We drove a $42,000 Toyota Highlander and a $40,000 Volkswagen Atlas to see which was the better family SUV — here's the verdict

Hollis JohnsonOur Volkswagen Atlas SE tester.
  • The Toyota Highlander is one of the best selling midsize crossover SUVs in the US, while the Volkswagen Atlas is a popular newcomer to the segment.
  • The base 2018 Toyota Highlander starts at $US31,230, while the top-of-the-line Hybrid Limited Platinum model starts at $US48,480.
  • The base 2018 Volkswagen Atlas starts at $US30,750, while the top-spec SEL Premium with 4Motion starts at $US48,740.
  • The Toyota Highlander’s superior refinement, build quality, and usability edges out the Volkswagen’s superior driving dynamics, size, and infotainment systems.

It’s official. The crossover SUV is now the undisputed vehicle of choice for American families, a role once filled by the minivan and before that the good old fashioned station wagon.

But as far as the family crossover goes, few are more popular than the Toyota Highlander. Last year, Toyota sold nearly 216,000 Highlanders in the US, making it the third-best-selling midsize SUV behind only the Ford Explorer and the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Through June, sales up are up 14.3%, with more than 114,000 Highlanders finding homes in the US.

The Highlander’s popularity, however, has not gone unchallenged. In 2017, Volkswagen launched its all-new Atlas crossover SUV to positive reviews and strong sales. We came away from our time with the Atlas impressed by its size, comfort, infotainment, and driving dynamics. In fact, the big VW was one of the five runners-up for Business Insider’s 2017 Car of the Year.

While growing in popularity, Atlas sales are a mere fraction of the Highlander’s. Through the first six months of 2018, VW has sold just 28,000 of its big crossover. Still, there’s cause for optimism. In June, the 3,699 Atlases sold represented a 53.3% increase over the same period last year.

Over the past year, we’ve had the chance to sample two Highlanders – one in high-spec Hybrid Limited Platinum trim and another in mid-grade SE trim. We also tried out a pair of Atlas vehicles; one in high-grade SEL trim and the other in mid-grade SE trim.

On paper, the VW and the Toyota match up pretty well. Both are roomy three-row, midsize, US-built crossover SUVs. Both offer four- and six-cylinder engine options hooked up to an eight-speed automatic transmission.

So, which is better? The stalwart Toyota or the upstart Volkswagen? Let’s find out.

Note: This comparison is based on our impression of the two mid-grade models, as they are more likely to reflect the vehicles purchased by consumers.

First up is the Toyota Highlander.

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Toyota lent us a pair of new Highlanders for evaluation in mid-grade SE V6 AWD and top-spec Hybrid Limited Platinum V6 AWD trim. Our grey SE carried an as-tested price of $US42,545 while the brown Hybrid Limited Platinum stickered for $US49,499.

The base four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive Highlander LE starts at $US31,230.

Aesthetically, the Highlander is rather unexceptional. While I think it looks decently attractive, it’s far from pretty. In 2016, Toyota updated the Highlander’s large chrome front grille to mixed reviews.

Matthew DeBord/BI

The Highlander’s side profile is traditional crossover utility — boxy with rounded edges. It straddles the line between tall wagon and traditional SUV looks.

Matthew DeBord/BI

The rear end of the Highlander features an integrated roof spoiler and a traditional lift-up tailgate.

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It’s also one of the few remaining SUVs to have a separate lift-up window that’s great for loading small items.

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However, the interior is where the Highlander really impresses.

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We found the cabin to be a really pleasant and friendly place to be. It’s quiet, comfortable, and the interior ergonomics are pretty much spot on. Material quality is very good and everything you touch feels really well put together. Highlander’s cabin simply exudes this reassuring sense of solidity.

The Highlander’s interior is packed with USB charge ports and clever storage nooks like this shelf that runs the length of the front dash. There’s also a massive storage box under the center armrest between the front seats.

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In front of the driver is a 4.2-inch colour information display flanked by a pair of traditional analogue gauges. The Highlander comes standard with the Toyota Safety Sense package which includes pre-collision warning, pedestrian warning, Lane departure warning, automatic high beams, and radar cruise control.

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Our test cars came with an eight-inch touchscreen running Toyota’s Entune infotainment system. Base Highlanders get a smaller 6.1-inch touchscreen.

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In spite of Toyota’s work to improve the system’s usability, Entune is not one of our favourites. It’s perhaps the weakest part of the entire Highlander package. Entune’s image quality is poor and its overall presentation feels like it’s stuck in a previous decade.

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The infotainment unit onboard our Hybrid test car experienced a glitch that resulted in the system rebooting once every 60 seconds or so. This forced us to return the Hybrid test car to Toyota for repairs.

The second row of our test cars came equipped with a pair of optional captains chairs. A bench seat is standard. The rear cabin as a whole proved to be spacious and comfortable. The captains chairs also allow for easy pass through to the third row.

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There’s a collapsible cup holder tray located between the second-row seats. It’s quite handy for passengers, but the tray in our SE test car rattled over bumps and rough surfaces. The tray in our Hybrid test car did not experience this rattle. Frankly, it’s really our only complaint with the Highlander interior.

There are 13.8 cubic feet of cargo room behind the third row. With the third row folded, cargo capacity goes up to 42.3 cubic feet. Fold down the second row and the Highlander’s cargo space nearly doubles to 83.7 cubic feet.

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Under the hood of our Highlander SE is a 295 horsepower, 3.5-litre, naturally aspirated V6. The Hybrid model adds Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive to the same V6, boosting horsepower to 306. The base Highlander is powered by a somewhat diminutive 185 horsepower, 2.7-litre, naturally aspirated four-cylinder.

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The four-cylinder is paired with a traditional six-speed automatic transmission while the V6 powered cars get an eight-speed unit. The hybrid models are equipped with a continuously variable transmission.

The 3.5 litre V6, shared with the Toyota Camry and Avalon sedans, is silky smooth. No one does naturally aspirated V6 engines quite as well as Toyota and it shows.

What’s it like to drive?

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To drive, the Highlander was unremarkable. It’s far from surefooted in the corners while its steering is rather numb and uncommunicative. It reminded me a bit too much of an old minivan. Unfortunately, the SE’s sport-tuned suspension doesn’t make much of a difference.

Behind the wheel, acceleration felt relatively brisk in both of our test cars, but the Highlander really makes you work for it. Our 4,400-pound SE’s fuel economy-minded eight-speed automatic felt lethargic under hard acceleration. And when it decided to change gears, the shifts were hardly smooth.

This is where the Highlander really falls short. No one expects a Supra-esque experience, but Toyota should be able to give us something less whitebread than this.

Next up is the Volkswagen Atlas.

Hollis Johnson

Volkswagen first lent us an Atlas V6 SEL Premium with 4Motion all-wheel-drive that cost $US49,000. We were so impressed with the Atlas that we brought it back for a second tour duty just to make sure we didn’t miss anything. The second time around, we got our hands on a mid-grade Atlas V6 SE with 4Motion that cost a tad under $US40,000. The base front-wheel-drive, four-cylinder Atlas S starts at $US30,500.

The first thing you notice with the Atlas is that looks different from any Volkswagen you’ve ever seen. While VW has traditionally gone for svelte and sleek, the Atlas’ blunt front fascia exudes old-school American truck. It’s more Chevy Tahoe than VW Touareg.

Hollis Johnson

At 16.5-foot-long, the Atlas is classified as a mid-size SUV, but its proportions verge near full-size territory. In fact, it’s nearly half a foot longer than the Highlander.

Hollis Johnson

The Atlas’s interior is positively cavernous. From the driver’s seat, it feels like your front seat passenger is sitting miles away.

Hollis Johnson

Like Toyota, Volkswagen really crushed it when it comes to interior ergonomics. All of the Atlas’s buttons and switches are well label and easy to use. The design of the cabin feels much more modern and stylish than the current generation Highlander that hit the market in 2014.

The second row offers plenty of hip and legroom for three while…

Hollis Johnson

… The third row will comfortably hold two adults.

Hollis Johnson

There’s also a full suite of available driver’s assistance features such as adaptive cruise control, autonomous emergency braking, pedestrian monitoring, blind spot monitoring, overhead view camera, and parking assist.

Hollis Johnson

Our Atlas is equipped with an 8-inch touchscreen running VW’s latest MIB II infotainment system. Base models get a 6.5-inch screen. MIB II is quickly becoming one of our favourites.

Hollis Johnson

The system was quick to respond, elegantly rendered, and its menus were intuitively organised. It’s miles better than Toyota’s Entune system.

Hollis Johnson

However, our VW’s interior was not without fault.

Hollis Johnson

Our big complaint is the interior fit and finish of the Atlas. Although the materials were generally of a good quality, a few trim pieces of our new test cars already felt worn. In fact, the plastic handle used to fold down the second-row seat in our SEL test car was already broken. Not a good sign for a vehicle that needs to survive the rough and tumble life of a family hauler.

In addition, our Atlas test cars exhibited squeaks and rattles at a higher rate than the Highlanders.

Open up the rear hatch…

Hollis Johnson

…And you’ll find 20.6 cubic feet of cargo room behind the third row. With the third row folded, cargo space goes up to 55.5 cubic feet. Fold down the second row and the Atlas’s cargo room shoots up to a massive 96.8 cubic feet.


Under the hood, the Atlas is available with two engine options. Base models come with a 235 horsepower version of VW’s EA888 2.0-litre, turbocharged, inline-four-cylinder engine. Higher spec versions like our two test cars came equipped with 3.6-litre, 276 horsepower, VR6 narrow-angle V6 engine.

Hollis Johnson

So, What’s it like to drive?

Hollis Johnson

While it’s not exactly a 4,500-pound GTI with room for seven, the Atlas drives very well for an SUV its size.

The Atlas felt perky and light enough on its feet to make driving enjoyable. More importantly, it felt willing to step up its game not only under hard acceleration, but also around the corners.

Overall, the V6 delivered solid, but not spectacular performance. Even though Car and Driver’s testing showed the big VW could do 0-60 mph in a respectable 7.9 seconds, the Atlas didn’t quite feel as quick as the number indicate. At the same time, the engine also never felt overmatched by the mass of the Atlas.

Our Verdict.

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And the winner is… The Toyota Highlander.

Both vehicles showed their strengths and weaknesses during our evaluation period. Both are large, well-designed, family-friendly SUVs.

The Volkswagen wins for its driving dynamics, greater interior space, and vastly superior infotainment system.

But at the end of the day, the Toyota Highlander’s refinement, build quality, and daily usability edges out the Atlas.

The reasoning came down what’s truly important in a good family SUV. And even though VW offers superior space and infotainment, we felt the Toyota’s rock solid build quality is better equipped for the rigors of life.

This feeling of solidity is backed up high marks from both Consumer Reports and JD Power.

In addition, the Highlander’s greater level of refinement makes for a more luxurious experience with fewer rattles and squeaks.

“Sure, it’s not exactly sporty to drive and its infotainment system is in need of an upgrade,” I wrote in my review of the Highlander.

“But that’s not what’s most important. Most Highlander buyers probably aren’t looking for an exhilarating driving experience or the latest tech. Instead, comfort, roominess, and reliability are likely to be much higher on the list.”

And in that regards, the Toyota Highlander wins.

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