When Volkswagen opened its factory in Tennessee nine years ago, the German automaker thought it finally found the key to the American market – build a car tailored to U.S. customers.
But VW hadn’t anticipated the massive shift in consumer preference to SUVs and the Passat sedan it starting assembling turned out to be the wrong vehicle. Flash forward to 2020. VW now has its answer in the Atlas lineup of SUVs. A recent drive of the five-passenger 2020 Atlas Cross Sport from Vancouver, B.C. to the Whistler ski resort proves the point.
The Atlas Cross Sport is a roomy people hauler that will satisfy the typical U.S. family. The kids will be happy in the cavernous rear seat. Five adults easily fit in the vehicle. Parents will be pleased swapping driving the fine handling SUV or relaxing in the comfortable front passenger seat. The Atlas has plenty of power.
The interior is ergonomic, uncluttered and uses higher-grade materials than comparable trim levels of many of the other vehicles in the same segment.
About the only criticism is that the German automaker has set the Atlas up a bit too much for the American market. There are lots of 5-seat SUVs out there. What VW could bring to the table is a touch more of panache and good Euro-driving dynamics. The steering is a bit soft. Even the rival Ford Edge has a firmer road feel.
The new Atlas is a variation of the larger seven-seat Atlas SUV, the biggest vehicle VW has sold in the U.S. Both will keep that new Chattanooga assembly line humming nicely for years to come.
While the Passat, which also is made at the factory, is the first VW specifically tailored for the U.S. market, the Atlas is the first car designed, engineered and produced as part of the automaker’s North American strategy, said Johan de Nysschen, chief operating officer of Volkswagen of America.
VW sold 81,508 Atlas SUVs last year, a 37 percent sales gain over 2018. It is the automaker’s third most popular vehicle in the U.S. behind the Tiguan crossover and Jetta sedan. It’s likely to surpass the Jetta this year. It’s not hard projecting the Atlas family to tip the 150,000 unit sales range within a year or two.
The Atlas is working the magic VW hoped for when it launched Passat production at the factory in 2011. The brand’s U.S. sales rose 2.6 percent in 2019, a year when the industry fell 1.3 percent.
“Importantly it’s also bringing new customers to the brand,” de Nysschen said.
Nearly 80 percent of Atlas buyers came from another brand, he said. The vehicle also is profitable, raising VW’s average transaction price by more than $4,000. VW declined to release its average transaction price. Auto shopping company Kelley Blue Book estimates VW’s 2019 average transaction price at $28,609.
“We are delivering the right products at the right time to the right customers,” de Nysschen said. “We don’t see any slowdown in the public appetite for the versatility and all-around usability of SUVs.”
VW will debut a compact SUV that will slot in below the Tiguan later this year, de Nysschen said.
But with the Atlas, including the new Atlas Cross Sport, VW has gone big. And with fuel prices low, that’s what American consumers prefer. The five-seat Atlas has more cargo space than established rivals such as the Ford Edge and Jeep Grand Cherokee and about the same as the Honda Passport.
The 2020 Atlas Cross Sport shares the same 117.3-inch wheelbase with its larger sibling. That allows the Atlas Cross Sport to offer 111.8 cubic feet of passenger space, including 40.4 inches of rear legroom. There’s lot of room for their gear too — 40.3 cubic feet of luggage space behind the sliding second-row seats and 77.8 cubic feet with the second row folded.
But still, it has a smaller overall footprint, making the Cross Sport version a touch easier to drive in urban areas like Vancouver. By reducing the overhang in front and back, designers made the Cross Sport 2.8 inches shorter than the Atlas. It is more crossover than SUV with a roofline 2.3 inches lower than the Atlas. That gives the vehicle a raked rear pillar and hatch, giving it a more aggressive look.
Another difference is in the Cross Sport’s front fascia, which combines a three-bar chrome grille with a new light signature that runs the width of the middle bar. The bigger Atlas gets that treatment starting in the 2021 model year.
VW has provided plenty of power for the Cross Sport. It will be available with two powertrains: a 276-horsepower V6 engine and a 235-hp four-cylinder turbocharged and direct-injection engine. The bigger engine can tow 5,000 pounds when equipped with the factory-installed V6 Towing package. Both are mated to an 8-speed automatic transmission. All-wheel-drive is an option.
Unless they plan to tow, most buyers will be happy with the smaller engine.
The front-wheel-drive version with the smaller engine has an EPA fuel economy rating of 22 mpg for combined city and highway driving. The all-wheel-drive version comes in at 20 mpg. Both configurations of the Atlas Cross Sport with the larger engine get 19 mpg in combined driving.
There will be eight trim levels that range from $315,565, including destination fee, for the baseline four-cylinder engine model to nearly $50,000 for the tricked out V6 offering.
VW packed a useful suite of safety features into the Cross Sport. It comes standard with full LED lighting, autonomous emergency braking, blind-spot monitor and rear traffic alert.
It goes on sale in the coming weeks.