Two crossovers with the same name, but different styles.

The Volkswagen Atlas is Germany's answer to three-row competitors like the Nissan Pathfinder, Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, and many more. It debuted for the 2018 model year, riding on the versatile MQB platform. But even though VW moved 61,000 examples of the Atlas SUV in its first full year on sale and saw that number swell to 81,000 examples last year, the Pilot still outsold it two to one in 2018, and the Explorer bested it by a ratio of more than four to one. With that in mind, VW is shaking things up with a second option this year, hoping to capture a bit more success – introducing the Atlas Cross Sport.

To understand a bit better what the new Cross Sport means for the Atlas range, we took delivery of a long-term Cross Sport SEL in July. Since then we've put more than 5,000 miles on the SUV and learned that while it looks slightly different than the traditional three-row Atlas on the outside, the two-row Cross Sport feels like very much the same. So much so that we put the two crossovers side by side to see exactly what makes them so similar in some ways and different in others.

What’s Different?

 

The Cross Sport pictured here is a range-topping SEL Premium model. It has an upgraded engine (a 3.6-liter V6 instead of a base four), wears a $395Aurora Red Metallic paint job, and rides on 20-inch alloy wheels. The three-row Atlas in question is also an SEL Premium with a V6, only this one gets the optional R-Line package, a Tourmaline Blue Metallic paint job, and bigger 21-inch wheels. The latter wheel option comes standard on the R-Line, which our Cross Sport does not feature. At first glance, the two crossovers do look similar – apart from the obvious color and wheel variations – but there are subtle differences elsewhere that are hard to spot initially.

For one, the Cross Sport has a gray lower trim piece just beneath that grille that extends downward to look like a skid plate (spoiler alert: it's not). The Atlas R-Line, meanwhile, gets a sleeker black opening on the bumper with shiny silver accents at each corner to denote its sporty nature. The slight visual differences are trim-specific, though. Almost every version of the Atlas comes standard with the same gray lower trim piece like the one pictured here on the Cross Sport. Only V6-powered versions of the Atlas and Cross Sport – specifically the SE model and the R-Line – get a different front fascia design, therefore our SEL (but non–R-Line) Cross Sport gets the less sporty front end. Opting for the R-Line also slightly modifies the look of the rear diffuser, as well.

Volkswagen Atlas Vs Cross Sport
Volkswagen Atlas Vs Cross Sport
  Wheelbase Length Width Height Cargo Room
Atlas 117.3 Inches 198.3 Inches 78.3 Inches 70.0 Inches 40.3 / 77.8 Cubic Feet
Atlas Cross 117.3 Inches 195.5 Inches 78.4 Inches 67.8 Inches 20.6 / 55.5 / 96.8 Cubic Feet

It's from the front door rearward, though, where these two are most obviously different. The distance between the wheels remains exactly the same at 117.3 inches, but the Cross Sport is nearly 3.0 inches shorter overall than the traditional Atlas – 195.5 inches versus 198.3 inches. That means the Cross Sport loses the third-row option and instead gets a hearty 40.3 cubic feet behind the second row and 77.8 cubic feet of cargo room behind the first. The standard Atlas is still more spacious, though; it has 20.6 cubic feet of room behind the third row, but 55.5 cubic feet behind the second row and a whopping 96.8 cubic feet behind the first if you fold the seats down. But those without a large family, the standard storage space in the Cross Sport is a great thing to have.

The Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport are near twins inside, apart from a few slight variations in the back seat. The Atlas R-Line gets an actual screen at the rear of the center console for second-row passengers to control rear A/C. That comes standard as part of the R-Line option. The SEL Premium Cross Sport, though, only gives rear passengers the ability to adjust seat heating functions.

What's The Same?

 

Apart from a few obvious differences on the outside – things like body style, wheels, and front bumper design (the latter two due to trims) – the Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport are still very similar. The two crossovers have the same grille design with vertical slats, the same LED headlights and taillights, and many of the same silvery trim pieces on the side profile and rear. And as mentioned, the two Atlases have the same 117.3-inch wheelbase.

These two versions of the Atlas and Cross Sport in particular also have the same engine: a 3.6-liter narrow-angle VR6 capable of 276 horsepower and 266 pound-feet, paired to an eight-speed automatic transmission. And in this case, both of them also come standard with 4Motion all-wheel drive, whereas that feature is optional on lesser trim levels.

Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport Interior
2021 Volkswagen Atlas Interior
  Engine Horsepower Torque Transmission
Atlas 3.6L V6 276 266 8-Speed Automatic
Atlas Cross 3.6L V6 276 266 8-Speed Automatic

Standard on all SEL models is VW's new digital instrument cluster. The 10.0-inch display – located behind the steering wheel, directly in the driver's forward view – shows important information like speed and fuel economy, and comes standard on both of the Atlas models pictured here. Also standard on these SUVs is a central 8.0-inch touchscreen display (versus the base 6.5-inch screen) that offers Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and native navigation.

Which One Should You Get?

The VW Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport both drive well enough, look nice, and offer the most advanced tech (at least in these trim levels). But since the Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport are so similar, it doesn't make much sense – in our mind – to opt for the one with less space, especially when they're both virtually the same price.

The base Atlas Cross Sport with a four-cylinder engine starts at $30,545, while a standard three-row Atlas with the same engine costs $31,545. Exactly $1,000 separates the two vehicles. And even in higher trims and with more features, the two vehicles aren’t that different in price.

Gallery: Volkswagen Atlas Vs Atlas Cross Sport

The Atlas V6 SEL Premium R-Line tested here costs $51,715 with no options. The Atlas Cross Sport V6 SEL Premium pictured here, meanwhile, costs $49,510, with the lone option being the Aurora Red paint job ($395). Just over $2,000 separates these two fully loaded crossovers, but considering the two aren’t that far apart in price, the bigger three-row Atlas feels like the better deal.

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