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A blue 2023 Subaru Outback Onyx Edition is shown off-roading after winning a 2023 Subaru Outback vs 2023 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport comparison.

A Midsize SUV Showdown: The 2023 Outback vs. The 2023 Atlas Cross Sport

Two-row midsize SUVs occupy an interesting place among this class of vehicles. They are larger than compact crossovers, affording more roominess but often lower fuel economy. At the same time, they don’t have the third row of seats that many suburban family drivers crave. Still, they are a popular model type, which is why we see many of the standout models going head to head against one another, like the 2023 Subaru Outback vs 2023 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport. These represent two of the most technologically advanced models in the class of two-row midsize SUVs, each offering the promise of rugged off-road capabilities in their names.

The 2023 Subaru Outback is part of the sixth generation of this long-running model, which was first introduced by Subaru in the mid-90s and has been one of the most popular models in Subaru’s automotive history. In contrast, the VW Atlas Cross Sport is a relatively new model, making its debut in 2020, the same year the Subaru Outback began its sixth generation, and is a two-row version of Volkswagen’s three-row midsize Atlas SUV. As such, the two models represent different approaches to the same market of drivers.

A gray 2023 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport V6 SEL-R is shown parked near a lake.

Two Different Approaches to Performance

One of the few things these two models have in common is offering drivers a choice of two different engines. This is novel, as many other midsize SUVs have a standard powertrain across all trim levels. As such, both the Outback and the Atlas Cross Sport give you performance options.

Every 2023 Subaru Outback model features the company’s Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system, a full-time all-wheel drivetrain, meaning that it is constantly apportioning torque between the Outback’s wheels. In contrast, the Atlas Cross Sport is front-wheel drive with the two lower trims, the SE and SE with Technology. This means that if you want to get an all-wheel drive SUV, you will have to pay extra for the SEL trim, which comes equipped with Volkswagen’s 4MOTION all-wheel drive system.

Subaru and Volkswagen also approach the two engine options differently on their respective midsize SUV models. The 2023 Subaru Outback features the base engine on its five trims while offering the more advanced engine on three of those trims, including the Limited XT, the Touring XT, and the off-road Wilderness trim. Thus, if you choose an Outback Base or Premium model, you will get the standard engine, a 2.5-liter Subaru BOXER-4. However, if you choose the Onyx Edition, Limited, or Touring, you can opt for the XT model with the 2.4-liter Turbocharged BOXER-4. This allows you to get the desired features with a higher-performing engine.

Volkswagen has again taken a different approach with the 2023 Atlas Cross Sport. The standard 2.0-liter I-4 Turbo comes standard on the SE, SE with Technology, SEL, and SEL R-Line Black models. Only the SEL Premium R-Line comes standard with the larger 3.6-liter V6 gas engine, with drivers able to add this as an option on the SEL R-Line Black trim of the Atlas Cross Sport.

A red 2023 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport is shown parked off-road.

A Closer Look at Engine Options

The base engine on the 2023 Subaru Outback is a 2.5-liter BOXER-4. This comes paired with a Lineartronic continuously variable transmission (CVT). This direct fuel injection engine has a dual overhead camshaft (DOHC) design and provides 16 valves for its 4 cylinders. As such, the engine can produce 182 hp and 176 lb-ft of torque.

Volkswagen has provided a smaller base engine on the 2023 Atlas Cross Sport. This is a 2.0-liter Turbocharged I-4 with an 8-speed automatic transmission. This also has a DOHC configuration with 16 valves and direct fuel injection; however, using a turbocharger boosts the output of the Volkswagen to 235 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque. Still, despite this higher output, the Subaru Outback outperforms the Atlas Cross Sport, as shown by its ability to tow up to 2,700 lbs compared to 2,000 lbs on the VW.

Regarding the higher-performance optional engine, the two automakers have again taken different approaches. Here, Volkswagen offers a larger engine than Subaru. The 2023 Atlas Cross Sport SEL Premium R-Line has a 3.6-liter V6 gas engine with an 8-speed automatic transmission. This has a DOHC configuration with 24 valves for its 6 cylinders and uses direct fuel injection to provide up to 276 hp and 266 lb-ft of torque. In contrast, the 2023 Outback has an available 2.4-liter Turbo BOXER-4 that, while smaller than the V6 on the VW, matches it in performance.

Just like the other engine on the 2023 Outback, this comes with a Lineartronic CVT, with a DOHC configuration and direct fuel injection. However, the use of a turbocharger gives this Outback a serious kick. It can deliver up to 260 hp and 277 lb-ft of torque. This results in an Outback model that can go from 0 to 60 mph in just 5.8 seconds with a top speed of 117 mph. In contrast, the Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport with the 3.6-liter V6 needs 7.5 seconds to reach 60 mph. It also tops out at 116 mph but needs more time to get there.

The Subaru Outback also does a better job of holding the road than the Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport. When equipped with the more powerful 2.4-liter Turbo BOXER-4, it can do the quarter mile in 14.6 seconds at 96 mph. Both engines on the Volkswagen need 15.7 seconds to complete the quarter mile and do so at a slower 90 mph.

Which Model Will Save You More Money at the Pump?

Fuel economy has been a growing concern for drivers around the country over the past year as gas prices have increased. This is why it is vital to get an efficient vehicle, especially if you plan to use it for your daily commute. No matter which engine you choose on the 2023 Subaru Outback, you will get better fuel economy than on the 2023 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport. The Outback with the base 2.5-liter BOXER-4 gets an impressive 28 MPG in combined fuel economy, while choosing the quicker 2.4-liter Turbo Boxer-4 reduces this to a notable 25 MPG.

In contrast, the 2023 Atlas Cross Sport with front-wheel drive and the 2.0-liter I-4 Turbo gets 23 MPG in combined fuel economy. Choosing all-wheel drive reduces this further to 22 MPG. If you choose to equip the Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport with the larger 3.6-liter V6, you will get a combined fuel economy of 20 MPG, which could prove costly if you plan to drive this SUV on a daily basis.

A green 2023 Subaru Outback is shown driving on a highway.

The Promise of Off-Road Capability That Only One Model Delivers

Both the 2023 Subaru Outback and the 2023 Volkswagen Cross Sport feature aggressive looks and exceptional ground clearance. As such, you would be forgiven if you thought both models were being marketed as off-road capable. In fact, the only model of either midsize SUV that has any business out on the trail is the Outback Wilderness.

The Outback Wilderness is a specialized trim of this SUV that has been given special features to handle off-roading. This includes a factory lift that increases the ground clearance to an incredible 9.5 inches, more than the 8.7 inches of ground clearance on other Outback models. It also has a specialized off-road suspension, a drive mode selector that adds Snow and Mud modes, and a set of all-season tires. Finally, the Wilderness is the only trim of either model to feature standard skid plates. These shield key parts of the Outback’s undercarriage, such as the oil pan and transfer case. If your vehicle does not have skid plates, you should probably avoid taking it out on the trail.

Two Midsize Approaches, Two Different Results

It is interesting when automakers are faced with building the same type of vehicle but take incredibly different paths. The two-row midsize model is one of the oldest types of SUV models, yet Subaru and Volkswagen have taken different approaches with the Outback and Atlas Cross Sport. Where the 2023 Outback has standard all-wheel drive, Volkswagen makes you pay a premium for this feature on the 2023 Atlas Cross Sport. Also, you can get different engines on more trims of the Outback than on the Atlas Cross Sport, as well as better fuel economy. For these reasons, the 2023 Subaru Outback truly shines among its midsize competitors.

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