It turns out the US buyer will embrace the hatch as long as you supersize it first.
In February, back before the coronavirus came for our trade shows, I lamented the current desire among the car-buying public for ever more massive SUVs. By month’s end, I found myself behind the wheel of one—normally something we task Managing Editor Bangeman with, for he likes his vehicles on the larger side. It’s Volkswagen’s new Atlas Cross Sport, a five-seater that is mechanically identical to the three-row Atlas, though it sports a more rakish look above the belt line. It proved to be quite a thought-provoking drive, not for any clever new technology or radically different driving experience but because of what it reveals about Americans and their attitudes toward cars—some of which you may find unpalatable.
Actually, Americans do like hatchbacks
A couple of years ago, I called the VW Jetta a “quintessentially American Volkswagen.” I’d like to retract that old headline now, because although the Jetta was responsible for much of VW’s growth in pre-dieselgate times, I was completely off-base. It’s true, adding a trunk to the globally popular Golf hatchback was the missing step to selling smaller cars in the United States. But contrary to popular belief, Americans don’t dislike the hatchback per-se—they just don’t want ’em small. But if you were to take that small hatchback and subject it to a growth ray or whatever the CAD tool equivalent is, it turns out they fly off the shelves. VW’s sales have been up for the past three years, and that’s all down to two models, the Tiguan and the Atlas, which made up 53 percent of its sales in 2019.
So, the Atlas Cross Sport (and the Atlas before it) is a much truer example of an American people’s wagon.
Despite their wildly different sizes and automotive niches, the Jetta and Atlas Cross Sport are much more closely related than you might think. They’re both products of VW’s MQB (Modularer Querbaukasten, or Modular Transverse Toolkit) architecture, which lets it build a wide range of machines with transverse-mounted engines and lots of common components. MQB vehicles have a fixed dash-to-axle ratio, but the designers have a lot of freedom in almost every other dimension, and in the Atlas and now the Atlas Cross Sport, they hit the supersize button.
Using MQB also means that the end product is much more affordable than the similarly sized Touareg SUV. That one shares a different, longitudinally mounted engine architecture with Audi and Porsche, and a combination of production costs and import duties means VW no longer imports it to the United States. Which is why we won’t see the 456hp (340kW) plug-in hybrid Touareg R this side of the Atlantic.
This is the 21st-century answer to the full-size sedan of the ’70s
During the product presentation, VW explained why the Atlas Cross Sport exists at a time when it can sell as many regular Atlases as Chattanooga can churn out. The answer is as simple as “we’re leaving money on the table.” The Atlas is a three-row SUV, and those are all the rage with families, just like the minivan used to be and the station wagon before it. But people age and their kids move out, and that third row becomes surplus to requirements. And some people never needed seven seats in the first place but still want to drive something big and imposing. In the old days, they would buy a full-size sedan; now, here, in the future, they’ll buy this 16.25-foot (4.95m) gigantohatch instead.
It’s hard to deny there’s logic behind that desire. Crash tests reinforce the fact that bigger cars are safer than smaller ones. A hatchback cargo area is easier to load and unload than the trunk of a sedan, and it’s more extensible since you can fold either or both of the seats flat. The older you get, the easier it is to climb into an upright SUV rather than a low-riding sedan. And there is something to be said about the commanding view you get from the driver’s seat, even if it does mask a child-swallowing blindspot up front.
So the Atlas Cross Sport exists for those people who, in the past, might have gone for a Passat. Or more probably, people who wouldn’t have considered a VW in the past, when it was better known for selling efficient little cars—much of VW’s growth over the past three years has been from people new to the brand.
Americans don’t care about dieselgate
In 2015, Volkswagen got caught lying to the US government about the contents of its diesel exhaust, at which point Uncle Sam made an example of the carmaker with billions of dollars in fines. And if you were tasked with estimating VW’s sales prowess based on comments to online articles, you might think the company was at the doors of bankruptcy. Internet commenters may still vow never to darken the brand’s doors again, but as already mentioned, VW sales have increased year on year for the past three years. 2019’s performance is more notable since it occurred when the rest of the car market was contracting. It turns out, most Americans just don’t care about dieselgate. Either they forgave VW for what turned out to be an industry-wide practice, or they never even noticed in the first place.
If you are a car-buyer who cares about the environment, the Atlas Cross Sport probably shouldn’t be on your shopping list. A FWD 2.0L Atlas Cross Sport (235hp/175kW and 258lb-ft/350Nm) manages just 22mpg combined (10.7l/100km), and both FWD and AWD V6es (276hp/205kW and 266lb-ft/360Nm) achieve a mere 19mpg (12.4l/100km). Hilariously, the EPA also categorizes the Atlas Cross Sport as a “small SUV,” a fact that I only learned this morning and am still trying to process.
OK, pretend I don’t care about that mpg and tell me more
The Atlas Cross Sport starts at $30,425 in stripped-out front-wheel-drive spec. AWD is a $1,900 premium over FWD, and a V6 will add $2,000 to the MSRP, but a fully loaded V6, all-wheel drive SEL Premium R-Line still comes in under $50,000. So you needn’t work at a hedge fund or Bay Area unicorn to afford one. Unless you plan to tow more than 2,000lbs (907kg), we’d skip the more expensive, more thirsty V6 since it’s barely any more powerful, and as long as you fit snow tires when it snows, you’d probably be fine with the front-driving Atlas Cross Sport. Instead, use that cash to go up the trim-level escalator.
Every Atlas Cross Sport gets things like LED headlights, forward collision warning and emergency braking (including pedestrian detection), blind-spot monitors, and rear cross-traffic alerts, and most of them get adaptive cruise control as well. All but the base Atlas Cross Sport S get an 8-inch MIB II infotainment system, and in the SEL trim, this also includes navigation. Even the 6.5-inch unit in the Atlas Cross Sport S has Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but it does only come with two USB ports compared to the five you get with the 8-inch version. You’ll also want the SEL or SEL Premium trims if you crave VW’s digital main instrument display.
The Atlas Cross Sport I drove came fitted with a rather sombre black interior, although VW’s stock images reveal there are less funereal ways to decorate its insides. On the SEL and SEL Premium, this is alleviated somewhat by the panoramic glass roof. The plastics all feel hard-wearing, and given the expansive rear leg room—40.4 inches (1m)—I could see an Atlas Cross Sport working well as a car-service vehicle, ferrying people to the airport and such like. With the rear seats in use, there’s still 40.3 cubic feet (1,141l) of cargo space; fold them down and that grows to 77.8 cubic feet (2,203l).
The driving experience is best described as unobjectionable. The vehicle rolls a little in the corners, but the ride is pretty good at filtering out bad road surfaces. It’s not what you’d call fast, even with six cylinders under the hood.
VW will surely sell Atlas Cross Sports by the tens of thousands, which just reinforces to me how out of step I appear to be with mainstream America.