2018 Volkswagen Atlas vs 2017 Honda Pilot Comparison Test

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For years Volkswagen neglected the SUV segment, with just the undersized Tiguan and overpriced Touareg in their showrooms, but they’re finally bringing a three-row, seven-seat midsize crossover to market with the Atlas.

Is it too little, too late? If they hope to have any success in the segment, the Atlas has to win over customers that have been buying Explorers, Highlanders and Santa Fes for generations, and one of the best of the current crop is the Honda Pilot.

Volkswagen has taken a page out of the Pilot playbook, with a larger footprint placing an emphasis on interior space and cargo capacity, but does it have all the right moves to match up to one of the family favorites in this segment?

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Cargo

Since these are family cars, we’ll start with what families need most: cargo space and seating. Above all, this is where the Pilot has made a name for itself, with more interior space than seems possible from its midsize footprint, starting with 16 cubic feet (453 L) with all seats in place, 46 (1,303 L) with the third row down, and a maximum of 82 cu-ft (2,324 L) .

The third-row seats and second-row captain’s chairs also fold separately, so you can mix and match your cargo-passenger configurations. The Pilot has convenient underfloor storage, but the cover can easily be dropped to the bottom for a bit of extra space and maximum height.

ALSO SEE: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas Review

Volkswagen engineers clearly wanted to beat the Pilot in the space race, so they went big, and as spacious as the Pilot is, the Atlas outstretches it by 4 inches (about 100 mm) in length and 6 inches (160 mm) in wheelbase. Height and width are about the same, but as you’d expect, the Atlas comes out ahead in cargo and passenger space.

Even with all seats in place, the Atlas is good for over 20 cubic feet (583 L) of cargo space, which means you can schlep around the kids and in-laws and still have plenty of space for the stroller and even a week’s groceries.

Drop the seats and the Atlas stretches its lead even more, with 55 cu-ft (1572 L) behind the second row and 96.8 cu-ft (2,741 L) with all the seats flat, and a bit of extra storage space under the floor where the subwoofer lives. Both vehicles’ seats are easy to fold and raise, so they really live up to the cargo utility part of their mission, but how are humans are treated?

Seating

This Pilot Elite model treats second-row passengers to first-class seating, with wide, comfy captain’s chairs, armrest, center console storage and a roof-mounted entertainment screen.

Even the third row is reasonable for adults, with enough headroom for six-footers, but the seat cushion is pretty low, so taller folk might have their knees up in their face.

The second row of the Atlas might seem flat and uninviting, but the cushion is soft in the right places for decent comfort, and headroom and legroom are excellent.

Although the Atlas is up one seat on the Pilot, that middle position is uncomfortable and best saved for emergency duty.

Child seats and squirming/struggling toddlers are super easy to install in both cars thanks to convenient seat height and wide door openings, and sliding seats allow painless access to the third tether anchor.

ALSO SEE: Midsize Three-Row Crossover Comparison Test

The Pilot is one of those rare cars where the second-row seats might be just as nice as the driver’s seat, but ventilated seats are enough to split the tie in favor of the front row. The leather on the seats and steering wheel is nice, but like the Atlas, the plastics and materials are often hard and unappealing.

Where the Pilot excels is practical cabin amenities, with cupholders, bottle holders, door pockets, phone tray, a big armrest cubby that you could smuggle a watermelon in, enough USB ports to charge the whole family’s array of devices and sunshades for the rear windows. Then again, the Atlas has all that too.

The Pilot’s killer app is a rear-seat entertainment system that can play DVDs or video games, with a detachable remote and wireless headphones so you don’t have to listen to the dulcet tones of Spongebob Squarepants or Pinkie Pie played on an endless loop.

Minivan vs Crossover: 2017 Kia Sedona vs 2017 Hyundai Santa Fe

However, the Atlas tops the Pilot for parent friendliness with seats that flip and slide forward (even with child seats installed) to allow wide access to the third row, which is a bit tighter for headroom, but offers more legroom and more comfortable seats that aren’t so close to the floor. Overall, with more space and a few thoughtful touches, the Atlas comes out ahead on the utility front.

The front seats add a bit of sportiness with side bolsters to keep you in place, but they’re not intrusive enough to bother me, and the seats themselves are pleasing, so here they’ve found a more successful middle ground. And they’re heated and cooled for all-season comfort.

The rest of the cockpit is basic, straightforward and holds no surprises. The plastics are a bit chintzy, the fake stitching is tacky and the woodgrain pattern on the dash is a bit sad for a $50,000 car, so it doesn’t hold a candle to segment leaders like the CX-9, but it’s at least as good as the Pilot.

Power and Efficiency

Considering both cars feature similarly sized V6 engines, transmissions with a bunch of gears and about the same power, it’s amazing how differently they drive.

The 4,500-pound Atlas is powered by Volkswagen’s 3.6-liter V6, which makes 276 horsepower and 266 lb-ft of torque. While that is less power than the Pilot, it’s more torque and that torque arrives a couple thousand rpm sooner. Not only is peak torque online earlier, throttle response is sharp – perhaps a little too sharp, as the Atlas tends to jerk away from a stop if you don’t carefully roll on the gas.

The Atlas has a few driving modes for greater efficiency or sportiness, and one that can mix and match settings for steering, transmission and engine response.

With direct injection and eight speeds in its transmission, Volkswagen engineers have squeezed out 17 mpg in the city, 23 on the highway and 19 mpg combined (13.7/10.1/12.1 L/100 km), which is what we’ve seen after a couple weeks of mixed use.

Compare Specs

2018 VW Atlas SEL Premium
vs
2017 Honda Pilot Elite
Vehicle 2018 VW Atlas SEL Premium Advantage 2017 Honda Pilot Elite
Engine3.6L V6-3.5L V6
LayoutAll-wheel drive-All-wheel drive
Power276 hp @ 6000 Pilot280 hp @ 6000
Torque266 lb-ft @ 2750Atlas262 lb-ft @ 4700
Transmission8-Speed Auto-9-Speed Auto
Weight4,502 lb / 2,042 kgPilot4317 lb / 1958 kg
US Fuel Economy (city/hwy/comb.)17/23/19 mpgPilot19/26/22 mpg
CAN Fuel Economy (city/hwy/comb.)13.7/10.1/12.1 L/100 kmPilot12.4/9.3/11.0 L/100 km
WB/L/W/H (in.)117.3/198.3/78.3/69.7-111.0/194.5/78.6/70.4
WB/L/W/H (mm)2979/5037/1989/1770-2819/4940/1996/1788
Cargo (trunk)20.6 cu-ft (583 L)Atlas16.0 cu-ft (453 L)
Cargo (behind 2nd)55.5 cu-ft (1572 L)Atlas46.0 cu-ft (1303 L)
Cargo (behind 1st)96.8 cu-ft (2741 L)Atlas82.1 cu-ft (2324 L)
Headroom (1st/2nd/3rd)41.3 / 40.4 / 38.3 in.Pilot39.5 / 40.9 / 38.9 in.
Legroom (1st/2nd/3rd)41.5 / 37.6 / 33.7 in.Atlas40.9 / 38.4 / 31.9 in.
US Starting price$31,425 ($925 freight included)Atlas$31,685 ($940 freight included)
US Pricing as tested$49,415 ($925 freight included)Pilot$48,160 ($940 freight included)
CAN Starting price$37,485 ($1,795 freight included)Atlas$41,815 ($1,725 freight included)
CAN Pricing as tested$54,335 ($1,795 freight included)Pilot$53,215 ($1,725 freight included)

The Honda Pilot is almost a couple hundred pounds lighter than the Atlas, so in theory, its 280-hp 3.5-liter V6 should be sufficient to get it going, so why does it feel so goddamn slow?

I’d be perfectly happy blaming the 262 lb-ft of torque, which only arrives at 4,700 rpm, but initial throttle response is painfully slow. While it is slow, it’s definitely smooth off the line and right up to highway speeds, and the transmission never missed a beat.

The Pilot has a simple Econ button for added efficiency and a Sport setting for the transmission, but even with Econ off and Sport mode on, engine response is frustratingly unhurried when getting going, although it is quick enough to gear down for passing maneuvers on the highway.

The Pilot’s V6 also features direct injection and variable timing and tops the Atlas with nine forward gears in its transmission for superior efficiency, officially 19 mpg in the city, 26 on the highway and 22 combined (12.4/9.3/11.0 L/100 km). Although we haven’t quite matched that, we are close, with the trip computer currently showing over 21 mpg (11.2 L/100 km) for the past couple weeks, with a little more highway mileage in the mix than the Atlas saw.

2018 VW Atlas vs 2017 Honda Pilot Comparison Test

The biggest Volkswagen we’ve ever seen drives just like that: big. The windows are tall and visibility is good, but the square flat hood can be intimidating to navigate through tight city streets and parking lots. However, that square hood and blunt face make it easy to tell exactly where the corners of the car are, the VW actually has a tighter turning circle than the Pilot, and 360-degree parking cameras take the stress out of parking (and rear cross-traffic alert help take the stress out of exiting your parking spot).

Volkswagen had years to benchmark the Pilot and others in the segment, so if there’s one thing that surprised me it was the ride quality. Frankly, it’s too rough. Almost every bump sends a shiver through the chassis and big lumps rock the cabin with a clank of protest from the suspension.

Sure, it means that the Atlas turns in sharply and holds steady in the corners, but this is no GTI, and it’s not worth the constant jiggling and jarring on rough city streets and every dip or manhole cover.

ALSO SEE: Ford Explorer vs Honda Pilot

The Pilot may not be thrilling to drive, but it’s just about perfect for this class. Considering this segment has become little more than a minivan substitute (which is why we aren’t planning to go off-road with them), comfort needs to be the prime directive for these shuttles, and here the Pilot shines.

Smaller bumps are almost entirely dismissed without feeling a thing, and larger bumps and dips result in a brief jiggle that is quickly absorbed and you’re on your way. Of course, there is a fair bit more body roll in turns, but the steering is steady and the Pilot feels composed even when pushed through corners.

On the highway, there’s little to report, with a bit of wind and tire noise, but not enough to draw complaints, though I’d say it is a touch quieter than the Atlas.

On paper, the Pilot has a wider turning circle, but its sloping hood and rounded corners make it feel less cumbersome in tight quarters, and because it’s shorter it can be easier to navigate tricky parking maneuvers.

However, with only a rearview camera and a goofy push-button transmission, it loses points to the Atlas in total ease of parking.

2017 Honda Pilot Interior

Technology

We could probably spend pages and page going on about driving aids and automatic safety systems, but I won’t bore you with that because they both seem to have them all.

I will point out that the Atlas’s adaptive cruise works all the way down to crawling speeds and brief stops while the Pilot cuts out at lower speeds. The Pilot also tends to flash forward collision warnings a little too eagerly – it seems like it’s constantly going off in rush-hour traffic.

ALSO SEE: 2018 Volkswagen Atlas Pricing Released for 5 Trim Levels

Both of these cars offer Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility, but Volkswagen’s mixture of touchscreen and hard buttons make its built-in infotainment system easier to use than the Pilot’s pure touchscreen system, and VW’s new digital gauge cluster is loaded with information and looks nice.

All the buttons and controls are conventional, clearly labeled and it has a volume knob, so that’s an automatic win for ergonomics in the Atlas. Plus, the sound quality with the upgraded Fender audio system is a fair bit better than the Pilot’s.

2018 VW Atlas interior

Value and Verdict: Volkswagen Atlas vs Honda Pilot Comparison Test

The Volkswagen comes in at a slightly lower starting price, but both start at a bit more than $31K, although the V6 is standard in the Pilot while the base Atlas is powered by VW’s 2.0T with 235 hp and 258 lb-ft of torque.

At the top of the lineups, the Pilot Elite maxes out at $48,160 ($940 freight included), and the Atlas SEL Premium is only another thousand at $49,415 ($925 freight included). In Canada, the gap is about the same, a top-trim Pilot Touring running $53,215 ($1,725 freight included) compared to the Atlas Execline at $54,335 ($1,795 freight included). However, the Atlas is missing that rear entertainment system that can help soothe stir-crazy kids on long road trips. Or short ones. No judging here.

Well, we are judging these vehicles, so let’s recap the highs lows of each one. The Volkswagen impressed with tons of cargo and passenger space, sporty acceleration and handling made it a bit more fun, and who doesn’t love 360-degree parking cameras? The Pilot’s comfortable ride was dreamy, and powertrain was smooth and efficient, and it too offers plenty of cargo space and spacious cabin.

2018 VW Atlas vs 2017 Honda Pilot Comparison Test

I could probably live with the jerky, lurching acceleration and lackluster interior quality of the Atlas, but the hard ride is its biggest misstep. Similarly, the adaptive cruise and the slow, clunky infotainment would annoy me, but the Pilot’s delayed acceleration would be incredibly frustrating to live with.

The Volkswagen finally has a seven-seat people mover they can be proud to put their badge on, and it’s a capable and practical crossover that does most things right, with plenty of thoughtful touches, but the rough ride and overeager acceleration are cardinal sins for me.

The Honda Pilot’s slow throttle response and infotainment system are easier to forgive when weighed against everything that it does so well.

With plenty of cargo space in its own right and room for the whole family, the Honda Pilot drives away with the win thanks to a comfortable ride, impressive efficiency and being so easy to live with.

Volkswagen Atlas

Honda Pilot

  • DS

    I am disappointed that the author said the Atlas has one more seat than the Pilot. The Pilot tested was obviously the Elite version. ALL the other trim levels have a (split) bench seat in the middle (second) row. And there are way more of the standard and Honda Pilot Touring models sold than the $50,000 (what I found when researching) Honda Pilot Elite AWD model.

  • Rocket

    Sounds like there isn’t a winner here. If you value driving over utility, check out the CX-9. If you can live with something nearing the end of its life cycle, I recommend a test drive of the oft-forgotten Flex.

  • Thuan Phong

    The vehicles are the quality of the production and the price at both to show it , the customers often look it too.

  • There is only one that are more affordable than the CX-9 and the other vehicles that are used in this comparison test: The Honda BR-V.

  • VaeVictis

    The Altlas has the same platform of the VW Polo. I don’t know how they’ve succeeded in stretching it so much but probably it has a poor handling.

  • AndrewC

    No other reviews have complained about the ride of the Atlas. I can only presume this one had the 20″ wheels.

  • Bow Jangles


    After getting burned on Volkswagen’s DSG transmission I’ll never trust their automatic not after the fiasco I had with their 01M’s If I could buy the Atlas with a 5 Sp manual I’d have it in my garage today. Otherwise VW can keep their very unreliable and expensive to service gearboxes. The scheduled service on the DSG transmission was every 40K miles at $450.00 .
    What is the cost of the scheduled service on this gearbox and what is the service scheduled frequency ?

    If you have to drive a car with an automatic transmission then my recommendation is to consider some other brand.

    If you can drive a manual transmission then VW transmissions are rock solid and darn near bullet proof and always have been.

  • Mike B

    Bow, I believe the transmission (from what I have read) is an Asin unit, same maker as the Touareg’s units and same as Toyota and several other makers. Asin makes good units and they hold up very well to heavy use. I tow a travel trailer with our Touareg and the combined weight of truck and trailer is over 13k and the transmission doesn’t overheat or fret (for over 100k miles now). Fluid flush is expensive, but for the Touareg there officially is no recommended service as it is a sealed unit…regardless I did my flush at 70k and the fluid was in good shape still.

    My opinion of the Asin units (for all makes that use them including Toyota) is they are a superior transmission to ZF units (definetly the VW’s DSG units), but also to manuals as manuals can still throw gears or burn up synchros.

  • Althea Later

    Wow… 19 mpg average. How pathetic. It’s 2017. A gas crisis could be a day away.
    My hybrid RAV4 averages over 33mpg.

  • Today I drove both the VW Atlas and the 2017 Pilot Elite and left liking the VW Atlas more. All the parking and driving assists are what’s sealing it for me. I didn’t notice a stiffer ride, but if that’s the case I’ll live with it.

    Also I saw the reviewer really enjoyed the two chair seating of the Pilot Elite. You can get that in the Atlas as an option, but I don’t think it’s available right now. Hopefully it won’t take long to come out because I don’t feel like waiting.

    Also I hated that I had to get the entertainment system with the Elite. I don’t want that and I’ve found other car companies have that as an add on, not something built into the package.

    Last thing is that the lease terms on the Pilot seemed really bad. The dealer told me it’s because they have no promotions for lease.

  • John

    In an age of alleged fake news, a time when two nuclear obsessed, ego-maniacal megalomaniacs can stand atop nuclear warheads and piss on the rest of the world as if they have the right to do so, while others pretend climate change is a farce as diesel gate still hovers as an indication lies and corruption is all to prevalent . . . how is it that journalists seem to have slipped into a space in time where they seem afraid to or reluctant to speak out? There was a time when journalists weren’t afraid to put it on the line and try to right a wrong–or even fearlessly write about the wrong until it was corrected.

    So why is it that VW is being placed on a pedestal while owners in Canada of a ‘diesel gate’ scandal Touareg (and 3.0l V6 TDI 2008-whatever) are left to wonder why nothing is ever said about how VW Canada must wait for whatever VW US is forced to do after being sued . . . remember it took the employees in German for VW to force the big greeds to do anything, and yet not a word is stated in any auto reviews featuring VW vehicles. Audi, Volkswagen, Bentley, Lambos . . . the list goes on of all the autos VW can be responsible for lying to buyers about?

    Journalists do have the opportunity to do good, not just inappropriately annoy and badger a grieving family . . . so next time you review any VW product, Jonathan, why not man up and add: But then it is Volkswagen, and seeing how they started the Diesel Gate scandal and have yet to make good to all the Canadians they lied to and mistreated, can we really trust them to be righteous with this vehicle? Have you never heard that the pen is mightier than the sword? Words can make changes happen. They can help right wrongs.

  • Paul

    We have an Atlas SE, the ride is not rough at all and the “jumpy throttle” is called power, adjust your lead foot driving on take off. Combination driving averages 24mpg’s. Interior looks great. The comparison may be biased.