Three-row midsize SUVs are today’s family cars of choice. Two of the leading contenders are the 2021 Subaru

Ascent and the 2021 Volkswagen

Atlas. Which is better?

Quick facts
  • The Volkswagen Atlas an American-built German SUV with space for seven passengers.

  • The Subaru Ascent is the brand’s first three-row entry since the Tribeca.

2021 Volkswagen Atlas

Base price: $31,545

What we like: Plenty of interior space; Updated looks; Option of FWD or AWD; Built in Tennessee.

What we would change: Make it more fuel-efficient.

Overview: The 2021 Volkswagen Atlas is a large, midsize SUV with three rows of seats and seating for as many as seven passengers. It has tons of interior space and comes in AWD and FWD versions. You can also choose either a 235 horsepower turbocharged 4-cylinder engine or a naturally aspirated V6. Be warned, you will spend on gas, with either variant.

What’s new for 2021: For 2021, the VW has refreshed the Atlas with new front and rear styling that adds almost 3 inches to its overall length. Under the skin, a turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine is now available for the first time in AWD models.

Also see: Review: The ID.4, Volkswagen’s all-new electric compact SUV with a 250-mile range

The top trim levels of the Atlas — the SEL Premium, for example — can now be ordered with the 4-cylinder, which isn’t quite as powerful as the V6 but offers better fuel economy. Moreover, VW’s driver-assistance features have been refined, and the latest in-car telematics system provides improved response.

Onboard Wi-Fi is available on all 2021 VW Atlas models, while a larger 8-in touchscreen is standard on all but the base model.

Features and technology: The 2021 Volkswagen Atlas comes in three trims, the S, SE, and SEL. The base model S gets the 4-cylinder engine as standard and comes with cruise control and a safety suite with automatic emergency braking.

See: Size matters: The best large cars

Step up to the SE, and you get optional access to the V6 engine and the SE with Technology model, which adds adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert.

The SEL comes in a couple of variants, including the SEL R-Line. That version gets 12-inch wheels and R-line body trim. At the SEL trim, you get access to VW’s stellar digital cockpit feature that shows up in some of Volkswagen’s sister brands (Audi). At the Atlas SE level, you can add the captain’s chairs for the back seat, as well. All versions get optional AWD.

The Atlas has a tow rating (when equipped with the tow package) of 5,000 pounds. Otherwise, it tows only 2,000 pounds.

What does the future hold? As SUVs boom, the Atlas will likely continue to stick around and get refreshes. 

2021 Subaru Ascent

Base price: $33,345 

The 2021 Subaru Ascent


What we like: Great outward visibility, standard AWD, lots of driver aids included, IIHS Top Safety Pick+

What we would change: Make the accident-avoidance tech less annoying, and smooth out the throttle response.

Overview: The Subaru Ascent features many of the brand’s traditional elements, including standard AWD, boxer engines, good visibility, and strong value, in a larger form. Compared with the Outback, the Ascent is 5.5 inches longer in wheelbase and overall, allowing space for a standard third-row seat. In all three rows, the passenger room is good, and luggage space is, too, although the 17.6 cubic feet aft of the third row is merely average. Big windows provide a good view for the driver and keep passengers from feeling claustrophobic. 

The Ascent only gets one engine, a turbocharged 2.4-liter boxer four that provides gutsy acceleration and good fuel economy. Sadly, it’s paired with a CVT, and accelerator response can be nonlinear. The AWD system includes X-Mode with hill-descent control, which combines with an impressive 8.7 inches of ground clearance to let the Ascent wander far off-pavement.

What’s new for 2021: For 2021, Subaru adds steering-responsive LED headlights with automatic high-beams to all trims. A standard rear-seat reminder function is also new.

Features and technology: The 2021 Subaru Ascent is offered in base, Premium, Limited, and Touring trim levels. All models include forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, and adaptive cruise control with lane centering. That’s a strong list, but their excessive bleating might tempt some drivers to switch them off.

The base car also includes Apple

CarPlay, Android Auto, four USB ports, roof rails, and a bench second-row seat. The Premium adds blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert. It also upgrades the infotainment system from a 6.5-inch touchscreen to an 8-inch unit.

Second-row captain’s chairs can be had here, and further options include a panoramic sunroof, a power liftgate, and navigation. The Limited’s niceties include leather, a heated steering wheel, heating for the front and rear seats, and a memory function for the power driver’s seat.

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The Touring exclusives include a rear camera mirror and a front-view camera, plus unique exterior trim.

What does the future hold? The Ascent is only in its third model year, but we could see Subaru porting over the extra-large 11.6-inch portrait-oriented touchscreen from the Legacy/Outback at some point. 

Atlas vs. Ascent: Strengths comparison

Volkswagen Atlas benefits: Variety of engines and tons of interior space.

Subaru Ascent benefits: Long list of standard active-safety features, good fuel economy, standard AWD, IIHS Top Safety Pick+ rating

2021 Subaru Ascent vs. 2021 Volkswagen Atlas: Which is better?

If you really need seating for eight, your best bet is the Subaru Ascent. If you’re a bit more flexible and want something that comes with a V-6 engine, your best bet is the Volkswagen Atlas. 

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