2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport: Too Much Atlas, Not Enough Sport

volkswagen atlas cross sport 2020 cl 01 exterior red jpg 2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport | Cars.com photo by Christian Lantry

My first impression of the new 2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport five-seat SUV when it was unveiled in October was that we’ve known each other for years — since 2017, in fact, when the 2018 three-row Atlas appeared.

Related: More 2019 L.A. Auto Show Coverage

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It’s not an accident because, similar to the Honda Passport it will rival, the Atlas Cross Sport is simply a more personal, sportier variation of Volkswagen’s three-row family hauler. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing: The Atlas was Cars.com’s Best of 2018 winner in its debut year. It won our comparison test of three-row SUVs and didn’t wear out its welcome through a year of Cars.com ownership.

But after thoroughly going over the Cross Sport here at the 2019 L.A. Auto Show, I wished the new Cross Sport had more “new” — that VW had injected more personality, more interior luxury and a little more styling differentiation. Otherwise, why not just buy an Atlas? I like the Atlas a lot, but I feel justified in asking for more in what is aimed to be a younger, better-looking (and perhaps pricier) sibling. VW did not reveal pricing at the debut, but let’s get real: It didn’t go to this trouble to make a cheaper Atlas.

Creating a sportier, more personal version of an existing utilitarian SUV works for Honda, which sells the Passport alongside the Pilot on which it’s based. It also works for luxury makers who create significantly pricier fastback “coupe” versions of their SUVs. There will always be a market for style over practicality.

But the Atlas Cross Sport falls a little short at delivering it. It’s different, but not different enough. And it will take on a whole new class of rivals beyond the Passport, from the still formidable Jeep Grand Cherokee and Ford Edge to the new Hyundai Santa Fe and Chevrolet Blazer (compare them here).

The Cross Sport is roomy and comfortable, at just 2.8 inches shorter than the Atlas. But while I’m OK with the middling interior quality in the three-row Atlas because of its other practical strengths, I wanted more luxe upgrades than the Cross Sport delivers if it wants to be a more expensive, more personal SUV than the Atlas.

The same is true of the exterior. The roof has a little more slope, the wheels are a big bigger and the grille has a third bar. But in checking out the selection vehicles on VW’s auto-show stand, I found myself pausing more than once to tell them apart.

VW likely will still sell a bunch of the Cross Sport, which is a likable, comfortable SUV. But that’s just like the Atlas — too much so for me.

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Former D.C. Bureau Chief Fred Meier, who lives every day with Washington gridlock, has an un-American love of small wagons and hatchbacks. Email Fred Meier

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