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HENRY PAYNE

Payne: Ute smackdown! VW Atlas Cross Sport vs. Chevy Blazer

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

In the movie “Freaky Friday,” Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis played a mother and daughter who — via a magical fortune cookie — switched bodies. Confusion ensued.

Kind of like the shapely, athletic Chevrolet Blazer and bold, hulking Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport.

These mid-size SUVs play against national stereotype. It’s as if Chevy and VW switched bodies (no fortune cookie involved). I recently tested the all-wheel drive equipped pair in the northern latitudes of Michigan (Blazer) and the Pacific Northwest (Atlas Cross Sport).

The 2020 Chevy Blazer is a new entry in the mid-size ute market between the three-row Traverse and compact Equinox. For empty nesters looking for wheels beyond the three-row ute, the Blazer offers size and sportiness.

With its toned, tightly engineered bod, the Blazer felt like a German sprinter begging me to exit the city and find some country curves. On the other hand, I might have mistaken the big, square Atlas as a GMC product were it not for the oval VW logo planted on its kisser. This American-built German is less interested in carving apexes than packing all your belongings in back for a weekend Up North.

But before we get deeper into “Freaky Ute-day,” a primer on the mid-size sport-utility market is in order. Exhibit A of the SUV revolution — which now make up 53% of vehicle sales — is the explosion of its mid-size class.

Middie SUVs were once a boutique segment. Long dominated by the Jeep Grand Cherokee, it offered a stylish refuge for empty-nesters who still coveted the size of a three-row family ute but with more design appeal. Want something else? The high-tech Ford Edge, Subaru Outback and funky Nissan Murano were also available.

New for 2020, the VW Atlas Cross Sport is based on the same platform as the Atlas - but boasts just two rows of seats and a sportier profile.

Other SUV segments grew like wildfire — three-rows, compacts, subcompacts, even a subcompact tweener segment squeezed between subcompacts and compacts. So it seemed inevitable the midsize ute segment would grow. In the last couple years we’ve gotten the Honda Passport, Chevy Trailblazer, remade Hyundai Santa Fe and now the VW Atlas Cross Sport.

As our Chevy and VW testers suggest, the entries are surprisingly diverse in their approach.

Cross Sport gambles that shoppers want more room than zoom. And so, like the Pilot-derived Honda Passport, it has taken its gigantic three-row architecture and simply lopped off the third row. The Blazer, meanwhile, has no three-row variant and aims for style like the Edge and Murano. The Santa Fe/Outback are comparative wallflowers but do their thing with the best value-plays in class.

If the Outback shops at Dunham’s Sports, then the Blazer dresses at Lululemon.

The 2020 Chevy Blazer starts just under $30k with a stylish wardrobe that includes a floating roof, cut rocker panels, and door-mounted mirrors.

You know Blazer’s intentions from its ubiquitous TV ad in which a hip mom takes one look at the RS model and exclaims: “This is my sexy-mom car.”

Blazer looks the part. It’s fashionably dressed in swoopy lines, floating roof and intimidating grille. European it may appear, but in truth it’s homegrown — an attempt to bring Camaro style to SUV. I like the effort — though it can all be a little too much (an issue with Camaro as well).

The ginormous Cross Sport, meanwhile, is quite conservative — though its fastback allows a sleeker look than its three-row Atlas sibling.

The 2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport stands out in small town North America with AWD and a near-class-best 40 cubic feet of storage space.

The real contrast is inside.

Blazer imports Camaro cues to make the best-looking interior in class: aviator climate controls (ooooh, turn their rims to adjust the temp), tablet-like infotainment screen, sporty gauges. All this, and console cubby space, too.

The Cross Sport looks like a Chevy Silverado with acres of blocky, black space. I pined for the two-tone brown-and-black interior just to break up the yards of black plastic. There’s little imagination here, but loads of truck-like storage space — top of dash, behind the shifter, in the deep console box.

Both Blazer and Cross Sport offer backseat living rooms. Your 6-foot-5 reviewer was comfortable fore and aft. Need more cargo room? Flatten the second rows. It’s the cargo hold where you really feel the VW’s 4.5-inch wheelbase advantage — translating into near-class-best 40 cubic feet of storage space vs. the Blazer’s 30.

Conservative and useful, the dash controls on the 2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport sport easy ergonomics for navigating radio stations and screens.

The Tennessee-born VW speaks with more of an American accent these days, and it understands our craving for standard features. Blindspot-assist and remote app come standard, and my $42,000 tester was loaded with adaptive cruise-control, heated steering wheel and panoramic roof.

In another "Freaky Friday" moment, the Blazer feels Old Europe by skimping on standard features — most notably adaptive cruise-control (which comes standard on a $28,000 Outback). My $41,000 Blazer went begging, however — and you’d have to buy premium trims starting at $48,000 to get it standard.

The Blazer’s sex appeal doesn’t stop at the drafting board. This is one gym-toned ute.

Chevy has made handling a priority in its lineup from the hot-rod Silverado pickup to the Equinox SUV. The Blazer is no different. Like its siblings, Blazer boasts a nimble chassis that’s genuinely fun to drive.

The only thing sporty about the Cross Sport is its name. VW fans hoping the hot-hatch Golf R’s handling translates to brother ute will be disappointed. If you want a fun, all-wheel-drive VW for $42,000, buy the sensational Golf R — or, better yet, the stunning, hatchback Arteon sedan, which you’ve never heard of because we Yanks are so star-struck with SUVs. But I digress.

The interior of the 2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport lacks the pizzazz of the Chevy Blazer- opting instead for a more conservative style. Fortunately, two-tone color options are available if the acres of black aren't to your liking.

Through Oakland County’s twisties, the Blazer felt a class smaller thanks to its tuned suspension and smooth tranny. I took the Cross Sport on writhing mountain passes north of Vancouver, British Columbia, and ... aw, fuhgeddaboudit.

Just lock in cruise-control and admire the scenery. Which brings me to the question of which to buy.

Both the Cross Sport and Blazer are optioned with V-6s, but the added oomph is lost on the porky Atlas. Stick with the peppy 235-horse turbo-4 (shared with the Golf GTI). Despite similar specs as Chevy’s four-cylinder, the VW's four is better with a tidy eight-speed transmission (now, that’s European!), which smoothly propelled the big ute through the rev range.

With its flexible MQB platform, the 2020 VW Atlas Cross Sport has lots of room up front for either a transverse-mounted V-6 or turbo-4 cylinder. This is the V-6.

The Blazer’s V-6 option, meanwhile, comes with a whopping 32 more ponies than the Cross Sport, complementing its athletic intentions. Sure, the V-6 option is a big step up in price to the $45,000 RS model. But the sexy-mom RS is hot. Cross Sport’s similar R-Design trim was barely noticeable on the $52,000 SEL Premium trim I drove.

 “What’s different about America is all the choices you have,” said VW North American product chief Serban Boldea as we lounged in a Cross Sport’s huge lobby — er, seats.

That choice now extends to mid-size utes. Check out your local dealer for "Freaky Friday" deals.

2020 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front- and all-wheel drive, 5-passenger SUV

Price: $31,565, including $1,020 destination charge ($42,700 AWD SEL turbo-4 and $51,445 AWD SEL Premium R-Line V-6 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter turbo-4; 3.6-liter V-6

Power: 235 horsepower, 258 pound-feet torque (turbo-4); 276 horsepower, 266 pound-feet torque (V-6)

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, NA; 2,000-5,000 lbs. 

Weight: 4,288-4,411 lbs.

Fuel economy: EPA 18 city/23 highway/20 combined (AWD turbo-4); 16 city/22 highway/19 combined (AWD V-6)

Report card

Highs: Bold looks; roomy interior/cargo

Lows: Uninspired interior; no VW hot-hatch DNA

Overall: 3 stars

2020 Chevrolet Blazer

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front- and all-wheel drive, 5-passenger SUV

Price: $29,995, including $1,195 destination charge ($41,595 AWD 3LT turbo-4 as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter 4-cylinder; 2.0-liter turbo-4; 3.6-liter V-6

Power: 193 horsepower, 188 pound-feet torque (2.5L 4-cyl); 230 horsepower, 258 pound-feet torque (2.0-liter turbo-4); 308 horsepower, 270 pound-feet torque (V-6)

Transmission: 9-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, NA for turbo-4; 6.3 sec. for V-6 (Car and Driver); towing NA for turbo-4, 4,500 lbs. (V-6)

Weight: 3,810-4,246 lbs.

Fuel economy: EPA 22 city/27 highway/24 combined (2.5L 4-cyl); 21 city/28 highway/24 combined (AWD 2.0-liter turbo-4); 18 city/25 highway/21 combined (V-6)

Report card

Highs: Stylish, roomy interior; tight handling

Lows: Skimpy on some standard features; can get pricey

Overall: 3 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.