the price tag. Now, what are your options? You could step up to the SEL Premium with a V6 (which adds even more to the price) and real leather, but by that point you’re at nearly 50 grand. That’s well past Telluride and Palisade money, and into BMW X3 and Volvo XC90s, all four of which are not luxury and style pretenders, but the real McCoys.
But, there’s a silver lining. You can get a Cross Sport 4Motion SE for almost $6K less. Looking at the spec sheets of both, it’s tremendously better value. You get the same leatherette interior, same 4Motion All-Wheel Drive, same great looks, same blind spot monitoring and forward collision, but you do lose the 20” wheels. For another $2K at $38,865 you can have the same but with the 20s back on. At these prices, the Cross Sport becomes a much better proposition as it now has some value to it. Over $40 grand like this one, and the expectations of what a $40k car should be just completely kill it on arrival. But below the 40k threshold, it’s hard to beat the style and size of the Atlas Cross Sport, and the other flaws become more forgivable.
So, Cross Sport SEL? Hard pass. But the lower, more affordable trims could be worth a much more interesting look if all what you’re wanting is a stylish and spacious SUV under $40,000.
Atlas Cross Sport 2.0L SEL 4Motion
As-Tested Price $43,095
Road Beat Rating: 2/5
Pros: Perceived Style, style, and style
Cons: Expensive, not special to drive, dated, cheap, and uninspired interior
Verdict: Stylish, but at this price forget it; Get the SE trim instead.
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