Somewhere between learning how to swaddle and trading neighborhoods with good gastropubs for neighborhoods with good grade schools, you realized that city runabout just won't cut it as a family hauler. Enter the three-row SUV. The 2018 Volkswagen Atlas is the current champ, with enough utility and drivability to smoke its peers in our comparison test last year en route to winning Cars.com's top award for the 2018 model year. But then Subaru reentered the ring with the all-new 2019 Ascent, its first three-row SUV since the demise of the Tribeca. On sale now, the Ascent is what Subaru calls a "mobile headquarters" for the family.
How do the two match up? Managing Editor Joe Bruzek and Senior Consumer Affairs Editor Kelsey Mays — both new dads themselves — drove the SUVs back to back.
In addition to driving impressions, we tested car-seat accommodations and cargo space. We pitted a top-of-the-line 2019 Ascent Touring ($45,670 with destination) against our long-term 2018 Atlas SEL ($44,135), both with all-wheel drive and three rows of seats, to find out if the new Subaru Ascent can dethrone the Volkswagen Atlas.
Winner: Ascent (17 points, Atlas 12 — all scores out of 20)
Kelsey: "I'm not wild about the Ascent's interior aesthetics; the center controls look as scattershot as an episode of 'Westworld.' But from a quality standpoint, Subaru plays the better hand. The Ascent wraps stitched soft-touch panels in areas where the Atlas leaves an expanse of hard, cheap plastic — especially in the second row, where Volkswagen exhibits obvious cost-cutting."
Joe: "The Atlas' interior has always been just OK in my book — not bad, not great. That was until I drove the Ascent for this test and the Atlas' interior suddenly felt low-rent. I stopped watching 'Westworld' after season one (big surprise, the robots became self-aware and someone you didn't think was a robot was a robot), but unlike Kelsey, I liked the techy, cockpit-like vibe from the various color displays and boldly styled steering wheel."
Winner: Atlas (16 points, Ascent 13)
Joe: "Volkswagen must have laser-scanned a well-worn-in sofa recliner to engineer the Atlas' front seats because there are big levels of comfort and a relaxed seating position. The Atlas has no shortage of front room, which is where the Ascent came up short: My knee rubbed against the center console while my resting foot was cramped on the left side of the pedals."
Kelsey: "Agreed. As tested, the Ascent had more front-seat comforts: leather upholstery that's clearly lusher than the Atlas' vinyl, plus heating and effective cooling — not the norm given most cooled seats are as effective as my 1-year-old's skills in feeding herself — versus the heaters only in our Atlas. But the Ascent's chairs feel smaller and overstuffed, and the passenger seat lacks the Atlas' height adjustment, an omission that always ensures justifiable criticism from my wife."
Winner: Atlas (18 points, Ascent 14)
Kelsey: "Second-row adults should find a comfortable roost in both SUVs, but the Atlas gets my nod thanks to a little more knee clearance from where I sit to drive, plus larger seats overall. The Ascent's captain's chairs are heated versus our Atlas' unheated bench, but larger adults will appreciate Volkswagen's bigger cushions all year round."
Joe: "VW Atlas: bigger cushions for bigger people — VW's marketing department may not grab onto that one, but the Atlas' expansive bench seat beats the small captain's chairs in the Ascent. The Ascent's optional captain's chairs' cushions feel small, and there's not as much legroom as the Atlas."
Winner: Atlas (16 points, Ascent 10)
Joe: "Comparing third rows by seating capacity is a classic case of 'specifications can lie.' Sure, the Ascent has the seat belts for three people versus only two in the Atlas, but that doesn't mean you want to put three people in the backseat, or two, or even one normal-sized adult. The two SUVs feel like they're competing in different size classes judging solely on third-row room. The larger Atlas has a third row I comfortably fit in, while the Ascent's third row is best suited for kids; my head hit the top of the inside, and my knees were practically in my throat."
Kelsey: "I second that. The Ascent has third-row air vents; that's where my praise ends, as the Atlas also has those standard. Third-row adults will want to negotiate more knee space from those in the sliding second row in both SUVs, but the Atlas only needs a few clicks forward to make it workable in back. In the Ascent, you need to slide the second row almost all the way forward to create workable legroom in the third row — a point at which it's tight for adults in the second row."
Winner: Atlas (17 points, Ascent 12)
Kelsey: "This one's a decisive victory for the Atlas, which we judged to have the best-in-group cargo space when it beat out three other family SUVs last year. Subaru can't touch it: By our measurements, the Atlas had 31 percent more room behind the second row and 23 percent more behind the third row."
Joe: "Not only does the Atlas fit more junk, but it's easier to load that junk into the SUV thanks to a lower cargo load-in height. The Ascent's cargo area is unusually high off the ground for a car-based three-row SUV — as opposed to a truck-based rig like a Chevrolet Tahoe or Ford Expedition. The Atlas' third-row seats are easier to fold and pull back up, too."
Winner: Atlas (16 points, Ascent 14)
Joe: "The Atlas gets the slight edge for me with slightly larger in-cabin storage areas. The Atlas also has a little tray on top of the center dashboard, but I'm hesitant to put anything up there in fear of a set of keys or phone becoming a projectile from the storage area that's also the closest to head level."
Kelsey: "It was a tie for me. As a catch-all for everything from parking passes to chewing gum, a big bin ahead of the gearshift is crucial to any car with 'utility' in its name, and the Atlas has the larger of the two receptacles in that regard. But it lacks armrest-level storage pockets on the doors or an overhead sunglasses holder; the Ascent has both. I echo Joe's caution for other storage areas: the dash-top tray in the Atlas and a passenger-side dashboard shelf in the Ascent. Items in both have projectile written all over them."
Multimedia: Intuitiveness, Screen Quality, Connectivity
Winner: Ascent (17 points, Atlas 14)
Kelsey: "Subaru gets the win from me. With six USB ports versus Volkswagen's four, plus real buttons instead of the Atlas' capacitive-touch ones — a source of ire in our long-term ownership — and an in-dash navigation system that our Atlas SEL lacked, the Ascent was more intuitive up front and more family-friendly in back."
Joe: "Easy win for me, too. The Subaru's multimedia system is turning out to be one of the best in the class. The Atlas is easier to use than systems without volume and tuning knobs, like the 2018 Honda Pilot, or the center controller knob of a Mazda CX-9, but the Atlas' capacitive controls are a touch too fancy for this otherwise utilitarian vehicle. It's a clean look, but it's also easy to graze the wrong button, and glare from the screen is killer."
Winner: Atlas (14 points, Ascent 12)
Kelsey: "No contest here. The longer we own our long-term Atlas, the more I realize its unsung quality is handling. The steering is quick-ratio yet low-effort, and grippy tires with limited body roll make the SUV surprisingly agile. By contrast, handling might be the Ascent's biggest disappointment: lots of suspension lean, sloppy steering, skittish tires. You seldom buy a three-row SUV for handling chops, but even so, the Ascent is on the HOV lane to dullsville."
Joe: "I went the other way, giving the advantage to the Ascent, which has a shorter wheelbase and electronic torque vectoring that helped rotate the Ascent more eagerly. But only by the smallest margin, because the Ascent's tires are a huge letdown, plus the Ascent weighs around 100 pounds more than the physically larger Atlas. The Ascent's tires are quiet on the highway, but at even moderate cornering speed, they wail like you're going 150 mph through a banked speedway corner."
Winner: Atlas (14 points, Ascent 10)
Joe: "There's no replacement for the immediate acceleration of a good V-6 and traditional transmission, even if it is an eight-speed automatic in the Atlas. The Ascent's continuously variable automatic transmission is one of the more refined ones, but paired with the turbo engine, there's noticeable acceleration lag from a stop. Punch it from a stoplight and the Atlas jumps while the Ascent crawls. Your credit card may be OK with that, however, considering the EPA's 19 mpg combined fuel economy rating for the Atlas versus the Ascent's 22 mpg combined."
Kelsey: "Yes, the Atlas' mileage shortcomings manifest in a fuel needle that slips off the 'F' just a few errands after the fill-up, a habit sure to prompt plenty of other 'F''s from its driver. But Volkswagen rewards you on the drivetrain front, with reasonable transmission response compared to the Ascent's nonlinear experience. I disagree with Joe on the CVT: With a slow ramp-up to higher revs and little in the way of faux upshifts or downshifts — a provision in most modern CVTs to simulate linearity between engine revs and your right foot — this reminds me of the technology's early days."
Winner: Ascent (16 points, Atlas 13)
Kelsey: "The Atlas has a clean, well-sorted ride quality, but the Ascent elevates the experience. Where the Volkswagen gets a touch busy over rapid elevation changes and broken pavement, the Subaru feels more buttoned down. The fact that Subaru did this with bigger wheels and lower-profile tires — P245/50R20s versus our Atlas' P245/60R18s — is even more impressive."
Joe: "I was also impressed by the Subaru's ride quality considering how well the Atlas rides. Large bumps don't upset the Ascent like they do in the Atlas, where you can feel the car pitch and roll on broken pavement. Volkswagen's Atlas set the benchmark for ride quality, and the Ascent beat it."
Winner: Ascent (17 points, Atlas 13)
Kelsey: "I tend to discount my impressions of noise because they're so dependent on driving conditions — and my wife tells me my hearing (or is it my listening?) sucks — but Subaru had too much of an edge to ignore. Insulation in the Ascent is outstanding. I didn't know how good it was until I cracked the window at 65 mph to a cacophony of wind. The Atlas isn't exactly noisy, but it doesn't approach this."
Joe: "Much like ride quality, I didn't think road and wind noise were beatable by the Ascent because the Atlas is already so good. The Ascent keeps noise out of the cabin more like a luxury car than a three-row SUV."
Winner: Tie (15 points for both)
Joe: "The Ascent's high-tech theme continues with its optional rearview mirror that's a camera display showing what's behind the Ascent, versus a traditional mirror (though you can switch back and forth). The Atlas beats the Ascent with traditional visibility of tall, square windows and lots of glass, but the Ascent's camera is a big advantage because you don't have to worry about rear head restraints or even cargo stacked too high."
Kelsey: "The virtual rearview mirror, plus a conversation mirror above it to see your passengers — both features absent in the Atlas — put the Subaru ahead for me. But I agree with Joe on the inherent setup. Subaru overcame with features, but the Atlas is easier to see out of by design."
Safety and Self-Driving Features
Winner: Ascent (16 points, Atlas 10)
Joe: "Both SUVs have forward collision warning with automatic braking, blind spot warning, adaptive cruise control with stop and go, rear cross-traffic alert and more. The difference came down to execution: In stop-and-go traffic, the Ascent's adaptive cruise brakes smoothly to follow traffic, smartly observes the car ahead and alerts when it leaves. The Atlas runs up on the car ahead and then panic-brakes, jarring everything/everyone in the car."
Kelsey: "As of this writing, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has yet to test the Ascent — the Atlas gets strong marks for all but its headlights. Still, Subaru's crash-avoidance system, called EyeSight, has proven effective in reducing crashes, and it comes with the helpful extras that Joe mentioned."
Winner: Atlas (20 points, Ascent 18)
Kelsey: "With straight 'A' scores across all categories in its Car Seat Check, the Atlas punched its ticket onto Cars.com's 2017 Car Seat Check Honor Roll as the only three-row car we tested to make the list in 2017. The Ascent matched the Atlas' excellent scores for car-seat accommodations in the second row, and we awarded more points for its Latch anchors in the third row, a provision missing in the Atlas. But Subaru's tight third row hampered overall car-seat accommodations by too much, costing enough points to leave the Atlas ahead."
Worth the Money?
Winner: Atlas (15 points, Ascent 13)
Kelsey: "Both SUVs have similar as-tested prices. The Ascent has more features, with items like a navigation system, cooled front seats, heated rears and a virtual rearview mirror, all of which the Atlas lacks. But it lacks the Atlas' space and drivability — qualities that sent Volkswagen to the front of the pack in the first place. Add in Volkswagen's impressive warranty, and I still give it the value edge in this matchup."
Joe: "I dinged the Ascent in value for its significant lack of third-row and cargo room compared with the Atlas. The Atlas remains top dog for space efficiency, making people hauling almost as easy as a minivan, and it does this driving like a sedan. What I didn't expect, however, is that the Atlas would feel drab after driving the well-appointed and luxurious Ascent."
Overall Winner: Volkswagen Atlas (223 Points, Ascent 214)
Kelsey: "I'm a little surprised the scores were just 9 points apart. In my mind's eye, the Atlas walked away with this. It realizes the promise of a family SUV: Roomy seats, lots of storage space and capable drivability. The Ascent has better quality and a few more family-friendly features, but it misses the mark on some must-have qualities in this class."
Joe: "I was also surprised — not by the scores, but by how Subaru made a three-row semiluxury SUV. Its interior spanked the Volkswagen, which helped close the gap to the Atlas' exceeding comfort and usability that pushed the Atlas to the win. We haven't seen an interior this nice from Subaru ever. It's especially interesting because Volkswagen's hallmark used to be that you could get a premium interior and more refined driving experience compared with similarly priced competitors, but you had to sacrifice interior room; that's now a perfect summary of the Subaru Ascent. It wasn't enough to dethrone the incredibly roomy Volkswagen Atlas, however, which remains our favorite three-row SUV."
Editor's note: This story was updated Aug. 9, 2018, to reflect that the Atlas has third-row air vents standard.
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