Volkswagen Atlas vs Atlas Cross Sport: Which VW SUV Is Best?

Volkswagen Atlas vs Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport

There are more similarities than differences between the 2023 Volkswagen Atlas and its fraternal twin, the Atlas Cross Sport, yet each has a unique appeal for utility vehicle buyers. Even so, it made me wonder why Volkswagen has made room for both in its 2023 lineup.

Are the differences significant enough to affect a purchasing decision? Why make two models that share so many of the same features?

I decided to test both vehicles and find out.

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Volkswagen Atlas vs Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport Comparison

SpecificationsVolkswagen AtlasVolkswagen Atlas Cross Sport
Length / Width / Height
200.7 / 78.3 / 70.1 in.
195.5 / 78.3 / 67.8 in.
Curb Weight (base SE)
4,261 lbs
4,123 lbs
Ground Clearance
7.1 in. - 7.5 in.
7.1 in. - 7.5 in.
Max. Cargo Volume
96.8 cu.ft.
77.8 cu.ft.
Max Towing
5000 lbs. (w/ 3.6L V6)
5000 lbs. (w/ 3.6L V6)
Net Horsepower
235 HP - 2.0L I4 Turbo
276 HP - 3.6L V6
235 HP - 2.0L I4 Turbo
276 HP – 3.6L V6
Fuel Economy City / Hwy
21 / 25 MPG - 2.0L; FWD
20 / 24 MPG - 2.0L; AWD
18 / 24 MPG - 3.6L; FWD
18 / 23 MPG - 3.6L; AWD
21 / 25 MPG - 2.0L; FWD
20 / 24 MPG - 2.0L; AWD
18 / 24 MPG - 3.6L; FWD
18 / 24 MPG - 3.6L; AWD
$35,150 - $52,340
$34,460 - $51,625

Tale of the Tape

Volkswagen-Atlas-Cross-Sport-Tale-of-the-TapeThe Atlas was first marketed in North America for the 2018 model year. Two years later, Volkswagen brought out the Atlas Cross Sport. Despite the Atlas being about five inches longer and around two-and-a-half inches taller, it shares the same platform with the younger Atlas Cross Sport and there is no change in the 117.3-inch wheelbase to reflect the Cross Sport’s smaller dimensions.

The Atlas, however, comes as a seven-seater, whereas the Atlas Cross Sport seats five passengers maximum. For many buyers, that’s all they’ll need to know to choose between them. Nevertheless, the dimensional differences are a bit more nuanced.

While it’s true that the maximum cargo volume in the Atlas clearly beats out the Cross Sport, if one compares available cargo space with all the seats in place, the Cross Sport leaves a lot more room behind the seats – 40.3 cubic feet vs. 20.6 cubic feet. Sure, one can put the third-row seats down in the Atlas to make up for this, but when traveling with a full complement of passengers, the Cross Sport accommodates more gear or luggage than a fully occupied Atlas.

I was also surprised by a platform-related consequence in this face-off between a two-row and a three-row model: the second-row legroom in the Cross Sport tops the Atlas by close to three inches. On a long drive, rear seat passengers will surely appreciate the extra room to stretch out. Unfortunately, taller passengers in the second row of the Cross Sport may find the head room a bit constraining. The boxy-er design of the Atlas allows 2.2 inches more second-row headroom. There’s an inch and a half more headroom in the front, too.

The Takeaway: One wouldn’t be far from the truth to think that the Atlas differs from the Atlas Cross Sport primarily in that it comes with third-row seating. However, that variance presents a slew of subtleties defining distinctions in personality, utility and comfort that underscore their appeal to distinct audiences, whether it’s families with school-age children, outdoorsy adventurers or downsizing empty nesters.

Cabin Quality and Design

Volkswagen-Atlas-Cabin-Quality-and-DesignOther than size and passenger capacity, it’s not really a matter of trade-offs in going from the Atlas interior to the Atlas Cross Sport interior. It’s more style and vibe. Trim for trim, feature-for-feature the models mostly stack up the same. Where they differ is for obvious reasons –Atlas trims with three-zone climate control are matched with two-zone climate in the Cross Sport trims. Also, more rows get more USB ports.

Interior color choices are a bit snazzier in the Cross Sport, befitting its cheekier feel, but the conveniences are the same as in the bigger Atlas. Both entry-level SE models get heated front seats with 8-way power on the driver’s side, an 8-inch digital instrument display, keyless ignition, and a 6.5-inch infotainment display with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay integration.

Moving up to the SEL brings 8-way power to both front seats, a 10.25-inch cluster display, an 8-inch infotainment touchscreen and a sunroof. The SEL Premium R-Line features leather seats with ventilation added to the front seats, plus outboard second-row seats add a heating function. Also, entertainment elevates to a Fender premium audio system.

The Takeaway: If it weren’t for the third row in the Atlas and its bigger dimensions, the only thing differentiating these vehicles on the inside would be their personalities – primarily expressed via color combinations.

Performance & Powertrains

Volkswagen-Atlas-Performance-&-PowertrainsFor 2023, there are two engine choices for both the Atlas and the Atlas Cross Sport. In lower trims (SE, SE with Technology and SEL), both models offer a 235-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter inline-4. The Cross Sport SEL R-Line Black edition can also be equipped with the turbo 4-cylinder engine.

For a bit more horsepower and considerably more towing stamina, a 276-horspower V6 is available on the SE with Technology and higher trims. This is the go-to engine if one has a boat or trailer that they are planning to hitch up to an Atlas-family vehicle. Towing capability increases to 5000 pounds with the V6 from the nominal 2000 pounds that the smaller engine supports.

Despite the performance differences in these engines, I found that the range of efficiency ratings doesn’t deviate dramatically. A front-wheel drive equipped 2-liter Atlas or Atlas Cross Sport (only found in SE or SE with Technology for either model) delivers a 23-mpg combined city/highway driving rating. The 2-liter turbo rating nudges lower to 22 mpg with 4Motion all-wheel drive. Meanwhile, a V6 model with front-wheel drive (available only as SE with Technology) manages 20 mpg in combined city/highway driving as do trims that pair the V6 with all-wheel drive (SE with Technology and higher).

Interestingly, the EPA estimates that over five years, the AWD turbo powertrain vs. the FWD turbo one will cost $500 more in fuel, while driving either V6 powertrain adds another $1250 on top of that.

The Takeaway: You’ll be hard pressed to find differences in the performance of these two models when similarly equipped. If there are indeed differences in handling due to their small differences in weight, Volkswagen has found a way to minimize them. If one waits for a 2024 model, Volkswagen has announced that a new, more powerful turbocharged 2-liter engine will be the only choice available. Purportedly the engine improves both fuel efficiency and acceleration, plus it can handle up to 5000 pounds towing.

Safety Equipment and Scores

Volkswagen-Atlas-Cross-Sport-Safety-Equipment-and-ScoresThe Insurance Institute for Highway Safety mostly gives the Atlas and the Atlas Cross Sport good safety ratings, especially for crashworthiness. Where their weaknesses kept them from getting Top Safety Pick designations were in marginal ratings for models that did not feature curve adaptive headlights and high beam assist, as well as marginal ratings for child seat anchors, which were considered too deep in the seat and required too much force to attach. Also, vehicle-to-pedestrian crash avoidance and mitigation were evaluated as basic.

To their credit, both models come standard with forward collision warning and autonomous emergency braking. In addition, blind spot monitoring with rear traffic assist is included. Front and rear park distance control comes in at the SE with Technology level, while SEL and higher get lane keep assist and cornering lights. The top-of-the-line SEL Premium features an overhead view camera and park assist.

If anything, all-wheel drive, which is standard in the SEL and higher trims and offered as a step up in the lower trims, is your best safety improvement choice. Its ability to enhance traction and stability can make a real difference not only in extreme weather but whenever road contact is tenuous.

The Takeaway: This matchup is essentially even on the safety front. They may not win medals for safety, but they certainly are not deficient.

Current Volkswagen Atlas Deals & Incentives

YearMakeModelCash Incentives (up to)Best Avail. APRLease OffersExpiration

You may qualify for additional deals and incentives, check out this month's Volkswagen deals here.

Current Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport Deals & Incentives

YearMakeModelCash Incentives (up to)Best Avail. APRLease OffersExpiration
2022VolkswagenAtlas Cross Sport
2023VolkswagenAtlas Cross Sport3.90%10/31/23

You may qualify for additional deals and incentives, check out this month's Volkswagen deals here.

So, Which Is Better, the Atlas or the Atlas Cross Sport?

Where some brands will treat their “Sport” variants as poor cousins of the archetypal model, Volkswagen has created this twosome with much more finesse. They can’t be called identical, and they weren’t intended to be, yet they are nearly the same while being created to appeal to different needs.

I found that both models had their pros and cons. A young family with active school-age children may need a bigger vehicle to carpool youngsters to activities. Whereas couples might prefer a vehicle with a sporty flair, yet one that has room enough for travel adventures.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why has Volkswagen made two vehicles that are nearly identical?

It’s true that the Atlas and the Atlas Cross Sport essentially come evenly equipped if one could disregard the third row in the Atlas and the lower roofline in the Cross Sport. Yet, it is just those distinctions that make them appealing to entirely different market segments. Consequently, Volkswagen doesn’t view them as competing against each other, but as two distinct opportunities to attract buyers with different needs.

Would it make better financial sense to buy an Atlas or Atlas Cross Sport with the turbocharged engine or the V6?

That depends on your performance needs and your budget. If you don’t plan to tow anything as big as a 5000-pound boat and trailer, then it makes sense to consider the 4-cylinder turbo editions. On the other hand, if your budget can handle the $51+K MSRP of the SEL Premium R-Line editions, then there are enough extra niceties such to justify the expense. In the middle, there’s the SE with Technology that’s offered with either engine but is most popular in the lineup with the V6. If you wait for the 2024 editions, there will be just one powerplant offered – a more robust turbocharged 4-cylinder engine.