The midsize SUV segment has been as busy as the families who depend on them. The 2017 model year brought us updated versions of the Toyota Highlander and Nissan Pathfinder, as well as a totally redesigned GMC Acadia. Now, 2018 brings us a brand new entry from Volkswagen, an all-new version of the Chevrolet Traverse and an updated Ford Explorer. All of this following a 2016 model year that brought us all-new takes on the Honda Pilot and Mazda CX-9. Whew.
Six of those eight models were available in time for this year’s midsize SUV comparison, so we gathered them up and headed out on a strategically indirect route to the Southern California mountain community of Big Bear Lake. When we weren’t driving them in back-to-back succession we were exploring cubbies, crawling into third rows and comparing notes. When we returned to our Irvine offices, each of six editors had logged more than 300 miles in these all-new and updated models.
As always, the goal of this comparison test is to help give shoppers like you a sense of the relative strengths and weaknesses of each model, not to name winners and losers. Looking for maximum roominess? Make sure to put the new Atlas on your list. Looking to have a little fun? The Mazda CX-9 is your answer. Each of these six SUVs is the best choice for someone, let’s find out if one of them is the best choice for you.
In alphabetical order:
2017 GMC Acadia
Starting Price: $29,995
Max Capacity: 7
Completely rethought for 2017, the new Acadia proved the outlier in this test.Read more
2017 Honda Pilot
Starting Price: $31,685
Max Capacity: 8
The Kelley Blue Book Midsize SUV Best Buy for 2017 continues to meet our lofty expectations. Read more
2017 Mazda CX-9
Starting Price: $32,460
Max Capacity: 7
The best-looking, most fun-to-drive entry in the segment. (The same thing we say about almost every Mazda.)Read more
2017 Nissan Pathfinder
Starting Price: $31,250
Max Capacity: 7
Impressively enhanced for 2017, and one of the roomiest third rows. Read more
2017 Toyota Highlander
Starting Price: $31,590
Max Capacity: 8
Easy, practical and proven. Read more
A bit less domesticated
Starting Price: $29,995 | Price yours
Above Average: Tech, powertrain
Below Average: Roominess, versatility
Consensus: Smaller new Acadia is nicer, less family-oriented
The GMC Acadia wasn’t just redesigned for 2017, it was repositioned. While the outgoing model was dimensionally similar to its Chevrolet Traverse and Buick Enclave corporate cousins (redesigns of which are coming for 2018), GMC’s version is now shorter than the others and is even offered in two-row configurations. If the roomier, 3-row-only 2018 Chevy Traverse had been available, in fact, it’s likely the Acadia wouldn’t have been along for this comparison test.
And while our two-row Acadia test vehicle indeed proved the clear outlier in the group, putting more than 300 miles on the odometer gave us an even better sense of what it is and what it isn’t. From an interior volume perspective, the 2017 GMC Acadia is almost more of a 2-row SUV with the added benefit of an available occasional-use third row. Our Acadia All-Terrain tester, with its advanced all-wheel drive system and 2-row-only layout, is very clearly aimed at Jeep Grand Cherokee shoppers.
So if you like the idea of a comfortable crossover but would prefer the more rugged vibe of a classic SUV, and you’re willing and able to sacrifice some cargo space and third-row roominess — or do without a third row altogether — keep reading to get a clearer picture of whether or not the new Acadia might be the choice for you and yours.
2017 GMC Acadia
Our test vehicle’s 20-inch wheels probably didn’t help, but our highway evaluation notes contained more nitpicks than highlights. The ride was a bit firm, the steering required more attention than most, and there were visibility challenges when changing lanes (mitigated by our vehicle’s blind-spot warning system). And even with a sticker price of more than $47,000, our Acadia didn’t have adaptive cruise control or lane keep assist, increasingly popular features we’d expect on an all-new vehicle stickered at close to $50,000.
Power was not an issue, however, with the Acadia’s 3.6-liter V6 providing 310 horsepower, the most in the group. And while the Acadia demonstrated a few relative shortcomings on the highway, none of them were significant enough to turn off an otherwise interested shopper.
The Acadia was more impressive in the city, thanks to a solid powertrain that’s both smooth off the line and responsive when asked for more. Although it was among the smaller vehicles in our test, the Acadia felt larger, in part becuase of a long dash spanning the distance between the driver and the windshield. In many ways the Acadia delivers the larger feeling of GMC’s Yukon full-size SUV but in a smaller, more efficient package that’s far easier to maneuver about town and through parking lots.
The Acadia’s interior received mixed reviews from our testers. On the plus side, materials and construction were solid and practical considerations included an easily accessible forward bin with power and USB ports, well-placed cupholders and a roomy center-console bin. On the design front, however, it was neither as attractive as the Mazda CX-9 nor as digitally enhanced as the Volkswagen Atlas.
Combining dedicated 4G LTE internet connectivity, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support, plus OnStar telematics services, the 2017 GMC Acadia boasted one of the strongest technology suites in the test. The editors also praised the intuitive interface and redundant hard controls, providing several ways to perform the same function according to the situation and user preferences.
The 2017 GMC Acadia includes a third row of seats at its base price of $29,995, but as you climb the price ladder it either disappears or becomes optional. Acadia models with the All-Terrain package are 5-passenger only, which is what we had for our test. But simply looking at the manufacturer’s specs makes it clear the Acadia’s availble third row is among the smallest in the category. Again, we suggest considering the Acadia a two-row SUV with the advantage of an optional third row.
The Acadia’s second row wasn’t the roomiest in the test, either, but every one of these SUVs offered plenty of room to keep at least two adults comfortable for hundreds of miles.
Again, compared to the other SUVs in this test (save the Mazda CX-9, perhaps), the Acadia’s cargo roominess is lacking. But compared to a Jeep Grand Cherokee the Acadia offers an extra 5 cubic feet of cargo area behind the second row.
Power often comes with a price, and the Acadia’s test-leading horsepower cost a couple extra miles per gallon in EPA-estimated combined fuel economy. But it performed a little better than that in our observed fuel economy, and even at the EPA numbers the Acadia would only cost around $10 more per month compared to the test average.
While stalwarts like the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander still lead the way in midsize SUV resale value, the redesigned Acadia promises to hold onto its value far better than the model it replaces. And for the next several years, we’re forecasting it to retain a greater perecentage of its sticker price than the aging Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Inside and Out Photo Gallery: 2017 GMC Acadia
Right for so many reasons
Starting Price: $31,685 | Price yours
Above Average: Thoughtful, versatile interior, comfortable carlike ride, fantastic resale and reliability
Below Average: Infotainment interface
Consensus: A practical, smart choice that also offers a rewarding driving experience
When it comes to 3-row midsize SUVs, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. In the case of the Pilot, the refined, tech-savvy interior has been designed with enough smart touches, space and versatility to make Honda’s SUV a worthy minivan alternative. The Pilot offers generous space in all three rows as well as a large cargo area. And all that space is extremely easy to use and reconfigure: the slide-and-recline second row is filled with plenty of amenities including seat heaters and HVAC controls. Accessing the third-row — one of the roomiest in the segment — is literally as easy as pushing a button. And with both rows folded, the cargo space is among the best in class.
Making the Pilot even more appealing is its demeanor on the road. The Pilot’s ride is comfortable, and steering and braking feel are excellent. The V6 engine provides plenty of power, but given the choice we’d rather have Honda’s 6-speed transmission behind it than the 9-speed that comes standard on higher trim levels. Driving Honda’s biggest SUV feels similar to driving a large sedan. Another important part of the mix is Honda’s continued emphasis on safety. Honda’s LaneWatch side-view camera system is standard on most trim levels, while the top-level Pilot Elite in our test had Lane Keeping Assist, road departure mitigation and adaptive cruise control, part of the Honda Sensing suite of safety and assist features, plus blind-spot and cross-traffic warning systems.
Honda has earned a stellar reputation for building high-quality vehicles that are made to last, and the Pilot reflects that Honda hallmark with top-notch resale value and low cost-to-own numbers. A versatile, modern interior, refined driving experience and fantastic resale value are key reasons the Pilot is the Kelley Blue Book Midsize SUV Best Buy for 2017. It’s a combination that’s easy to recommend.
2017 Honda Pilot
Between the Pilot’s supple ride, comfortable seats and quiet cabin, road trips are quite pleasant in all three rows. The 280-horsepower, 3.5-liter V6 merrily hums along on the highway, while also providing fuel economy that’s above average for the category. The Pilot’s safety systems are there in case of surprise moves by other drivers or in the event of driver fatigue. Features like forward collision warning, lane departure warning and lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control, and road departure mitigation are confidence-inspiring.
The Pilot’s 9-speed automatic transmission is a bit more finicky than the 6-speed, something we noticed more in traffic than on the highway. The Pilot provides great outward visibility, plus the cross-traffic monitoring was extremely helpful in parking lots. Less helpful was the Pilot’s wider-than-average turning circle, which made parking-lot maneuvers a bit more challenging.
The interior is attractively designed yet highly practical, with plenty of easy-to-access storage spots, a huge bin in the center console, and plenty of power and USB ports throughout. The interior uses soft-touch materials in the right places, and Honda’s attention to detail can be seen in consistently small panel gaps and the vehicle’s quiet demeanor. This is one of the few SUVs in its class that can seat eight instead of the usual seven, which makes an even stronger case for the Pilot as a minivan alternative.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility are standard on every trim level except the base LX, and the touchscreen infotainment system is mostly easy to use, except for the lack of a traditional volume knob.
Rear Seat Room
The Honda Pilot is near the top of its class in terms of passenger volume and ease of use. The second row offers plenty of room, as does the third row. Getting into and out of that third row is a snap: a button on the second row seats quickly tilts and slides the second row forward. There’s plenty of headroom and legroom in that third row as well, which is especially impressive considering the Pilot can seat as many as three people in the back row for a total of eight passengers.
Fold down the second and third rows, and the Pilot can swallow 83.9 cubic feet of gear. It even offers nearly 50 cubic feet of space behind the second row. With the tailgate open, the space is nice and wide and the liftover is fairly low, making it easier to load cargo. There’s also a handy underfloor cubby where you can hide valuables. Another thoughtful feature is a stowable cargo shelf that makes even better use of the space in the cargo area.
With all-wheel drive, the Pilot’s fuel economy is an EPA-rated 22 mpg combined. Whether in front- or all-wheel-drive form, the 9-speed automatic transmission nets fuel economy that’s better by one mpg in the city and puts fuel economy near the top for the six vehicles in this comparison test.
When it comes to resale value, the Honda Pilot continues to impress. Credit Honda’s reputation for vehicles that are built to last, which is backed up by the Pilot’s reliability and quality. Second only to the Toyota Highlander in this test for 36- and 60-month predicted resale values, the Pilot retains a high percentage of its value over time. That makes the Pilot a smart buy at the dealership, will cost you less to own over time and will likely result in a high resale value when it’s time to sell.
Inside and Out: 2017 Honda Pilot
The stylish, sporty alternative
Starting Price: $32,460 | Price yours
Above Average: Styling, driving dynamics, powertrain response
Below Average: Tight third row, no CarPlay/Android Auto compatibility, firm ride
Consensus: The three-row SUV for drivers, but not necessarily for everyone
Just because you need the practicality of a 3-row SUV doesn’t mean your driving life has to be boring. The Mazda CX-9 is a prime example of a midsize SUV that can provide the functional elements you need, while appealing to your emotional side. Gorgeous lines, an eager engine, premium interior and carlike steering and handling ensure that Mazda’s biggest model still has the same spirit and personality as Mazda’s smallest cars. Those who might enjoy the sprightly, nimble attitude of the Mazda3 but need something a lot bigger will love the CX-9.
Mazda’s three-row provides surprising practicality within its attractive shell. While its 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder had the most torque of the six vehicles we tested, it also has the best EPA-rated fuel economy. Our front-wheel-drive vehicle was nicely equipped with features including adaptive cruise control, navigation, a head-up display and heated leather seats, yet at $41,810 was the least expensive vehicle in our group. (Even if you factored in the additional $1,800 cost of all-wheel drive, it still would have had the lowest sticker price.) There is a decent amount of space for cargo and the front two rows are roomy; however, the third row is smaller than you’ll find in other SUVs in the Mazda’s class. The Mazda CX-9 offers both practicality and drivability, all wrapped in a beautiful, upscale package.
2017 Mazda CX-9
The sole engine choice in the CX-9 is a 250-horsepower, 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Fortunately, it’s a very good engine. It’s fuel-efficient, netting fuel economy as good as 22 mpg in the city and 28 on the highway. Ride quality was not the best of this test, nor was the CX-9’s interior the quietest, but the seats offered a good mix of comfort and support, making freeway drives pleasant.
Around town we noticed another advantage of this engine. The 2.5-liter offered the most torque in the test — a heady 310 lb-ft — most of which is available at low rpm. That translates to excellent response from the engine from a stop, and a big part of the reason why the CX-9 offered the liveliest feel in the city. Excellent visibility made it easy to take note of pedestrians and cyclists. When our drive route changed from traversing a city grid to snaking around on mountain roads, the CX-9 came to life as the sharp steering, excellent handling and sporty suspension turned long sweeping curves and tight twists into the best parts of our drive — something we can’t say for any of the other vehicles in the test.
Another plus in the CX-9 is its well-crafted interior. We were impressed by the quality of the materials as well as the elegant, clean appearance of the cabin and Mazda’s attention to detail. It’s functional, too: the gauges are appealing to the eye and very easy to read, and the head-up display is helpful without causing driver distraction. However, the front row could use a larger center bin.
The Mazda Connect system is centered around a click wheel similar to what you’d find in many luxury makes. In the CX-9, you can control audio, phone and navigation functions with the click wheel or you can use the touch screen. It’s a fairly intuitive system, but the CX-9’s infotainment has a couple of downsides. First, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, quickly becoming the industry standard, aren’t available in the CX-9 — they’re standard in some of its competitors — and the navigation system doesn’t include live traffic.
Rear Seat Room
The second row is roomy and comfortable, with good headroom, and the seats recline and slide. Second-row passengers in our CX-9 Grand Touring tester benefit from window shades, their own set of HVAC controls and two USB ports. The third row is usable, but tight on headroom and legroom for adults. Getting in and out is fairly easy, but overall the third row is better suited for kids.
With the second and third rows folded, the CX-9 can carry 71.2 cubic feet of cargo. That number goes down to 38.2 cubic feet behind the second row and only 14.4 cubic feet of space when all three rows are up. That’s less capacity than you’ll find in many other SUVs in its class. The CX-9 does have extra underfloor storage, where you can stow smaller items and keep them out of view.
The Mazda CX-9 was the only SUV in the test with a 4-cylinder engine. The turbocharged four delivered more torque than any of the V6 engines in the test, but it also has the highest EPA fuel economy ratings in the group. While the CX-9 was the only SUV of the six that was a two-wheel-drive model, even the all-wheel-drive CX-9 has better combined fuel economy than the Toyota Highlander, which has the best EPA-rated fuel economy of the V6-powered SUVs we tested. The 2WD CX-9 nets 22 mpg city, 28 mpg highway, 24 mpg combined, which drops to 20/26/23 in AWD models. Note that fuel economy may suffer in the CX-9 for two key reasons: first, this SUV encourages you to drive harder than in other midsize SUVs, and second, Sport mode is fun but it can affect fuel economy.
The CX-9’s resale value is not its strongest suit. Within this group of six vehicles, projected resale value was lower than the segment-leading Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot. However, the CX-9 is the most luxurious of any Mazda to date, with finer materials and quality. These key factors make the CX-9 a compelling SUV and may improve resale value over time.
Inside and Out: 2017 Mazda CX-9
Roomy and ready
Starting Price: $31,250 | Price yours
Above average: People space, cargo space, cruising capability and comfort
Below Average: Infotainment, cabin charm
Consensus: May not rule the segment, but still boasts plenty of buyer appeal
Seriously refreshed for 2017, the Nissan Pathfinder got an impressive load of enhancements that gave it greater visual appeal, upgraded creature/safety features and a healthy boost in power. As a result, Nissan’s roomy and capable hauler has become an even stronger player in today’s hotly contested midsize SUV segment. That extra measure of comprehensive goodness also helped the Pathfinder once again secure a spot in our 2017 Kelley Blue Book Best Family Cars competition.
While tasteful, effective nose and tail tweaks boost the 2017 Pathfinder’s curbside appeal and also improves its aerodynamic profile, a more significant change is found underhood where a major makeover to its now direct-injected 3.5-liter V6 bumps output from 260 to 284 horsepower and kicks torque from 240 to 259 lb-ft. Those gains add a bit more responsiveness and help boost its maximum tow rating from 5,000 to a class-leading 6,000 pounds.
Equally unseen but no less important, the 2017 Pathfinder now offers a number of new driver-assist features that help it earn a 5-Star rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and be selected as a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Key adds include Forward Emergency Braking and Intelligent Cruise Control — although both are only available on the top-line Pathfinder Platinum trim. The 360-degree Around View Monitor which is standard on SL and Platinum, also gains moving object detection capability.
With a modest 7.0-inches of ground clearance and the upgraded 20-inch wheel/tire package that comes on the Platinum version we tested, the Pathfinder is clearly more at home on paved surfaces than playing in the dirt. But its optional multi-mode Intuitive 4WD system does bring an added measure of all-season confidence while 4-wheel-drive locking plus Hill Start Assist/Hill Descent Control do bolster its light-duty off-road capabilities.
The Pathfinder also makes a solid case for itself when it comes to value. As in the past, each trim — S, SV, SL and Platinum — fills a niche and options/packages are few. Opening at an attractive $31,250, the front-drive Pathfinder S includes welcome touches like tri-zone climate control, a larger new 8.0-inch touchscreen for the NissanConnect infotainment package, keyless remote entry/pushbutton starting and more. But even the leather-lined and fully loaded Pathfinder Platinum 4WD stickers at $44,725, a competitive figure that made it the second most-affordable as-tested SUV in this comparo.
2017 Nissan Pathfinder
Like most of its midsize rivals, the Pathfinder is in its true element on the open road and the 2017 changes have made this versatile Nissan even better in that arena. With its extra underhood muscle, the Pathfinder is now more spirited, capable of cruising with ease and passing with a minimum of white-knuckle moments. Some credit also is due to the latest iteration of Nissan’s well-mannered Xtronic CVT transmission, which now features D-Step Logic Control to simulate a conventional automatic — although it does lack shifter paddles. A focused chassis retune gives the Pathfinder more positive steering feel and better body control in corners while maintaining good ride comfort. That said, you won’t be mistaking it for a Mazda CX-9 under any circumstances. At 4,660 pounds, this Nissan also was the heaviest player in this group; and as one staffer noted: “It drives big because it is big.”
Despite its scale, the Pathfinder does a solid job of coping with day-to-day urban operations. Even with the added weight of 4WD, this Nissan steps out smartly from stoplights and easily paces traffic. The newly available Forward Emergency Braking system coupled with the Blind Spot Monitor and Rear Cross Traffic Alert help the Pathfinder in close-quarters maneuvering. Equally notable, the enhanced version of Nissan’s already impressive Around View Monitor makes navigating into and out of tight parking spots far less stressful – although the Pathfinder does share the same 38.7-foot turning circle as the Acadia and Highlander so it still pays to be attentive.
The Pathfinder cabin merits fairly high marks overall, although there are a few details that could definitely use some tweaking. Space and space utilization are impressive and place this versatile Nissan offering near the top tier of both categories. The seats are long on comfort and adjustability, with even the third row being far above average. And despite the occasional intrusion of low-level road rumble on certain surfaces, the Pathfinder’s passenger compartment is commendably quiet. Basic control layouts are good, instrumentation – including the new Advanced Driver Assist Display – legible and stow space fairly generous. Despite those notable upsides, we did find the quality of some of the plastic bits far from class leading and the faux wood accent trim — mercifully but rather ironically confined to only the Platinum variant – was universally panned for just looking cheap.
Part of the 2017 Pathfinder’s makeover included the fitment of the latest generation NissanConnect infotainment system that brings a larger 8.0-inch display and offers both touch and redundant conventional controls as part of a new and improved HMI (Human Machine Interface). While creating a somewhat button-rich environment, it does provide good operational capability and includes SiriusXM and HD Radio while offering NissanConnect Services as an option. However, like last year, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration are still notable no-shows. The Platinum trim also brings a Bose audio package and NissanConnect Navigation system with voice control. Nissan doubled the Pathfinder’s USB port count from one to two for 2017, although both are inside the covered center storage bin. That decision had several staffers wishing at least one was located in the open front tray that does contain a pair of 12V powerpoints.
Rear Seat Room
Nissan deserves major kudos for the 7-seat Pathfinder’s total packaging design brief, and that starts with the rear seats. The 60/40 split second-row bench features the automaker’s EZ Flex Seating System with Latch and Glide. In addition to incorporating a long, fully adjustable track slide to accommodate passengers of various size, the lower cushions pop up to allow the seat to move far forward permitting easy access to what’s still one of the best 50/50 third-row perches in the segment. Although not quite a match for the Atlas, with a bit of consideration from riders in row two, it can still accommodate modestly-scaled adults for shorter treks.
Part two of the Pathfinder’s superb versatility story revolves around how much it can handle in the way of personal possessions. In addition to a commendably low liftover height, the rear hatch has a large, optimally shaped cutout and its programmable power-activation on SL and Platinum-spec models is now triggered by a kick-under motion. Basic stow space grows from a slightly above average 16.0 cu ft behind the third row to 47.8 cu ft with the third row folded flat and 79.8 cu ft with both rear seats dropped. While all of those stats fall short of the mobile cave numbers offered by the new VW Atlas, they’re still quite respectable compared to other rivals.
Despite gaining more motive force for 2017 that improved its acceleration capabilities, the latest Pathfinder 4WD maintained its 2016 EPA fuel economy ratings of 16 city/26 highway/22 combined mpg – with a 21 mpg combined figure for the Pathfinder Platinum 4WD. Those stats slotted it neatly into the middle of this competitive set and the same held true for its performance during the comparison drive. There, the Pathfinder’s 21.6 mpg average landed toward the middle of a range bookended by the 20.7 mpg number of the VW Atlas and the Honda Pilot’s 23.0 mpg.
Although it plays in a decidedly competitive realm, the Pathfinder is projected to maintain a reasonable portion of its purchase price over time. However, based on historical data, it’s still likely to fall significantly behind the Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot in that category and marginally trail the other players in this comparative set. However, given an attractive cost of entry that extends into top-echelon Pathfinder trim grades, new driver-assist features and above-average versatility, this spacious and accommodating Nissan SUV still merits serious buyer consideration.
Inside and Out: 2017 Nissan Pathfinder
Leaves no box unchecked
Starting Price: $31,590 | Price yours
Above average: Easy to use, easy to drive, unbeaten track record
Below Average: Infotainment features, interior volume
Consensus: Hard to go wrong with Highlander
A mainstay of the 3-row midsize SUV segment, the Toyota Highlander is a regular on our annual list of Best Family Cars and a former Kelley Blue Book Midsize SUV Best Buy. Meaningful updates for 2017 have made it even better.
Available with 4-cylinder and hybrid powertrains, the Highlander’s bread-and-butter motivator is a newly enhanced 3.5-liter V6 that was among the most powerful and most fuel-efficient engines in the test, thanks in part to a new 8-speed automatic transmission. Combined with 8-passenger versatility, an easy-driving nature and a bulletproof reputation for long-term reliability, the Highlander is an almost unassailable choice for families of all kinds.
2017 Toyota Highlander
At higher speeds, the Toyota Highlander nails a satisfying sweet spot between the sportier Mazda CX-9 and more substantial-feeling Nissan Pathfinder. In addition to what most KBB editors believe to be the most comfortable ride among our test group, the Highlander’s view forward is excellent, wind noise is negligible, and not once did the high-riding Toyota feel susceptible to unpredictable mountain gusts. When it comes to overtaking maneuvers, a new 295-horsepower V6 works in concert with an equally new 8-speed automatic transmission to click off rapid, if not sports car-like passes around slower traffic. The standard Safety Sense suite of active safety aides worked flawlessly as well, with adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, and even automatic high beam control all working together to enhance the experience instead of complicating it.
Despite a mediocre turning radius, the Toyota Highlander’s comparatively tidy exterior dimensions make it feel surprisingly at home in cramped urban environments. Thanks to a low beltline and smartly angled interior panels, side and rearward visibility in the Highlander is as good as it gets in a 3-row SUV. And while we wish the 360-degree camera system wasn’t reserved exclusively for range-topping Limited and Platinum models, our XLE model’s large backup camera display and dynamic guidelines helped simplify the parking process.
Toeing a fine line between artful and ostentatious, the Highlander’s interior earns high marks for its stylish-yet-functional aesthetic. The long, padded shelf positioned just below the dash is perfect for storing your wallet, smartphone, keys or whatever else, and the massive center console bin can easily swallow anything too bulky for the shelf. Nothing feels chintzy inside, and materials quality is better than expected across all three rows of seats.
Bringing up the rear in the multimedia portion of our comparison is Toyota’s outmoded Entune infotainment system. Operating core functions like navigation and media are simple and straightforward, but the interface is starting to show its age. The display is dull and nearly impossible to view in bright conditions, and the absence of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is sure to dissuade buyers who want leading-edge connectivity in a future-proof package.
Rear Seat Room
The third row in the 2017 Highlander appears to have been sacrificed in the name of style. The low, sloping roofline compromises headroom, while knee room is generally unsuitable for adults. Then again, filling the third row with three small children is not out of the question, and accessing the third-row is a cinch thanks to one-touch walk-in functions fitted on both sides of the car.
In terms of roominess, the Highlander’s rear cargo area ranked in the middle of the pack. But nice touches like a nearly flat load floor – that also happened to be lowest in our test – and easy-to-fold second and third-row seats helped make up for the relative lack in storage space. The Highlander is also the only midsize SUV to offer a pop-up glass hatch, a feature that comes in especially handy when hauling long, oversized items.
In a predominately highway-heavy drive, which included a 6,500-foot climb up to Big Bear Lake, our 2017 Toyota Highlander XLE returned some of the best fuel economy in our test. Officially, the EPA rates our AWD tester at 20 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway, which, in the real world, is just as efficient as the Highlander’s embarrassingly underpowered 4-cylinder engine. In other words, ignore the 4-cylinder at all costs.
The Toyota Highlander posts some of the strongest residual values among midsize SUVs. Not unlike the Honda Pilot, the Highlander holds its value tremendously well based on its stellar reputation for quality and reliability.
Inside and Out: 2017 Toyota Highlander
Volkswagen goes big
Starting Price: $31,425 | Price yours
Above Average: Unprecedented interior space and a monstrous 6-year/72,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty.
Below Average: More power to move the beast is at the top of our wish list.
Consensus: Priced responsibly, smartly equipped, and roomier than you can imagine, the all-new Atlas makes a strong case for you and the family to revisit the brand.
Built alongside the Passat at Volkswagen’s factory in Chattanooga, Tennessee, the 2018 VW Atlas is the biggest passenger vehicle that Volkswagen sells in the U.S. The company has been hurting for a 3-row SUV for around forever, and now the birth bells are ringing. This new Atlas is a big boy. It’s exterior fits well within the norms of a midsize SUV and its competition, but once inside or once you start packing it with your cargo, you’ll find an interior that feels and acts like it could fit the whole of the Montana sky and still have enough room left over for a racquetball court. Just sayin’. To move the mass, the Atlas starts out with a 276-horsepower 3.6-liter V6, to be followed later this year by a 235-horsepower turbocharged 4-cylinder. Both engines will come with 8-speed automatic transmissions.
Pricewise, VW’s new SUV sits right on top of its peers, starting a little over $31,000 and reaching into the thinner air just below the $50,000-foot level for the best-of-everything model. In conjunction with the birth of the 3-row Atlas, however, Volkswagen has another new product that’s worth passing out cigars about: a 6-year/72,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty. That’s right, the new Atlas is covered with the new gold standard of stem-to-stern protection for an SUV.
2018 Volkswagen Atlas
The new Atlas has a fairly quiet demeanor on the open road, and a long wheelbase that makes the ride very easy-going no matter what shape that road is in. Comfortable and steady at high speeds, we noticed that the Atlas was no lightweight in the class, though it was by no means the heftiest player either. Nevertheless, when we wanted to make a really good, quick showing on a freeway onramp or if we needed to get around some lollygagger on the highway, we had to work pretty hard to get the Volkswagen SUV on full steam. On paper, the VW’s 276-horsepower V6 looks good, with 266 lb-ft of torque powering up at a low 2,750 rpm and an 8-speed automatic transmission calling the shifts. The reality, however, was really OK acceleration and second effort, but nothing more.
Midsize SUVs tend not to develop well into race cars, but by the same token, the Germans won’t let a car out of their grasp without giving it some sporting character. That’s so true with the VW Atlas. On mountain roads, the Atlas was all game, moving in and out of hard corners and sweepers without panic. As mentioned earlier, our all-wheel-drive Atlas came with a bonus: a “Drive Mode Selection” (DMS) knob on the center console that allowed us to choose varied driving characters for the vehicle. Beyond the DMS’s “Snow,” “Offroad” and “Custom Offroad” settings, the default “Onroad” setting gives you four mode choices: Normal, Sport, Eco and Individual. Essentially, each of these modes remaps the engine, transmission and steering to whichever personality you’ve chosen. We enjoyed Sport mode most, even for everyday driving, and we like that the mode you set stays chosen — meaning you don’t have to reset “Sport” (or “Eco,” if that’s your style) every time you restart the car.
In spite of its size, the VW Atlas behaved itself well in the big city. With the Drive Mode Selection’s Sport mode setting engaged, red-light/green-light became a fun game again. The Atlas is big, yes, but it slips cleanly into (and out of) normal-sized parking spots without a lot of back-and-forth fine tuning. If you’re nervous or wealthy, however, the upper reaches of the Atlas model line — especially the all-wheel-drive SEL Premium version — offers the ultimate assistances like a 360-degree Area View camera, Park Assist (the SUV automatically steers you into a parallel parking space), and Light Assist (your brights will never blind anyone ever again).
A good steering wheel and a comfortable, supportive seat are all that a real person needs to be happy. The new Atlas takes care of that, along with universe-class roominess in all three rows. And while the interior styling didn’t blow anybody’s doors off with either innovation or showboating, some very practical, thoughtful benefits appear even at the base trim level. For instance, separate climate controls for the first and second row are a stand-out. You can spend your way up to all kinds of trim-level-specific lovelies like a 12-speaker Fender audio system, leather, extra rows of USB ports, heated rear seats, and adaptive cruise control, but before you do, take a long look at some of the less-expensive models — you may well find the value model that gives you everything you need to be happy.
The first truth: The 2018 Volkswagen Atlas infotainment system is a pretty menu-heavy system, but you’ll get used to it. The second, and much more important truth: Every Atlas is ready for your smartphone. Standard across the line, VW’s MIB II and Car-Net App-Connect welcomes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (and MirrorLink, if that’s who you are) to give your Atlas immediate smartphone interaction (including navigation) and capability. In the base model only, the standard infotainment touch screen is a 6.5-incher. Every move up from there blesses you with an 8.0-inch, glass-covered screen that produces some of the sharpest image and color reproduction we’ve seen.
Rear Seat Room
Overall roominess is where the Atlas feels like it’s in a class all by itself. Our 6-foot, 5-inch absurdity-testing editor lounged in the second row’s generous legroom and headroom, and then bounded — bad knee and all — into the third row where he was simply unable to make himself uncomfortable. Getting in and out of the second row bench seat was velvet smooth and easy for our tall tester. Better than that, however, was that the second row seat folded and slid dramatically forward to allow our on-staff giant unfettered access to the third row.
The new Atlas uses its big-midsize-SUV dimensions to an extremely useful advantage. Even with all three rows of seating in place, it still provides 20.6 cubic feet of cargo capacity behind that third row — that’s more than Chevy’s massive Impala can fit into its trunk. True, loading things in and out of the Atlas is a little tougher than in the lower-liftover Toyota Highlander, but the VW’s seatbacks fold pool-table flat, and when they’re all down, you can stuff 96.8 cubic feet of stuff into the back — that’s more than a full-size GMC Yukon or Nissan Armada can accommodate. The rear liftback opens wide, too.
The little rain that must fall into the Volkswagen Atlas’ life came down when we checked fuel economy for our comparison test. The combination of weight, all-wheel drive and a short-of-breath V6 engine sent the Atlas to the back of the class for fuel economy. VW’s new SUV didn’t fall too hard by comparison, but with an overall trip fuel-consumption of just a hair over 20 mpg, it’s clear that the Atlas won’t be seeing the “Best Gasoline Saver” podium any time soon.
Historically, resale values for Volkswagen SUVs have been nothing to crow about. Keep in mind, however, that Volkswagen SUVs have, historically, been a pretty unfocused lot. The new Atlas, on the other hand, is very clear about what it is, what its mission is, and where it belongs in the marketplace. While it’s too early to predict resale values for such a new vehicle, two things are certain to help the Atlas hold its value. The first is that some of its greatest hits — roominess, 3-row utility, standard Apple CarPlay compatibility — don’t wear out. The other big plus is the 6-year/72,000-mile warranty — it’s fully transferable, which means that the peace of mind of warranty coverage stays with the car. That’s not the case with some other super-warranties.
Inside and Out: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas