VW Atlas Cross Sport first prototype drive

Where did you go on vacation this summer? Martha’s Vineyard? The beach in San Diego? Maybe to a cool mountain lake? Good for you, because I went to Death Valley. In the middle of summer.

I shouldn’t complain — the temperature was “only” 118 degrees, which isn’t bad considering this place has the current world record temp of 136 degrees. So by that measure, 118 was a walk in the (National) park.

Car companies love Death Valley in the summer, of course. They take their prototypes out there, attach trailers to them and haul them up and down the long, uphill slog west of Stovepipe Wells in the middle of the blazing hot daylight just to see what will break. They figure if their cars, trucks and SUVs don’t blow up or boil in this environment then it’s safe to foist them on the public.

So it was that I drove out to our nation’s — and the world’s — hottest spot in the middle of July to drive the coming Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport, the five-seat version of the seven-seat Atlas SUV. Nothing blew up and nothing boiled over.

The Atlas Cross Sport is 5.7 inches shorter overall than the three-row non-Cross Sport Atlas, but has the same wheelbase. It also gets a slightly slopier (“much more dramatic coupe-like”) roofline in the back. The lack of back seats frees up more space for cargo, VW says, and the sportier roofline makes it look sexier. As for the handling:

“It’s the same great ride that you’ll see in the seven-seater, minus about 200 pounds, maybe,” said Volkswagen marketing exec Mike Lovat, whose enthusiasm for the Cross Sport was completely unphased by the heat.

The Cross Sport sits on a version of the same MQB platform that underpins seemingly everything in the Volkswagen lineup, from the Jetta to the Tiguan to the Golf to the Arteon. Among the MQB vehicles, the Cross Sport sits in the G3 group, the mid-full-size family of vehicles. That’s as opposed to the G2 small compact Tiguan and Jetta and the G4 electromobility cars, which sit on the MEB platform. Is that too much inside baseball?

The base Cross Sport will have a 2.0-liter 235 hp/258-lb-ft turbo four-cylinder and is available with front-wheel or 4Motion all-wheel drive. In that trim it can tow up to 2,500 pounds. The Cross Sport I would be driving had the 276-hp/266-lb-ft 3.6-liter V6 with the optional 4Motion all-wheel drive. It had a towing capacity of 5,000 pounds. Both engines are mated to eight-speed automatics.

To get to Death Valley you could fly into Las Vegas and drive a couple hours or, in my case, drive the four-and-a-half hours from L.A. I’d had about enough of airports to last a lifetime so I drove, even though the day I went was the hottest day of the year thus far. I cranked the a/c in my puny press car till it was blasting at full-wallop, stopped only for gas and junk food, and when I stepped out of the car at the aptly named Furnace Creek, it was like stepping into the full force of the world’s largest hair dryer operated by the world’s most sadistic hair stylist.

“How can people function in this?” I rhetorically asked no one in particular.

“Quit yer wimperin’, you wimp,” said a voice inside my head, one of several that are usually in there arguing.

The Valley itself was full of German tourists happily driving the Mustang convertibles they’d rented at SFO, all of them with the tops down, all of them perfectly happy to be experiencing “The Wild West Tour,” as these things are marketed by travel agencies in Der Vaterland, the marketing being done in the middle of winter, no doubt.

“Ja, velcome,” said some German test engineers who didn’t seem to mind the frying-pan intensity of the 118 degree-summer day.

Then we disconnected the trailer and headed up the road to Twenty Mule Team Canyon to try out the Atlas Cross Sport in the dirt. The road meanders through layers of brown, blue and green earth pushed up and folded by eons of continental drift and exposed by countless thunderstorms of erosion. I took a few photos.

The road itself was about the smoothest graded dirt road I’d ever been on. I tried a little power-on oversteer but this seemed to dismay the marketing executive in the back seat, so I laid off that stuff after one try. Thus, this wasn’t really much of an off-road evaluation. But it’s good to know that you can take your Atlas Cross Sport a few more places than you might take, say, an Arteon, should the zest for adventure overtake you upon purchasing your new rig.

The Atlas Cross Sport five-seat SUV will go on sale in the first quarter of next year, with pricing to be announced closer to launch. For my part, I crawled back into my press car, fired up the a/c, and drove back across the desert to L.A., kind of wishing I had a roomier, more comfortable Atlas Cross Sport for the journey.

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