Looks deceive. First impressions can be misleading. The Atlas Cross Sport 2.0T SEL R-Line is like the guy you chance to meet at a party who is built like an NFL lineman, but after talking with him you discover that he’s actually a professor of literature who’s never set foot on the gridiron. It’s the same for the Cross Sport: It’s not what it at first appears to be.
The Cross Sport looks strong, hunky—stylishly macho, even—as if it’d love to chew on a bumpy off-road trail or tear up a twisty two-lane road. The two-row Cross Sport gets much of its styling from the three-row Atlas, and that sheetmetal looks especially muscular shrink-wrapped onto this smaller version, which is 5.2 inches shorter in length and 2.3 inches lower in height than its big brother. The Cross Sport’s foreshortened, chopped-roof proportions, and wide stance bring to mind high-performance SUVs such as the Audi RS Q8 or even the Lamborghini Urus.
That’s where any similarity between the Cross Sport and those two rocket-propelled SUVs begins and ends. The Audi, Lambo—and also the Porsche Cayenne—are built on the VW Group’s sophisticated longitudinal-engine MLB platform. But the Cross Sport has humbler bones: VW’s MQB architecture, the transverse-engine, front-drive components set that underpins an array of vehicles as diverse as the great-driving GTI hatchback and the Tiguan (which we called “a GTI for responsible adults”).
Alas, despite its good genes the Cross Sport hasn’t inherited its platform cousins’ athleticism—and don’t be fooled by the stylized “R” badge adorning this particular Cross Sport’s nose, either. On a Golf that letter denotes the line’s track-scorching hot hatch. Affixed to a Cross Sport that same letter merely indicates that it has the R-Line trim package, which adds a few items to the already well-equipped SEL model, including an angrier front fascia, a restyled rear bumper, dark gray five-spoke alloy wheels, and a leather covering for the steering wheel. Otherwise, the Cross Sport SEL R-Line has the same mechanicals as a standard SEL, which include all-wheel drive and the base turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-four.
None of this is to say that our Cross Sport 2.0T SEL R-Line 4Motion test vehicle was unpleasant or unlikable. It’s just that it doesn’t have an aggressive nut or bolt in its body. It looks tough, but it’s a softie—an easygoing, comfort-first vehicle that evokes no strong emotions, at least not if you love to drive. The ride is generally cushy, and the steering is accurate but lifeless. The eight-speed automatic works unobtrusively. And the 235-hp EA888 four-cylinder is peppy enough that we’d recommend skipping the optional 3.6-liter, 276-hp V-6—a choice that will save you $1750.
The four has 258 pound-feet of torque, a mere eight pound-feet less than the six, and it shows in acceleration. Its 60-mph time of 7.4 seconds is a tenth quicker than the last V-6 Cross Sport we tested while matching it with a 15.7-second, 90-mph quarter-mile run. Beyond equal acceleration, the smaller engine’s 22-mpg EPA combined fuel-economy estimate is two miles per gallon better than the six’s. And in our 75-mph highway fuel-economy test, this Cross Sport achieved 26 mpg, two better than its EPA highway figure and one better than the V-6 model. If you’re towing more than 2000 pounds, though, you’ll have to opt for the larger engine, which is rated to haul 5000 pounds to the four’s 2K.
If it sounds like we’re lukewarm about the Cross Sport, that’s because the class it competes in is especially tough, encompassing big-name mainstream SUVs ranging from the Jeep Grand Cherokee to the Honda Passport to the Hyundai Santa Fe and many others. The SEL R-Line, which resides toward the richer end of the 13 available Cross Sport trims, packs enough standard equipment to compete, including extensive driver-assist tech, a digital instrument cluster, a power liftgate, and a heated steering wheel. But the standards are high here, and features alone aren’t enough.
Our Cross Sport’s all-black interior, for instance, was well built but meh compared to the ritziest in the segment. The spare, businesslike interior design borders on blandness, and there’s plenty of hard plastic in evidence. The 8.0-inch infotainment screen is small by today’s standards, though it does feature volume and tuning knobs and operates intuitively; it’s VW’s previous-generation system, thank goodness, not the company’s latest, frustratingly complex revamp.
At least there’s voluminous rear-seat legroom and a large 40-cubic-foot cargo hold behind the second row that swallowed 14 of our carry-on-size test boxes; 30 will fit with the second row stowed. But the cabin appointments in the two-row Santa Fe and three-row SUVs like the Hyundai Palisade, Kia Telluride, and Kia Sorento show how it should be done these days. They make you feel like you’re riding in a vehicle that’s more expensive than its sticker price. With the Cross Sport it’s the opposite.
After two weeks driving the Cross Sport 2.0T R-Line we have nothing overtly bad to say about it. It’s a competent SUV that’s capable, reasonably refined, roomy, well equipped, a decent value—and did we mention, handsome? But there are a lot of good SUVs in the Cross Sport’s class. In a segment this competitive it takes more than good looks to play at the top.