Mountain Wheels: Volkswagen’s slightly chopped Atlas Cross Sport changes its SUV character
Given the tremendously busy summer it has been on Colorado’s roads despite pandemic restrictions, I took a gamble that a rainy and overcast Friday afternoon west-to-east transit on Independence Pass might make for a lighter traffic day. And a great way to check out the longer-range pleasures of Volkswagen’s new Atlas Cross Sport, the slightly chopped and shortened, five-passenger version of its revolutionary full-sized, American-assembled SUV (priced at $49,350 in its absolutely top-of-the-line SEL premium package).
Well, not quite. It was still extraordinarily busy. And as I spent the first portion of the trip in a long line of traffic following two over-ambitious guys in a full-blown cube van precariously weaving down the middle of those awful one-lane, mountain-hugging roads, I realized it might have been a better test spot for that week’s other automobile, the small-but-not-compact Buick Encore CUV.
And that’s for two big reasons, neither of which is the stylish, comfortable and not small Atlas Cross Sport’s fault. Firstly, its raw size. As those of you who’ve done Independence Pass know, those aforementioned one-lane spots are terrifying, especially with oodles and oodles of oncoming vehicles inching by each other.
While the new Atlas variant has indeed lost 2.2 inches of height and 5.2 inches of length (now 67.8 inches high and 195.5 inches long) from its standard model, it feels as wide inside as a Humvee or maybe Atlas’ distant Volkswagen family cousin, the Lamborghini Huracán.
The latter turns out to be true: That ultra-wide Lambo is 75.7 inches wide, and both Atlases are 78.4, which does not give you a hell of a lot of elbow room on tiny mountain roads.
This was compounded, as I finally found a spot wide enough to pass the box brothers — scarily slapping brush branches with my left-side mirror as I did — and the absolutely floored pedal did not produce the explosive power I had hoped for.
Granted, I was at about 10,500 feet and the Cross Sport was equipped with its larger, naturally aspirated 276-horsepower/266 pound-feet, 3.6-liter VR6 engine rather than perhaps a smallish-sounding 2.0-liter turbocharged four and its 235 horsepower. But I am guessing a 235-horsepower/258 pound-feet turbo might be the better idea if you are doing a lot of very high-altitude passing.
I was dogged by the same problem going up Colorado Highway 91 to the Climax Mine, and even with the pedal literally glued to the floorboards, the V6 was sadly underpowered.
The Atlas Cross Sport has a considerable amount of metal to haul around — it weighs about 4,411 pounds in its V6/4Motion all-wheel drive setup — so engine choice is critical. I will say that it handles in a remarkable fashion despite its size and a set of super-wide, 20-inch tires on this premium model. The 4Motion system, on dry roads, optimizes power independently front-and-back and to all four wheels. I even got a torque-vectoring feel from the electronic differential locks and brakes on sharp corners that really did give the large vehicle a sporty (downhill) character, perhaps psychologically aided by a flat-bottomed race wheel.
Later, I got stuck in that record downpour on Interstate 70, with literally inches of water on the highway east of Idaho Springs, and despite wide tires and a wide body, 4Motion kept the Cross Sport absolutely grounded. For that, I was thankful. You can also use the Active Control knob to dial up snow, off-road and custom settings.
In a way, it’s very similar in layout and size to its other family cousin, the Audi Q8, itself a chopped, five-passenger vehicle version of the much larger, three-row Q7. Minus, of course, the 335-horsepower turbo V6 that vehicle offers and a $68,200 starting price, or the totally frightening 591-horsepower RS Q8 at just $114,500.
In Volkswagen land, the Cross Sport begins at less than half of that. At $30,545, and minus the raw power angle, you get very much the same platform. Mine was equipped with a Weather Guard Muddy Buddy tray that covered the entire rear cargo area plus Velcro-attached pads on the backs of the second-row seats, creating a ginormous area that was so big I slid an entire Ikea couch in, effortlessly, the sharply angled rear window totally closed. Total volume is 77.8 cubic feet, maybe a tad shallow because of the lowered roofline, but totally set up for bicycles, ski gear or the whole range of lifestyle stuff.
High-tech features like an all-digital instrument panel, a very good 360-degree camera, the oversized infotainment screen also add to the experience as do a set of very aggressively side-bolstered, heated and ventilated seats.
Andy Stonehouse’s column “Mountain Wheels” publishes Saturdays in the Summit Daily News. Stonehouse has worked as an editor and writer in Colorado since 1998, focusing on automotive coverage since 2004. He lives in Greeley. Contact him at email@example.com.
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