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Mark Savage's auto review column, Savage On Wheels, looks at a new vehicle every week and tells consumers what’s good, what’s not so good, and how the vehicle fits into the marketplace.

2021 VW Atlas Cross Sport SEL R-Line Premium Review

Mark Savage
The 2021 VW Atlas Cross Sport SEL R-Line Premium combines good power and handling, AWD and massive cargo room.

Rarely are two vehicles as similar as the Volkswagen Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport. Rarer yet is my getting to test such a duo within weeks of each other.

A little more than a month ago I enjoyed the Atlas, which is about 5 inches longer than the self-proclaimed “sportier” Cross Sport. This was a handsome Tourmaline Blue Metallic Atlas Cross Sport SEL R-Line Premium. That’s a monster name for a sport-ute that intends to lure buyers with its slightly more sloped roofline, shorter length and oodles of interior room, especially for cargo.

READ: 2021 Volkswagen Atlas SEL Review

VW believes some mid-size SUV intenders prefer seating for five and more cargo room than its Atlas has offered for several years. Atlas is a three-row ute that is comfy and luxurious, offering fine power, handling and ride at a cost that undercuts some major competitors.

The Cross Sport, introduced in 2020 as a 2021 model, slices off some of the tail, slightly angles the rear roofline forward for an ounce or two more sporty appeal, and gives rear seat passengers about three more inches of legroom, which is considerable. All that other space behind the second row is now cargo space.

Marketing folks will tell you that’s what empty nesters want for cross-country travel, assuming that resumes, plus being a bit shorter the Cross Sport is a tad easier to maneuver. Let me say here, I prefer the original Atlas for the versatility of a useable third row that can be folded down and still carry a lot of stuff in back. My family also is noted for its short legs.

The funny thing is that both Atlas and its Cross Sport sister ride on the same wheelbase, 117.3 inches, and feature the same engines and transmission, so any purchasing decision comes down to seats vs. cargo room, really.

Mark Savage
This test Cross Sport came equipped with a 276-horse 3.6-liter V6 engine with a torque rating of 266.

A base of either version comes with a 2.0-liter turbocharged I4 that delivers a healthy 235 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque. Both SEL models I tested bumped that up to the 276-horse 3.6-liter V6 with a torque rating of 266.

That’s considerable power and actually makes the 4,400-lb. Cross Sport seem quick. Despite the 4Motion AWD system I chirped the front tires upon acceleration a couple times. It took a couple days to get used to the power; it was that noticeable.

This V6 is quiet too and works well with the 8-speed automatic transmission. As in the Atlas, there’s a slight hesitation in low gears, but mostly you barely notice shifts. And if you want more power it’s there, but there’s plenty in Normal mode. Sport is available as is Eco, Custom and Automatic.

Off-roading is possible to a degree, and the SUV was stable and had plenty of traction on sloppy roads. There’s a Snow setting too.

Handling also is impressive for a fairly large ute. Steering response is quick and easy with a moderately light feel. But steering is fast enough that parking is a breeze and running through curves along wandering country roads is stable and enjoyable too.

The difference, between the standard 3-row Atlas and this Cross Sport, was the ride. I loved the well-controlled boulevard ride of the original. It had 20-inch tires and wheels, while this one had 21 inchers. That might have affected the ride some. The big tires certainly gave off more tire hum on the highway. There also was more wind noise in this model, although not sure why that would be.

VW Atlas Cross Sport Review

But as for ride, I suspect the R Line trim stiffens the suspension to reflect its racier nature. That doesn’t do this Cross Sport any favors on choppy side streets where a big open seam or pothole can jar passengers. My advice, back off from the R-Line and stick with a standard SEL.

Inside, the Cross Sport is much like the standard Atlas, attractive and well laid out, so easy functionally.

The test ute featured a black over tan interior with tan perforated leather seats and the black and tan carried over to the door trim. There you’ll find white stitching as an accent and a herring bone pattern dash and door trim with silver borders. This one also had black Fender stereo speakers in the doors.

There’s an 8-inch infotainment screen and 10-inch digital driver gauge pod that is adjustable so you can see what you feel important, such as speed, fuel range, etc. Living in this interior is easy, although note that the radio must be turned on for the infotainment screen to be used. If you, like me, sometimes click that off to quiet the interior you won’t be able to use the nav system, etc.

Mark Savage
The inside of the Cross Sport comes with tan perforated leather seats and the black and tan carried over to the door trim. There you’ll find white stitching as an accent and a herring bone pattern dash and door trim with silver borders.

Seats are comfortable with moderate hip support in the butt pocket, but better back support. Seats are powered up front and have both heated and cooled cushions, while the outer rear seats also are heated here. A button on the steering wheel’s hub also offers three heat levels for the wheel. Nicely done!

Overhead is a massive sunroof and naturally the rear hatch is powered. Another plus, manual side window sunshades for the second row.

I like the large open tray atop the dash, a great spot to store notebooks or face masks, and there’s a wireless phone charger below the dash’s center stack. And if you have even more paraphernalia, the enclosed storage box between the front seats is quite large.

Speaking of storage, the Cross Sport offers 40.3 cubic feet of space behind the second row. That’s way more than many utes offer. And if you fold down the rear seat there’s 77.8 cubic feet, so Christmas trees and lumber both are easily carried, at the same time!

Safety features are solid as you’d expect at this level, with blind-spot monitors, rear cross-traffic alert, a 360-degree camera, Intelligent Crash Response System and post-collision braking. A smart cruise control system is standard on this trim as is forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assist and parking sensors. The latter beeps a lot when you are parking near snowbanks.

For the record the Cross Sport, like the standard Atlas, will tow up to 5,000 pounds of boat, trailer, etc. A-pillars remain large here, but that’s an SUV thing. And while I found the Atlas’s heating system slow on cold days, I had no such problem with this Cross Sport.

Mark Savage
The base S front-drive Cross Sport starts at $31,740, and goes up to this AWD test model for $51,455.

Gas mileage was similar to the larger Atlas, but actually a bit lower. I got 19.6 mpg in about 70% highway driving. I’d gotten 20.2 in a more even mix with the Atlas. The EPA rating is 16 mpg city and 22 mpg highway. No hybrid is yet available.

Like the Atlas, this slightly downsized Cross Sport comes in 7 trims with the AWD versions all running about $1,900 more than the front-drive models. This being top end, it starts at $51,220 including delivery and just added nice rubber floor mats for $235, so $51,455 overall.

But a base S front-drive model starts at $31,740, so there’s a Cross Sport in many folks’ price range. That means you can easily find a 4Motion SEL model in the $43,000 - $44,000 range, a value in this marketplace.

The earlier tested, and preferred Atlas SEL with the strong V6 ran $43,315. I feel it’s still the better value considering it can seat seven.

Overview: 2021 VW Atlas Cross Sport SEL

Hits: Good power and handling, AWD, massive cargo room and attractive leather interior. Large screen, well designed dash, plus heated/cooled front seats, heated rear seats, heated wheel, panoramic sunroof, wireless charger, solid safety features.

Misses: Rough city ride, some tire and wind noise on freeway. Radio must be on for info screen features to work, and thick A-pillar limits visibility.

Made In: Chattanooga, Tenn.

Engine: 3.6-liter direct injection VR6, 276 hp

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Weight: 4,411 lbs.

Wheelbase: 117.3 in.

Length: 195.5 in.

Cargo: 40.3/77.8 cu.ft.

Tow: 5,000 lbs.

MPG: 16/22, 19.6 (tested)

Base Price: $51,220

Invoice: $49,168

Major Options: Rubber floor mats, $235

Test Vehicle: $51,455

Sources: VW, Kelley Blue Book

Editor's Note: Mark Savage's auto review column, Savage On Wheels, looks at a new vehicle every week and tells consumers what’s good, what’s not so good, and how the vehicle fits into the marketplace.

Mark Savage writes the auto review column, Savage On Wheels, for WUWM (formerly for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) and Savageonwheels.com. He is the former executive editor of American Snowmobiler magazine and FineScale Modeler magazine, both part of Kalmbach Media in Waukesha.
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