Excessive where it matters: 2021 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport

2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport V-6 SEL Premium

By Chuck Giametta

What changes will make the 2021 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport different?

Very little in the sophomore season for this startlingly voluminous five-seat midsize-crossover SUV. The Cross Sport will return with a choice of four- and six-cylinder engines, front- or all-wheel drive, and oodles of passenger and cargo room. Volkswagen in fact touts this crossover as “excessive where it matters.” 

Seeking a rival for the likes of the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ford Edge, VW created the Cross Sport by shrinking the body of its seven-passenger Atlas crossover. It cut overall length 5 inches, lowered the roofline 2.3 inches, jettisoned the third seating row, and grafted on a sloped hatchback. The 2021 Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport share powertrains and, significantly, wheelbases (the distance between front and rear axles). That 117.3-inch span gives Cross Sport the longest wheelbase of any two-row midsize crossover and helps account for its spacious interior.

Should I wait for the 2021 Atlas Cross Sport or buy a 2020?

2020 Atlas Cross Sport V-6 SEL Premium

Little reason to wait. The ’21 Cross Sport will return virtually unchanged, although it’s almost certain to cost more. Buying a ’20 helps you avoid that increase, and it positions you for Covid-19-related incentives and discounts that may not be in place once the ’21 Cross Sport arrives.

Expect no noteworthy revisions until a midcycle refresh, probably around model-year 2024. Wait that long and you may be able to audition some Cross Sport variations. The lightly disguised concept version VW used to preview this crossover in 2018 was a plug-in hybrid. It teamed the production model’s V-6 engine with two electric motors for a net 355 horsepower, a 0-60-mph time of 5.4 seconds, and an electric-only range of 26 miles. VW also mentioned a conventional-hybrid possibility with 310 horsepower and a 6.5-second 0-60 time. Finally, don’t be surprised if there’s a pickup-truck spinoff. VW’s Tarok concept is basically a Cross Sport with an open cargo bed and a fold-down cabin pass-through.

The 2021 Cross Sport should carryover a broad 10-model lineup, each grade with its own set of features; indeed, the ’20 Cross Sport offered just two options: a V-6 towing package and a panoramic sunroof. Look S, SE, and SEL grades to return, with all but the S available as Technology-package, racy R-Line, and luxurious Premium submodels.      

Will 2021 Atlas Cross Sport styling be different?

2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport V-6 SEL Premium

Not beyond a possible new color choice or two. All ’21 Cross Sports will again feature a muscled-up profile with a high beltline and prominent wheel arches. Cross Sport’s grille and front fascia were templates for the facelifted 2021 Atlas, the first changes to that crossover since its model-year-2018 introduction. Beyond the already-noted dimensional disparities, the ’21 Cross Sport will continue to differ from the Atlas in its tapered roofline and more sharply defined liftgate and taillamps.

All models should return with full LED exterior lighting and roof rails, with visual differences mostly down to wheel sizes: 18-inch alloys for the S and SE, 20s for SE Tech, SE R-Line, and SEL, and 21s for the SEL-based R-Line, Premium, and Premium R-Line. SELs will gain get full chrome window surrounds, while R-Line variants again stand out further with two-tone machined wheels, black-accented R-line bumpers, R-Line badging, and stainless-steel gas- and brake-pedal caps.

2020 Atlas Cross Sport V-6 SEL Premium

Family-crossover buyers may already know the Atlas as one of the roomiest three-row midsize crossovers, with one of the rare third-row seats comfortable enough for large adults. Aimed at a younger, more style-conscious audience, the Cross Sport’s lower silhouette costs it some headroom versus its three-row sibling. But VW repositioned the back seat to furnish 40.4 inches of legroom, 3 more than in the Atlas and just a fraction of an inch behind the segment-topping Edge.

Bumper-to-bumper, Sport Cross is the longest five-row midsize crossover. That contributes to its class-leading 77.8 cubic feet of cargo room with the 70/30 split rear seatbacks folded. The sloped backlight does little to diminish cargo space with the rear seatbacks up: at 40.3 cubic feet, it’s bested only by the Honda Passport, with 41.2 cubic feet. Look for every ’21 Cross Sport but the S to return with a power liftgate and all but the S and basic SE to have hands-free operation.

A reduced-length version of the Atlas-rivaling three-row Honda Pilot, the Passport is the Cross Sport’s closest analog. On paper, Passport’s 4.3-inch-taller roofline gives it about 3 more cubic feet of passenger-compartment volume. In practice, nothing in this class feels quite as expansive as the Cross Sport. Small- to-medium-sized grownups may even feel faintly overwhelmed by the cabin’s width, while rear seaters can ride three across with minimal contact. Rear legroom is limo worthy. The rear seatback reclines, but the bench doesn’t slide fore or aft. Small-items storage is bountiful thanks to plus-sized door pockets, center console bin, and glovebox.

2020 Atlas Cross Sport V-6 SEL Premium

Instruments and controls are refreshingly straightforward in look and location. Rather than using a tablet-like tack-on, the dashboard integrates the infotainment touchscreen. Expect the 2021 S model to return a 6.5-inch display, the other models an 8-incher. All SEL grades should again come with imbedded navigation as well as VW’s configurable “digital cockpit” instrumentation.

Sturdy plastics throughout and padded skins only on frequently touched surfaces underscore the cabin’s sober ambience. But no panel or control feels cut rate, and all seats manage a fine balance between plush cushioning and firm support. Cloth upholstery should again be standard on the S model, with leather included on the SEL Premium and SEL Premium R-Line, and high-quality leatherette on the balance of the lineup. All but the S should return with a power driver’s seat, with driver’s-seat memory and a power passenger seat standard on all variations of the SEL.

As for outward visibility, the high windowsills (the “beltline”) and relatively low roofline instill a sort of bunker mentality. That may be reassuring to some, annoying to others. The sloped backlight does not unduly compromise the view aft. Good suppression of wind, road, and mechanical noise make this a peaceful cruiser. 

Any 2021 Atlas Cross Sport mechanical changes?

2020 Atlas Cross Sport V-6 SEL Premium

No. As a slightly nimbler version of the 150-pound-heavier Atlas, the ’21 Cross Sport should continue to sacrifice spritely performance for what VW claims is the “right kind of excess.”

Expect the base engine to again be a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder with 235 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque. Likely available again on all but the ’21 Cross Sport S model is a naturally aspirated 3.6-liter V-6 with 276 horsepower and 266 pound-feet of torque. Both engines link to an eight-speed automatic transmission and both are available with front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive (AWD).

VW had not made a four-cylinder Cross Sport (or Atlas) available to test in time for this review, but don’t anticipate robust acceleration. Even with the V-6, the Sport Cross gets up to speed smoothly if not rapidly. Zero-60 mph takes around 7.3 seconds, a full second behind the lighter Passport, which has as its sole engine a 280-horsepower V-6.

Still, a V-6 Cross Sport won’t leave you wanting for power to merge onto a fast-moving freeway or pass a highway speeds — so long as you’re not shy about using the gas pedal’s full travel when necessary The transmission shifts promptly and seamlessly, although one test Cross Sport tended to move inconsistently from a stop, sometimes lurching, other times pulling away progressively.

Most 2021 Cross Sport buyers should continue to opt for VW’s 4Motion AWD system and while ground clearance is 8 inches – a bit more than average for the segment – this crossover isn’t set up for severe off-roading. 4Motion maintains front-wheel drive in normal driving and sends up to 50 percent of engine power to the rear wheels when sensors detect tire slip. It comes with a center-console dial that enables drivers to select from four modes that alter powertrain, steering, and traction-assist calibrations to suit conditions. The modes are Onroad (with a submenu of Normal, Sport, Comfort, and Individual settings), Snow, Offroad, and Custom Offroad (with steering, powertrain, and hill-descent submenus).

On the road, Cross Sport is reassuringly stable on the highway but less sanguine in quick changes of direction. It’s never nervous but turns taken at more than a modest pace promote enough noseplow and body lean to temper your enthusiasm. The 20- and 21-inch tires sharpen turn-in but not enough to compensate for the degradation in ride quality; they too frequently allow bumps and ridges to jolt the structure. It’s probably not a deal-breaker but it is a criticism common to crossovers in this segment as you move from the 17- and 18-inch wheels and tires typically standard on lower-trim models.

Will 2021 Atlas Cross Sport fuel economy improve?

2020 Atlas Cross Sport V-6 SEL Premium

With no mechanical changes weight, 2021 Cross Sport EPA ratings should be unchanged from the 2020. That would keep this VW among the least fuel-efficient crossovers among direct competitors, although some might consider that an equitable tradeoff for the generous passenger and cargo space.

Expect four-cylinder ’21 Cross Sports to rate 21/24/22 mpg city/highway/combined with front-wheel drive and 18/23/20 with AWD. With the V-6, look for ratings to repeat at 17/23/19 mpg with front drive and 16/22/19 with AWD. VW should continue to recommend regular-grade 87-octane gasoline for both engines.

Will there be new 2021 Atlas Cross Sport features?

Atlas Cross Sport panoramic moonroof

New features per se aren’t likely, but we’d urge VW to filter some safety tech to models less expensive than the SEL grades. Expect every ’21 Cross Sport to again come with autonomous emergency braking designed to stop it automatically to mitigate a frontal collision with another vehicle, object, or pedestrian. Laudably, blind-spot and rear cross-traffic detection will also be included across the board.

For model-year 2020, however, S and base SE models were unavailable with the otherwise standard adaptive cruise control designed to maintain a set distance from traffic ahead, even in stop-and-go driving. Several rivals now include that feature standard on every trim level. Same for lane-maintaining automatic steering correction, which, on the 2020 Cross Sport, was limited to the SEL variants.

Semi-autonomous driving should also again be standard on all SEL variants via the automaker’s Traffic Jam Assist. This system can assume control of steering, throttle, and braking in heavy traffic at speeds up to 37 mph. In our tests, it works better than most such systems, accurately accounting for traffic ahead and keeping the crossover centered in its lane without abrupt steering corrections. Expect Park Assist that automatically steers the vehicle into or out of a parallel space to again be exclusive to SEL Premium trims. Same for a bird’s-eye video feed.  

Fender-brand audio system should return for Premium trims

In addition to features already covered, expect the 2021 Cross Sport SE to build on the S model by including as standard keyless access, heated front seats and mirrors, dual-zone automatic climate control, satellite radio, and two rear-seat USB ports. The SE with Technology and SE with Technology R-Line models should again expand on that with 20-inch wheels, remote engine start, and adaptive cruise control.

Look for ’21 Cross Sport SEL and R-Line grades to follow a similar content ladder and to again add steering-linked headlamps, heated washer nozzles, panoramic sunroof, and V-6 Towing Package. The SEL Premium and Premium R-line will again include, among other features, ventilated front seats and heated rear seats, power folding mirrors, front-door stitching accents, and a Fender-branded audio upgrade. 

Will 2021 Atlas Cross Sport prices be different?

2020 Atlas Cross Sport V-6 SEL Premium

They’ll almost certainly increase; how much may depend on VW’s response to fluctuations in demand stemming from the pandemic. Estimated base prices here include the manufacturer’s destination fee, which was $1,020 on the 2020 Cross Sport.

With 4Motion AWD again adding about $1,900, look for a base-price range of around $32,000-$50,500 for 2021 Cross Sports with the four-cylinder engine and some $38,900-$51,300 for their V-6 counterparts. Among examples of popular models – including the V-6 engine and 4Motion — expect prices of around $40,800 for the SE with Technology, $46,500 for the SEL R-Line, and $51,300 for the SEL Premium R-Line.   

Trailer-weight limits should again be 2,000 pounds for both engines, with the V-6 Towing Package increasing that to 5,000 pounds. Expect it to cost $550 and again be optional for the SE with Technology and SE with Technology R-Line V-6 models and standard with the V-6 above those. It’ll include a factory trailer hitch and a more powerful alternator. Expect similar availability for the $1,200 panoramic sunroof with electric tilt-and-slide.

The ’21 Cross Sport should again share with all Volkswagens two years of complimentary maintenance as part of the 4-year/50,000-mile bumper-to-bumper factory warranty. That coverage came online for model-year 2020, replacing VW’s industry-best 6-year/70,000-mile warranty (with no free maintenance). The change reflects the automaker’s efforts to address its spotty record for reliability and reputation for high cost of ownership.   

When does the 2021 Atlas Cross Sport come out?

2020 Atlas Cross Sport V-6 SEL Premium

Look for a 2021 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport release date in the fall of 2020.

Best 2021 Atlas Cross Sport competitors

Chevrolet Blazer, Ford Edge, Honda Passport, Hyundai Santa Fe, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Kia Sportage, Nissan Murano, Subaru Outback

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About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]