In the automotive industry, attention comes and goes in waves. One year, it’s one new SUV capturing headlines, and a different one does it the next.
The two family vehicles we’re looking at here have both been through that same cycle. Just a couple of years ago, the Subaru Ascent and Volkswagen Atlas were making serious waves as the first three-row SUVs ever produced by their respective brands.
Today, newer offerings tend to steal the spotlight , and these two don’t get as much attention as they used to. Does that mean they’re not worth consideration? Absolutely not. Each of these vehicles has its merits and drawbacks, and each has its buyers for whom it would be the right fit, possibly even over some of the newer and flashier choices.
When we pit them against each other head-to-head, Driving.ca Managing Editor Jonathan Yarkony and I find that our likes and dislikes don’t necessarily align, but we end up reaching the same conclusion about which family hauler would end up in our respective suburban driveways.
Before we start, it’s important to point out that we’re not necessarily comparing apples to apples here since there’s a roughly $7,000 difference in price between these two test units.
The 2021 Volkswagen Atlas we’re driving is the fully loaded Execline grade, priced at $55,595 plus another $1,885 in destination fees. This includes the upgraded engine, a 3.6-litre V6 that’s an extra-cost option on lower grades, and a whole lot of bells and whistles.
The 2021 Subaru Ascent, on the other hand, is the Limited grade with second-row captain’s chairs, priced at $48,595 plus $1,875 in destination fees. Here, this isn’t the top-of-the-line trim: there’s a Premier grade offered for $2,900 more that integrates a few more premium features.
Regardless of which Ascent you choose, the powertrain is the same on every grade: a 2.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine producing 260 hp and 277 lb-ft of torque, with horizontally opposed cylinders and mounted low on the frame to give the Ascent a low centre of gravity. This is mated with a continuously variable transmission and Subaru’s standard full-time all-wheel drive, which constantly sends power to all four wheels.
If you choose the four-cylinder engine in the Atlas then the power figures are considerably lower, but the 3.6-litre naturally aspirated V6 makes this a fairer fight with 276 hp and 266 lb-ft of torque. Here, it’s matched with an eight-speed automatic transmission and standard all-wheel drive, though VW’s system will default to powering only the front axle when traction isn’t needed at the rear.
Despite sending power to all four corners full-time, the smaller engine displacement and more efficient transmission in the Ascent help it deliver very respectable fuel consumption figures of 11.6 L/100 km in city driving and 9.0 on the highway, which is quite good for a 2,066 kg (4,554 lb) seven-passenger vehicle. Some CVTs can create a disconnect between the throttle and power output in a way that feels unnatural and disconnected, but Subaru’s displays little of that here and is generally fairly pleasant to drive.
The Atlas’s beefier mill does take a deeper cut at the pumps at 13.8 L/100 km in city driving and 10.2 on the highway. While the amount of power is excellent for pulling around the 2,092 kg (4,612 lb) weight, both Jonathan and I observe that this engine and transmission seem to trip over themselves and create a bucking sensation at lower speeds, especially when coasting and going back on throttle, which can get mighty annoying in heavy traffic. However, while both of these vehicles are rated for 2,270 kg (5,000 lb) of towing, the Atlas’s automatic transmission might offer a little more confidence for drivers who expect to tow regularly.
For those who spend more time on city driving, though, Jonathan and I share another observation: these two vehicles are similar in length at 4,998 millimetres for the Ascent and 5,036 for the Atlas, but the latter feels like a significantly larger vehicle on the road thanks to its build style and a wide turning radius.
“The very flat hood and boxy, upright sides maximize cargo and passenger space, but it almost feels a whole segment larger when driving, which isn’t necessarily a good thing in tight parking lots,” Jonathan says.
The Ascent, on the other hand, is nearly 5 centimetres narrower than the Atlas (1,931 mm vs 1,978 mm), which also contributes to it having a more maneuverable and urban-friendly quality. Jonathan notes that this is in part due to the Ascent’s softer steering setup, which works alongside its compliant suspension to make it comfortable, if not overly precise.
“The Atlas’s steering is nicely weighted, and it handles well,” Jonathan says. “Combined with the stiff ride it is a better driver’s car, if that matters to anyone shopping this segment.”
On interior space, there are some notable but unsurprising differences, and it’s in how much of a factor those play in usability where our opinions start to diverge.
What’s completely unsurprising given the dimensions we just discussed is that the Atlas holds significantly more cargo. Its 583 litres behind the third-row seats, 1,572 behind the second-row, and 2,741 behind the first row are all figures that blow the Ascent out of the water at 498, 1,331, and 2,435 respectively. Given the other dimensional differences between these two beasts, this is unlikely to come as a shock.
But on the other hand, were I choosing one of these based on needing to use the third row on a daily basis, my preference leans toward the Ascent. It’s a little lower in headroom – 922 mm versus 972 mm for the Atlas – but this isn’t enough to make a difference in comfort for my 5-foot-7-inch frame. Jonathan’s taller self is a fair bit more perturbed by it, but the kids who are most likely to get shoved back here regularly won’t care either way. What they will care about is having access to five of the Ascent’s grand total of 19 cupholders, plus storage cubbies and a pair of USB ports for device charging. What you’ll care about is that the second-row seats are a lot lighter and take less work to slide back and forth.
While it may lose points on that lack of functionality, the Atlas does offer some interesting features at this Execline trim to make up for it. The digital instrument cluster is attractive and functional with clear graphics, and the 360-degree camera is helpful for parking its heft in tighter spaces. On top of that, ventilated front seats and wireless phone charging are available at lower trim levels.
In the Ascent, ventilated front seats are only available in the Premier grade (though the pricing ends up being similar), while features like a digital instrument cluster, wireless phone charging, and 360-degree camera are not available at all.
Safety system offerings are similar between the two vehicles with forward collision mitigation and blind spot monitoring being standard, though lane keep assist is also standard on the Ascent while it’s a high-grade offering on the Atlas.
Where Jonathan and I disagree most strongly is in the infotainment systems. Both get the important stuff right: Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard, and by the time you’re spending in this bracket you’re getting integrated GPS navigation as well. I prefer Volkswagen’s system for its crisper graphics and ability to scroll through previews on satellite radio, which lets you see what’s playing without committing to changing the station until you push the button. Subaru’s system works well enough and the smartphone-like customizable home screen is nice, but I find it annoying to an irrational degree that adjusting the volume locks me out of using anything else on the screen for a couple of seconds.
Jonathan says he finds the Subaru system’s reaction time is faster and that it responds better to gloved fingers, and he likes that it allows presets to be mixed between radio bands. The Volkswagen system also doesn’t switch back and forth smoothly between radio and phone apps.
“Subaru’s [infotainment system] might not look great, but it gets the job done better and quicker, and the Apple CarPlay shortcut is easier to find and see,” he says.
We’ll chalk that matter up to personal taste.
In the end, despite our typical bickering, we did land on a winner: both of us would choose the 2021 Subaru Ascent. While we agree that the feature mix is better on the Atlas and it will find many a happy home with owners who value interior space, our suburban lifestyles point us toward the Ascent’s better maneuverability, more relaxed drive dynamics, and thoughtful family-friendly interior design. Nineteen cupholders, for the win.