In Canada, the 2022 Subaru Ascent starts at $37,295.
The 2022 Volkswagen Atlas is priced from $41,095.
The 3-row SUV segment is on fire in North America
For many automakers, 3-row SUVs have become their flagships. For better or worse, they’ve taken over from large family sedans as the stage on which a manufacturer displays its larger powertrains, premium features, styling, all in a bid to satisfy families and pad their bottom lines. Both the Subaru Ascent and Volkswagen Atlas are their respective automakers’ most expensive models.
Subaru launched itself into the segment with the Tribeca back in 2007. In the end, the “triangle below canal street”, meant to signify its urban aspirations, did little more than pave the way for the Ascent. The mostly maligned SUV was phased out by 2014 just as the segment was blossoming. The Ascent could not come soon enough and arrived for the 2019 model year.
The Atlas had the questionable distinction of being the largest ever Volkswagen when it launched for the previous model year. In North America, it essentially replaced the more expensive, slightly smaller, and far more “Volkswagen” Touareg and was almost instantly adopted by consumers.
What brings these two SUVs together are their similarities. Many larger SUVs are leaving V6 engines behind (or complementing them in VW’s case) and replacing them with boosted 4-cylinder engines in their stead. The Ascent and Atlas are not alone as the Mazda CX-9, Kia Sorento, and Ford Explorer also share turbocharged 4-pot engines.
Neither were the best sellers in the segment in 2021, that honour belongs to the Toyota Highlander. As far as midsize 3-row SUVs went, in 2021, the Ford Explorer came in 2nd, the Volkswagen Atlas is 3rd, while the Ascent just missed the top 10 cut.
Let’s compare the Ascent and Atlas:
Powertrain and Drive
As standard, the Subaru Ascent is powered by a turbocharged 2.4-litre Boxer 4-cylinder engine. With 260 horsepower and 277 lb.-ft. of torque on tap, it is one of the more potent members in the segment. Mated exclusively to a high-torque Lineartronic continuously variable transmission, the big Subaru is also one of the quickest on its toes. The CVT manages to extract all of the Boxer’s juices for some surprising launches.
The Volkswagen Atlas’ turbocharged 2.0-litre 4-cylinder engine is far more modest with its 235 horsepower and 258 lb.-ft. of torque. The 8-speed automatic is also gifted, providing plenty of opportunities for the 2.0T to get the Atlas up to speed.
As both tip the scale at about 4,500lbs, the Ascent’s powertrain’s superior performance is evident. The Subaru’s edge ends almost immediately as the Atlas is a far more competent driver. The Ascent suffers from typical Subaru poor steering feel while the big Volkswagen is responsive and almost agile in comparison.
AWD is standard for these SUVs. Subaru’s Symmetrical Full-Time AWD system (AWD) is always on meaning that traction is instantaneous. In comparison, VW’s 4MOTION AWD is reactive thus a little slower on the uptake but in either case, they function as well as advertised.
However, and more importantly, the Volkswagen and Subaru are quite at ease cruising. The Ascent’s chassis is a dash more compliant for a softer ride compared to the Atlas. The latter has an extra, albeit mild, dose of dynamism blended into ride comfort.
As for fuel efficiency, their similar respective specifications have them both returning a combined average of about 12L/100km.
Styling Inside and Out
Visually, the Volkswagen Atlas is the more serious-looking of the two. It’s boxier and flatter body panels add a positive presence to the large SUV. The Ascent to is attractive but unlike the VW, higher trims do little for the SUV’s outlook. An Atlas Highline or Execline (with included R-Line exterior design) could pass for an Audi. Obviously, this is a matter of personal taste.
Onboard is where these large SUVs must impress families. Both are generously proportioned however the Volkswagen edges out the Subaru in most interior volume measurements. With the 3rd up, the Atlas provides 583 litres of trunk volume to the Ascent’s 458 litres. Behind the 2nd row, the VW delivers more than 25% more boot space to the tune of 1,582 litres to the Subie’s 1,200 litres.
Accessing the 3rd row is relatively easy in both SUVs. The Ascent’s thinner “B” pillars aid visibility in the rear and overall, legroom is nearly identical. Here again, the Atlas offers a little more room but the bottom line, for both, the 3rd row remains a tweenager’s refuge.
Storage as a whole is also more generous in the Volkswagen. The larger lower centre stack bin, the shallow shelf on the dashboard, and the door bins all make stashing our daily junk easier. The Volkswagen Atlas’ cabin does seem “lower rent” in contrast to the Subaru Ascent’s admittedly busier and slightly more premium presentation.
Pricing And Features
The base Trendline Atlas is priced from $41,095 and includes 4MOTION AWD, a 6.5-inch touchscreen display with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto functionality, and more.
The entry-level Convenience Ascent starts at $37,295 and includes AWD and the same basic features as the Volkswagen. In fact, nothing really justifies the VW’s near $4,000 price premium.
Moving through the available trims, the Atlas remains more expensive than the Ascent. Atlas buyers need to select the $46,195 Comfortline trim to get keyless entry and start, and a power tailgate. The former is standard in the base Ascent while the latter is included with the $42,895 Ascent Touring.
At the very top of the trim ladder, the gap narrows. The $51,795 Ascent Premier and the $50,995 Highline Atlas are closely matched. In truth, here the Atlas takes a mild lead with the included 10.25-inch configurable instrument cluster however is down three speakers when comparing premium audio systems.
Our Thoughts on the Subaru Ascent and Volkswagen Atlas
Both SUVs are compelling however we’d lean towards the Volkswagen for two reasons: Its cabin is more user-friendly as a whole and it’s more satisfying to drive.
The Subaru Ascent aces almost every other aspect including overall reliability but the near-sloppiness in its controls would haunt us. Something along the same lines could be said about the CVT. Although it functions brilliantly and is in part responsible for the Ascent’s spriteliness, it too would become an irritant.
Mind you, this conclusion is based on space and driving. For a more premium vehicle that still delivers loads of space, the Subaru is a great option.
In the segment, we are partial to the Toyota Highlander which, in hybrid form, is the efficiency leader by a time-zone. Next in line would be the new Nissan Pathfinder if it turns out to be reliable in the short- and medium-term.