Editor’s note: You may want to read more of Autotrader’s model vs. model comparison car reviews as well as the 2018 Volkswagen Atlas review, the 2017 Toyota Highlander review, 2016 vs 2017 Toyota Highlander: What’s the Difference? and Buying a Used Toyota Highlander: Everything You Need to Know.
The 2018 Volkswagen Atlas is the new kid on the block, entering an increasingly popular 3-row family crossover segment filled with names that have been around for well over a decade. One would be the 2017 Toyota Highlander, a long-standing best seller and one whose current generation is more competitive than any previous iteration. There’s a reason so many families choose it, but let’s examine what the upstart Atlas has going for it to see if it might be a better choice for your family.
2018 VW Atlas
The Atlas is an all-new model that slots into a segment previously unfulfilled by Volkswagen. Built in Chattanooga, TN, it’s designed for the American market as opposed to VW’s previous SUV offerings. See all 2017 Volkswagen Atlas models available near you
2017 Toyota Highlander
Information about the 2018 Highlander wasn’t available at the time of this writing, but we doubt there’ll be significant updates after last year’s significant mid-cycle changes. Those included a more powerful and efficient V6 engine and a new 8-speed automatic transmission. The Toyota Safety Sense suite of accident avoidance tech became standard, while a new SE trim level offered sportier styling and suspension tuning. Every 2017 Highlander also got updated styling. See all 2017 Toyota Highlander models available near you
The Atlas is too new to fairly comment on its reliability. However, if history is any indication, we would expect the Highlander to be better. Perhaps not greatly — the Atlas could end up being better-than-average — but it’s going up against a vehicle with a virtually flawless reliability record over the course of multiple generations.
One major thing in the Atlas’ favor, though: its warranty. It comes with a 6-year/72,000-mile full vehicle warranty, including powertrain coverage. That outdoes even Hyundai’s vaunted 5-year limited vehicle warranty by a year, while doubling Toyota’s coverage of three years or 36,000 miles for bumper-to-bumper. Powertrain coverage is also lower at 5 years/60,000 miles.
The Atlas comes standard with a 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine (235 horsepower, 258 lb-ft of torque) that returns 22 miles per gallon city, 26 mpg highway and 24 mpg combined. You can only get it with front-wheel drive (FWD). The available 3.6-liter V6 (276 hp, 258 lb-ft) returns 18 mpg city/25 mpg hwy/20 mpg combined with standard FWD. Optional "4Motion" all-wheel drive (AWD) essentially reduces fuel economy by 1 mpg. In a week testing an Atlas V6 with 4Motion, we actually did a bit better than the combined estimate.
The Highlander comes standard with a 4-cylinder engine, but it gets worse fuel economy than the available V6 that has 100 more hp. As such, forget we even mentioned it. The 3.5-liter V6 standard on most trims produces 295 hp and 263 lb-ft of torque. Fuel economy varies a bit depending on trim level, but the majority of them return 21/27/23 mpg with FWD and 20/26/22 with AWD. So yes, the Highlander is more efficient despite having more power and also offers a hybrid model that achieves 29/27/28 mpg.
Not only does the Highlander have more power than the Atlas, but its lighter weight means that it provides significantly quicker acceleration. In fact, the Atlas is one of the slowest SUVs in the segment, with a 0-to-60 mph time that barely cracks eight seconds. That would’ve been good several years ago, but today it translates into an SUV that can feel a bit winded. By contrast, the Highlander does basically the same sprint a full second quicker and rarely feels taxed.
That weight also makes the Highlander feel more agile while navigating city streets or a winding back road. Its steering isn’t as sharp as some other 3-row crossovers,’ but the overall driving experience is a reasonably well-balanced one among the goals of responsiveness, comfort and driving ease. If you are looking for something sportier, we’d probably skip the new SE trim in favor of a different model entirely — its returned suspension just doesn’t make enough of a difference.
As for the Atlas, it can feel a bit cumbersome at times, especially on those back roads. However, it has that big, solid feel people appreciate about both German vehicles and American-made full-size SUVs. It rides down the road with the utmost composure, chewing up highway miles with a refinement that betters the Highlander and feels more indicative of a luxury model. At the same time, its drive settings let you adjust the steering effort to your liking and when Sport is engaged, the Atlas’ helm feels a little more communicative and responsive than what you’d get in the Highlander.
Here’s where Atlas vs. Highlander starts to turn in VW’s favor. It’s absolutely enormous inside. Someone 6-foot-3 can fit comfortably in the third row, which is an extreme that demonstrates just how much space is back there. Headroom is sufficient and legroom can even be expanded thanks to the sliding second-row seat. In fact, you can fit similarly tall people in each of the rows at the same time. Nevermind the Highlander, the Atlas is comparable to a Ford Expedition. To put this space into more realistic terms, the kids will feel less claustrophobic, it’ll be easier to install child seats and you’ll be able to fit more stuff during road trips.
The Atlas scores big with cargo capacity too. A few roller suitcases or a multitude of shopping bags can still fit behind that third row (20.6 cu ft. is a substantial amount for this segment and nearly matches that 2018 Expedition), while folding it reveals 55.5 cu ft. behind the second row. That too is a lot, as is the maximum of 96.8 cu ft. — only the gargantuan new Chevrolet Traverse betters that at 98.2.
The Highlander is considerably smaller. Though bigger than past iterations, adults of any size will struggle to fit in the third row (kids will also feel more cramped). It’s also harder to get into, as the second row doesn’t slide nearly as far forward as the Atlas’ does. It’s hard to complain about the second row, however, and space up front with both SUV’s is comparable.
Cargo space behind the third row is a rather rinky-dink 13.8 cu ft., making it one of the least useful spaces in the segment. Maximum space of 83.2 cu ft. is substantially less than what the Atlas has, but is actually average for the segment.
The Highlander comes standard with forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking and lane-keeping assistance. Those items are optional on the SE trim level (not available on the base S trim) and standard on the SEL. Blind spot monitoring is standard starting on the SE trim, while the Highlander gets it with its XLE trim level.
The Atlas received a perfect five stars in the government’s overall, frontal and side crash ratings. The Highlander differs only with its 4-star frontal rating. The non-profit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave both SUVs the best possible rating of Good for their crash test performance, but gave the Highlander a slightly better score for front crash prevention (because its system is standard) and for having better headlights.
Both SUV’s come standard with small touchscreens, which can be upgraded with larger units. We’ve sampled both of those upgrades and can report that they are both user friendly, though the Volkswagen’s appearance is perhaps more state-of-the-art.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard in the Atlas, whereas you can’t get them at all in the Highlander. You can also upgrade the Atlas with VW’s new Digital Cockpit display screen gauge cluster, which puts information (perhaps too much of it) closer to the driver’s line of sight. The Highlander does come standard with five USB ports spread throughout the interior, whereas the Atlas gets its full complement of four ports (first and second rows only) starting with the SE trim.
Forgetting once again the Highlander’s base engine, its effective base price with the V6 is $32,680. The Atlas starts things off at $30,500. So, you get a larger vehicle for less money, but again, it lacks the Highlander’s standard safety tech. Although its turbo 4-cylinder is superior to the Highlander’s base engine, it’s still even further down on power relative to the Toyota V6.
VW has a clearer advantage when comparing mid-grade trims given the $38,520 Highlander XLE and $35,690 Atlas SE with Technology package. Even adding the optional V6 engine still keeps things under the Highlander.
Comparing range-topping models gets tricky given the pricier Highlander Hybrid, and some Atlas features aren’t offered by Toyota.
We thought this would work out more in the Highlander’s favor, but looking at the case above, the Atlas makes a much stronger showing than expected. Its 6-year warranty countering the Toyota’s presumed superior reliability counts for a lot, as does its sheer size advantage. Of course, if you don’t need such a huge vehicle, the Highlander’s more efficient and more powerful engine might be of greater benefit. In any event, the 2018 Volkswagen Atlas deserves attention from any shopper looking for a large family SUV.