CARS.COM — For popular three-row SUVs, a reason for being is the third row that provides extra seats for a big family, carpooling or the ability to take a bigger group in just one vehicle. So you'd think that automakers would create real seats for real people back there and not just for kids, but that's often not the case.
Our 2017 Three-Row SUV Challenge compared the new 2018 Volkswagen Atlas, the redesigned 2018 Chevrolet Traverse, the refreshed 2017 Toyota Highlander and the 2017 Honda Pilot (winner of Cars.com's last Three-Row SUV Challenge), all priced less than $46,000 with destination fees. While doing that overall evaluation, we specifically put these SUVs' third rows to the test to see which was best.
We evaluated each SUV's third-row access, seat comfort, visibility, Cars.com Car Seat Check scores, and whether it had places for your stuff and power for your devices. Climate controls weren't rated because these all have tri-zone climate control and vents for the third row.
Note: In evaluating comfort, we had one of three Cars.com editors, all in the neighborhood of 6 feet tall, in each of the three rows — because no one ends up in the back unless the better seats are occupied and third-row comfort can be relative to the compromise you reach with the person adjusting their seat in the second row.
Here's how the third rows rated:
The Traverse and Atlas have longer wheelbases (120.9 and 117.3 inches, respectively) than the Pilot (111) and Highlander (109.8), and that made the biggest single difference for the entry space between the door pillar and second-row seat, allowing bigger rear doors and less rear-wheel intrusion. All four have second-row seats that slide forward for access to the third row, with Atlas seats sliding about 8 inches. The Atlas' and Traverse's second-row seats also tilt up and slide for easier access, even with a forward-facing child-safety seat installed. But the Traverse's second row does that only on the passenger side.
Winner: The Atlas pockets a win in this category.
The big Atlas and Traverse beat the Pilot for overall room in the back, though the Atlas is equipped for just two occupants, while the Traverse and Pilot offer seat belts for three passengers (though the three would have to be much narrower in their jeans than any of the Cars.com editors). All three overshadow the smaller Highlander — which has a more "occasional" back row (though it, too, is optimistically fitted with three sets of seat belts) — and are better choices for your last stop before a minivan.
For seat-cushion comfort and seating height, the Atlas and Traverse finished in a draw, though the Pilot was close on comfort; the Highlander was knees-in-the-air lowest on the seating-height front. The high-roofed Pilot offered the most headroom for adults back there; the Atlas' and Traverse's squared-off rear rooflines give them adequate headroom. Those two SUVs also had equally good available legroom for an adult, edging out the Pilot, though the VW test vehicle's second-row bench meant less flexibility for legroom compromises with third-row occupants than the Chevy's captain's chairs (captain's chairs are offered in the Atlas). The Highlander had the least room for legs, a problem compounded by also having the least space to slide your toes under the seat ahead. The Traverse, meanwhile, had the most extra toe space.
With the Atlas and Traverse close on leading space and seat comfort, the tiebreaker became the unfortunate design of the Atlas' head restraints. The Atlas, and also the Highlander, use a simpler (and likely cheaper) "clamshell" design for head restraints that push down over the seatback for visibility when the seat is not in use. The Traverse, as well as Pilot, restraints flip down for better rear visibility; we also found them to be more comfortable when in use. The clamshell head restraints must be positioned forward to fit over the seatback when down, but that means that in use, depending on your height, they can push your head uncomfortably forward.
It's less of a problem in the Highlander because the third-row seats recline a little, which also helps with headroom, but it leaves a tall person's head uneasily close to the rear glass. The Atlas, however, compounds the problem with much bigger clamshell head restraints that not only push your head forward, but the head restraint's lower edge pokes some people in the back depending on their height.
Winner: It's a close call, but the Traverse pulls away with this category, tilted by its better-designed head restraints.
With the current fashion for high beltlines, none of these SUVs felt airy in the back. That said, the Atlas and Pilot have relatively smaller pillars behind the rear doors and more glass thanks to an additional fixed panel behind the rear door window. The Atlas and the Traverse, meanwhile, offer extra light from above via moonroofs over the second row, a panoramic moonroof in the Atlas and a second moonroof panel in the Traverse. The Pilot and Highlander had traditional rectangles over the front row.
Winner: The Atlas lets the light into the third row with its panoramic moonroof and additional window panels.
Car Seat Check
Cars.com Car Seat Checks tested the third rows for ease of access and good fit for a forward-facing convertible child seat and a booster seat, grading on an A to F scale. The Atlas got straight A's for access and for fitting the two types of car seats; that put it on this year's Car Seat Check Honor Roll as one of only 10 vehicles with all A's out of 65 tested vehicles from the 2017 and 2018 model years. The Pilot earned a B for third-row access, but A's for forward-facing convertible seat fit and its set of third-row Latch anchors (the only one among these four) as well as a B for booster seat fit. The Highlander got B's except for a C with the third-row booster seat. The Traverse's third row, however, "needs work," according to our Car Seat Check installation team, which gave the SUV a B for third-row access, a B for forward-facing convertible seat fit and a C for booster seat fit issues. See full car seat details on each here.
Winner: The Atlas makes the grade with its top ratings in Cars.com's Car Seat Check.
In three-row SUVs, the passengers relegated to the wayback need places to store their stuff. The Highlander, Pilot and Traverse all have multi-use double cupholders for keeping clutter somewhat controlled. The Atlas also has third-row dual cupholders, but it also has three open cubbies for smaller items.
Winner: Any additional spaces for keeping third-row clutter under control is a win. The Atlas tucks this win into its cubbies.
The Chevy laps the field with a pair of USB charging ports — one on each side of the third row — plus access to a 12-volt outlet in the cargo area, which offers power for various uses, including USB charging with an adaptor; the Traverse was the only one with USB ports in the third row. The VW and Honda also have a 12-volt outlet access. Toyota passengers must make friends with the second row.
Winner: The Traverse is plugged in when it comes to providing charging access in the third row.
The Volkswagen Atlas takes the crown, with the most category wins in this test, and also ranking top in our expert judges' scoring of third-row comfort in the Three-Row SUV Challenge. But Chevy's Traverse was a close second in most of these categories, and it edged the VW on comfort and device charging power.