2018 Volkswagen Atlas V-6 SEL Premium with 4Motion vs. 2018 Toyota Highlander Hybrid V-6 AWD: Battle of the midsize three-row SUVs.
Price: $50,275 for the Atlas as tested (but it starts at $30,750) vs. $37,479 for the Highlander (starting at $31,030).
Marketer's pitch: Volkswagen tells buyers, "Life's as big as you make it," while Toyota says, "Let's explore every possibility."
Conventional wisdom: Motor Trend says the Highlander offers "lots of cargo space, efficient hybrid variant," and is "capable in mild off-road situations," but also the "interior has a lot of cheap plastics, SE model doesn't really improve handling, [and the] eight-speed automatic always wants to be in the highest gear."
About the Atlas, Car and Driver says you'll like the "gobs of space inside, refined powertrain, plush ride" but that it's "thirsty and not a sprinter [with] some cheap interior plastics [and a] cartoonish front end."
Reality: One is bigger than I thought, and the other is smaller, but they're the same size.
To the test: It's been a long time since I've written head-to-head columns. But I could hardly avoid the opportunity with the Atlas and the Highlander, as they were parked in front of Chez Sturgis for the exact same week.
And it was serendipity. Advertising and media reports had pegged the Atlas as the first three-row SUV for full-size adults, so I was expecting something larger than a Highlander, but seeing them in a row made me realize just what had befallen me.
This week we'll get to know them and dig around inside, while next week we take them out for a weeklong spin.
What they are: The Toyota Highlander is a gray mare in Toyota's stable, a twentysomething-year-old name that — like most American vehicles (and most Americans) — has grown bulkier over the years.
The Atlas is a fresh face for 2018, Volkswagen's attempt to get serious about selling vehicles to an audience that values elbow room. They're just never going to give us the Microbus back. Why do Americans keep buying cars from Volkswagen? (Looks at sales figures.) Oh, yeah, they kind of don't.
How they look: The Highlander looks the way it has for several years. It's missed the scowling Toyota "refreshening" of late, which is a good thing.
When I posted a picture of the Atlas on social media, looking like a hipster school bus in its Kurkuma yellow coat, friends guessed it to be a Cherokee. So even despite the wild color scheme, no one is calling it groundbreaking in the design department.
Driver's Seat: Inside, both SUVs do a fantastic job of accurately representing their brands.
The Atlas steering wheel controls have Volkswagen's standard setup for cruise and stereo controls. The Highlander has Toyota's cruise stalk — my favorite — and other controls similar to Toyota models, as well.
The Highlander came with Toyota's cloth seats and felt quite like the Sturgis Family Sienna in SUV form, albeit more comfortable and with snugger seats. The Atlas had the leather upgrade, and, man, those Germans are tough. What a hard perch from which to drive.
Friends and stuff: Or from which to ride. Second- and third-row passengers will also feel the stiffness of the Atlas leather seat. The vehicle had only 600 miles on it, so the seats may need some breaking in.
As for roominess, the second and third rows are almost identical in the Highlander and Atlas. The Atlas has second-row bucket seats, so getting around inside was easier, and the third-row passengers could stretch a bit more. But in both vehicles, a 5-foot-10-inch guy like myself could sit comfortably in the second row and then only slightly uncomfortably in the third. Knees suffered the most in both vehicles, and headroom was just enough.
Cargo space is 83.7 cubic feet behind the Highlander's front row, while the Atlas boasts 96.7, which is quite a lot, especially considering the Atlas is just 6 inches longer than the Toyota.