Today’s large-family vehicle is the three-row SUV. Though truck-based full-size SUVs, which we put through their paces in the 2018 Full-Size SUV Challenge, also offer three rows of seats, most shoppers who seek a minivan alternative do without the greater bulk and fuel costs of a vehicle designed to tow, opting instead for what’s usually described as a large crossover SUV.
So, for our 2020 3-Row SUV Challenge, we set out to test a few newcomers and two redesigns along with a couple of strong returning models included in our previous 2017 Three-Row SUV Challenge. Unfortunately, the redesigned 2020 Toyota Highlander wasn’t ready in time for our testing and will have to take on our new benchmark head-to-head soon. We elected not to include any other models that hadn’t been substantially updated since weaker showings in previous Challenges.
We determined the winner by scoring 19 separate categories including everything from drivability and mileage to interior space and technology, as detailed in our How We Tested article. Each vehicle is evaluated as equipped and priced, and though these are relatively feature-loaded representations, our results cannot represent their respective model lineups as a whole.
Here are the seven SUV competitors and how they finished:
1. 2020 Hyundai Palisade Limited AWD
2. 2020 Kia Telluride SX AWD
3. 2019 Volkswagen Atlas SEL Premium 4Motion
4. 2020 Ford Explorer Limited 4WD
5. 2020 Subaru Ascent Touring
6. 2020 Chevrolet Traverse AWD High Country
7. 2020 Honda Pilot AWD Elite
Prices ranged from $46,055 to $54,420, and all seven models were equipped with all-wheel drive. All were equipped with V-6 engines except the Ford and Subaru, which had turbocharged four-cylinders. All had a pair of captain’s chairs for the second row in lieu of bench seats, which made for a total of seven seats in all but the Ford, which had six seats total.
Our judges were:
- Aaron Bragman, Detroit bureau chief
- Kelsey Mays, senior consumer affairs editor
- Brian Wong, Los Angeles bureau chief
Though there were tight groupings based on our scores — especially of the top two and the bottom three, we considered this a strong batch of competitors overall. The key is to check out the strongest and weakest aspects of the models, laid out below in descending order of importance to their ranking, and find out what’s most important to you using the following graphic showing the various wins and losses at a glance.
7. 2020 Honda Pilot AWD Elite, 364 Points (Out of a Possible 585)
The verdict: A last-place finisher that can still be recommended, the Pilot is comfortable and easygoing, but its quality has been surpassed and its user interface is a major drawback.
Our Test Vehicle
As-tested price: $49,215
Powertrain: 280-horsepower, 3.5-liter V-6; nine-speed automatic transmission; all-wheel drive
Estimated city/highway/combined mpg: 19/26/22
Observed mpg: 23.6
The Pilot was last redesigned in 2016, and the 2020 Pilot Elite we tested is one trim level below the top, which is called the Black Edition. Note that all trim levels below Touring come with a six-speed transmission rather than our vehicle’s nine-speed, which means a different driving character, a different shifter and lower EPA fuel-economy estimates. The Pilot won only one category, visibility, which it shared with the Subaru Ascent. It placed last in four categories and tied for last in two others.
Visibility: “Outward visibility is good thanks to slim pillars and Honda’s typical tall, upright windows,” said Bragman. The Pilot tied for first with the Subaru in this category.
In-cabin storage: “Myriad features — including three levels of door shelving, a massive compartment in the center console and a tray between the second-row captain’s chairs — make for prolific in-cabin storage,” said Mays.
Gas mileage: In our fuel-efficiency test covering roughly 240 miles of city and highway driving, the Pilot returned 23.6 mpg, third place and just a few tenths of an mpg behind the Hyundai Palisade. (The Kia Telluride was first with 24.5 mpg.)
Front-seat comfort: Though scores varied little in this category, “Honda is an unsung hero on front-seat comfort,” Mays noted. “The chairs are generously cushioned and supportive — though the lack of a passenger-side height adjustment remains an oversight.” Bragman added: “I’d trade the low center console and fiddly little seat-attached armrests for a high console and proper center armrest in a heartbeat.”
Driving ease: Though the Pilot’s ride and handling both rated average by the numbers, two judges singled it out as easy to drive, also using words like comfortable, soft, relaxing and smooth.
Build quality: “The assembly quality seems quite good — no squeaks, rattles or creaks at all, and the doors feel surprisingly heavy, closing with a considerable thunk that comes across as solid and substantial,” Bragman said.
Rear entertainment system: “Once a staple among family vehicles, rear entertainment systems have lost favor to mobile devices, but there’s an old-school simplicity — and fewer projectiles during a crash — to throwing in a Blu-ray to pacify the peanut gallery,” Mays said. “The Pilot was the sole SUV with such a system.”
Also noted: Judges also liked the large wireless device-charging pad, a dual-pane moonroof that extends over the third row and makes the cabin feel more open, and the way the rearmost section of the carpeted cargo floor can be flipped over to expose easier-to-clean hard plastic.
User interface: “The Pilot’s Display Audio system, included on all but the base trim, remains a frustration of touch-sensitive shortcut keys and a missing tuning knob,” Mays explained. Wong added, “The system itself is unintuitive and gets you lost in a maze of menus and awkward functionality. I also don’t like the nine-speed’s push-button shifter that doesn’t have other utility (like it does in the Palisade). This one is just added complication without adding storage space or making the arrangement of the center console more ergonomic or logical.” Trim levels below Touring get a six-speed automatic and conventional shift lever. Bragman noted that even the steering-wheel-mounted controls aren’t easy to figure out. It’s easy to see why the Honda finished last in this category, as the brand’s entries often do in our Challenges.
Driver-assistance features: Though our Pilot was equipped with active lane departure prevention and adaptive cruise control, the two features covered in this judging category, both operate only at higher speeds (45 to 90 mph and faster than 21 mph, respectively) while competitors had more robust versions of one feature, the other or both.
Safety features: Though it’s reasonably well equipped, scoring 23 points out of a possible 30 put the Pilot in last place among the seven models. It had all of the blind spot, lane departure and forward collision warning provisions as the others, losing a point for omitting high-speed automatic emergency braking. It had front parking sensors but no 360-degree or front camera systems like the others. It also lacked reverse automatic braking, which three competitors had.
False collision warnings: The Pilot’s score was based on its features alone, not their performance, but our judges also encountered several false warnings based on little more than rises in the pavement (that’s our best guess).
Interior quality: “The interior styling is just black on black.” Wong said. “It feels like interior decor by Darth Vader.” Bragman said, “The monochrome black interior hides the fact that some of the materials really aren’t that great, and the electronic gauges are fussy and dated looking; it’s time for Honda to ditch the 1980s-retro LCD look.” Mays also called out an “industrial feel overall, with cheap, shiny plastics. Further cost-cutting is evident when you get to the backseat despite some well-constructed controls and respectable leather quality.” This was another last-place finish for the Pilot.
Noise: “The cabin gets boomy over broken pavement, with road noise transmitted into the structure to make it sound more like a cavernous minivan,” Bragman said. The Pilot tied for last in this category with the Subaru.
Child-seat accommodation: With only 14 points out of a possible 30, the Pilot tied with the Ford Explorer for last place in its accommodation of child-safety seats. See the Pilot’s full Car Seat Check for details.
Second and third row: Though it didn’t score last, both of the Pilot’s rear-seat rows were rated near the bottom. “Second-row legroom is modest, and Honda puts air vents for the second and third rows at hip level — not the ceiling, an indisputably better location to ward off motion sickness,” Mays said. “The second-row seats slide forward at the touch of a button for third-row access, but the path back is narrow.” Bragman added: “The wayback is not easily usable by adults.”
Fewer USB ports: With four total and none in the third row, the Pilot is among the lesser-equipped contestants for mobile device charging. Four models have six or seven USB ports, including some for third-row passengers.
6. 2020 Chevrolet Traverse AWD High Country, 367 Points
The verdict: Cargo space and ride comfort are the Traverse’s claims to fame, but its value is a disappointment on many levels.
Our Test Vehicle
As-tested price: $54,395
Powertrain: 310-hp, 3.6-liter V-6; nine-speed automatic transmission; all-wheel drive
Estimated city/highway/combined mpg: 17/25/20
Observed mpg: 21.0
The Traverse was redesigned for the 2018 model year. The trim level we tested was a High Country, the highest. It rated first in one judging category and tied for first in another. It rated last in three categories and tied for last in two.
Cargo capability: At 204.3 inches long, the Traverse is the longest model in the test, and that pays off in a couple of ways, most notably its top-rated cargo score. It had the highest measured volume behind the second-row seats (with the third row folded) and tied for first with the Ford Explorer for maximum distance between the liftgate and front seats.
Ride quality: Judges rated the Traverse’s suspension as “not the most buttoned down,” as Mays put it, but comfort won the day — tying for first place with the Hyundai and Kia — with what Bragman described as a “well-damped ride.” Wong agreed: “Softness built into the suspension makes bumps in the road disappear.”
Front-seat roominess: “With exceptional knee clearance and front-seat sliding range, the Traverse is the best choice in this group for tall drivers,” Mays said. Despite this, mixed results on the seats’ actual comfort held their overall score to a four-way tie for second place.
Third-row seats: “The Traverse is on the big side of the segment, so it’s comfortable and spacious in every row, even the third row,” Bragman said. “The third row is eminently tolerable for adults.” The Chevy’s third row rated above average.
Second-row seats: Rated average overall due to the firmness of the seats themselves, the Traverse’s second row nevertheless stood out for its roominess. “The second row is comparable to that of the Atlas, with decent seating height and exceptional legroom,” Mays said.
Camera execution: “Two key features salvage otherwise poor visibility: a camera-based rearview mirror and the group’s highest-definition backup camera,” Mays said. Wong added: “The 360-degree camera system offers a nice variety of views, including a top-down view of the rear for hooking up trailers.”
Also noted: Upscale, supple leather; one of only two power-adjustable steering wheels in the test (tied to the seat-memory feature); “a hidden cubby behind the motorized touchscreen that’s good for storing valuables away from prying eyes,” said Wong; and “a pleasant, technical-sounding exhaust note,” Mays said.
Value: Rated last for value, the Traverse took hits from many angles. “Despite nearly tying the Explorer for the highest as-tested price, our Traverse curiously lacked features included widely among its peers: Second-row window shades, HD radio, rain-sensing wipers and power-folding mirrors were absent,” Mays said. Bragman added: “The cost-cutting is showing — not having both second-row seats tilt forward for access to the third row is a cheap move. So is not having height-adjustable shoulder belts.” Wong noted that all other contestants had tilt-and-slide seats on both sides.
Gas mileage: Achieving 21 mpg in our mileage test, the Traverse was the least efficient SUV — 0.5 mpg behind the Atlas but 3.5 mpg behind the leading Telluride.
Handling: “Suspension softness, while good for ride quality, is murder on the vehicle’s handling and dynamics,” Wong said. “Copious body roll in turns unsettles the rear end easily and makes the Traverse feel out of control during quick changes in direction.” All judges agreed, scoring the Traverse last in this category. “Steering and handling both feel ponderous and slow, with a lack of desire to change directions,” Bragman said.
Braking feel: While we performed no stopping-distance tests, we keep tabs on braking feel, which is also important, and the Traverse rated clearly last. “For a big vehicle, the brakes feel very underpowered, especially on initial application, so it’s hard to stop smoothly,” Wong said. Bragman added: “It makes the Traverse feel a lot heavier than the competitors — but it’s not.”
Outward visibility: “Rearward visibility is compromised because of thick pillars,” Bragman said. The Traverse tied for last with the Explorer in this category.
Interior quality: “The leather upholstery was nice, but the rest of the interior really fell flat when it comes to materials and quality,” Wong said. “It doesn’t match the very high price tag.” Mays added, “The armrests have insufficient padding, and touchpoints like the upper doors are hard plastic, but it goes beyond materials. Rubber-blister-style steering-wheel controls instead of real buttons? A flimsy clip to shut the moonroof’s sunshade? Many controls scream cheap, too.” Bragman suggested problems went beyond inherent quality to quality control: “The seat piping and door stitching is wavy, and the paint has obvious fish-eye blemishes in several spots,” he said. The Chevy ranked second to last in this category behind the Pilot.
User interface: “The Traverse has a case of user-unfriendliness, from a missing tuning knob and obstructive touchscreen menus to a tiny gauge display,” Mays said. The Chevy rated below average in this regard.
In-cabin storage: The Traverse itself might be large, but it rated on the lower side for cabin storage provisions. “The doors have a lot of pockets, but each of them is too small to fit any medium-sized item like a tablet or a book,” Wong said.
Transmission: “Acceleration is adequate, but the Traverse doesn’t have the immediacy of its competitors due to a sluggish transmission,” Bragman said. Mays agreed: “If you need more power while in motion, the transmission often gear-hunts on downshifts, picking an intermediary gear before settling into the next. By the time it’s all done, a full 2 seconds can pass — unacceptably long.”
Seat comfort: Though the Traverse’s roominess helped its seat scores across the board, two of our judges took issue. “Space aside, none of the Traverse’s seats are particularly comfortable. The front seats have stiff bolsters and rock-hard head restraints, and the second-row chairs are too flat,” Mays said. Wong said the second and third rows “lack cushioning, making them firm and uncomfortable for longer trips.”
5. 2020 Subaru Ascent Touring, 369 Points
The verdict: In a vacuum, the Ascent seems like a decent vehicle, but its driving manners, snug interior and refinement don’t stand up well when tested back-to-back against these competitors.
Our Test Vehicle
As-tested price: $46,055
Powertrain: 260-hp, 2.4-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder; continuously variable automatic transmission; all-wheel drive
Estimated city/highway/combined mpg: 20/26/22
Observed mpg: 23.1
We tested the Ascent Touring model, the top trim level. Introduced in 2019 as a replacement for the too-small Tribeca, last sold as a 2014 model, the Ascent doesn’t go far enough — or at least large enough. It shared first place in two judging categories, rated last in four and tied for last in a fifth. Having the lowest as-tested price and decent equipment levels helped, as did higher scores in aspects you might want, like lots of safety features, but don’t interact with day to day. On the flip side, its scores were consistently low in the subjective judging categories, giving judges a poorer impression of the model than its overall score — and rank — suggest.
Outward visibility: “Outward visibility is excellent thanks to Subaru’s typical upright design and big windows,” Bragman said. Mays added, “Subaru augments that with a camera-based rearview mirror — one of two SUVs in our test to have it.” The Ascent tied for first in this category with the Pilot, which didn’t have a full-time rearview camera.
Safety features: The Ascent tied for first with the Ford and VW for its generous complement of safety features, including rear automatic braking, which the other four vehicles lacked. The Ascent was the only contestant with pivoting headlights. Though it lost points for lacking front parking sensors and a full surround view, it received credit for its front camera.
Child-seat accommodation: Despite being one of the shorter contestants as well as the narrowest, the Ascent proved welcoming of child-safety seats, ranking in second place. See the details in our Car Seat Check.
Front seats: The Ascent’s front seats rated average overall, in part because the passenger’s seat lacks a height adjustment, but all judges commended the seat comfort otherwise. “They’re wide and roomy,” Mays said. Wong called them “comfortable, with a long thigh adjustment and enough travel in all directions to get situated easily,” and Bragman described “overstuffed seats that feel pillowy but still supportive.”
Value: At $46,055 as tested, “The Ascent was the most affordable vehicle in the test, and it still compares well to the others on safety and other features,” Wong said.
All-wheel drive: “Subaru’s venerated AWD exhibited minimal wheelspin digging the Ascent out of a split-traction surface with two wheels in the mud,” Mays said. “Most of the other SUVs — even with low-traction drive modes engaged — spun a wheel or two to some degree. The handling doesn’t come close to the Explorer’s, but the Ascent’s AWD has better torque distribution than most contestants, able to set the tail when coming out of a turn to counter understeer.”
Also noted: A large gap between the captain’s chairs allows passage to the third row and the only cargo cover in the test, with an easy storage space under the cargo floor.
Powertrain: Here the Ascent was rated seventh of seven. “The powertrain is a mess,” Bragman said. “The throttle is jumpy and the continuously variable transmission shifts around a lot; it’s actually difficult to drive it smoothly in urban traffic.” Mays added: “The Explorer and Ascent both employ turbocharged four-cylinders, but this is a tale of two outcomes: Where the Ford feels energetic, the Subaru has more noise than power.” Wong added: “In stark opposition to the Explorer, the Ascent runs out of breath after an initial burst in acceleration off the line. It’s the only vehicle in the test that I thought could use a bit more power.”
Cargo storage: The Ascent’s measured volume behind the third row is modest and its maximum volume is average. What pushed it below the Explorer and Pilot and into last rank in this category, by 1 point out of 30, were its lack of seat-folding releases near the liftgate and being the only contestant without a hands-free enhancement for its power liftgate.
Ride quality: The Ascent rated last in ride quality. “The soft suspension is fine for highways and perfectly paved roads,” Wong said. “But it lacks control. Excessive body roll makes the rear end feel like it’s getting away from you, and the Ascent doesn’t inspire driving confidence.”
In-cabin storage: “The Ascent’s most-in-class cupholders (19) belies the lack of other storage space,” Mays said. “Where others have big console bins near the cupholders and under the armrest, the Ascent has only small compartments in both areas.” The Ascent ranked last in this regard.
Noise: Subaru tied for last with the Honda, but its noise complaint was different in character: “As the engine revs, it gets very noisy and the din is decidedly unpleasant,” Wong said. “Thank the CVT for that as well.”
Second and third rows: Both rated second to last above the Ford Explorer’s. “The second-row legroom is tight, and the third row is practically unusable for adults, with very limited legroom or headroom and difficult ingress and egress,” Bragman said. Wong agreed: “The seats themselves are also very thin and lack padding, and the third row is especially short on headroom — if I sat up straight, my head hit the ceiling.” Mays wondered why: “The third row sits comfortably high off the floor; Subaru should have sacrificed an inch of seat height to add space overhead.”
Handling: “Body roll is pronounced in corners,” Bragman said. “The steering is also unpleasantly frenetic, with jumpy response and darty behavior both around town and on the highway.” The Subaru rated second to last for handling.
Bleeping safety systems: Though top-rated for the EyeSight features included, the Ascent drew different reactions in practice. “The car is always beeping at you,” Bragman said. “It beeps at you when the lane departure system can’t detect the lanes and shuts off. It beeps when you come close to straying over a lane. The cruise control beeps when it detects a car and when the car moves out of the way. And shutting the system off to stop the beeping is nearly impossible.” Wong added: “It uses the same noise for everything so you’re not sure what has got it all out of sorts.”
Also noted: Cheap individual plastic covers over USB ports, daytime glare from the rear camera mirror, one of two models to lack wireless smartphone charging and key fob remote start.
4. 2020 Ford Explorer Limited 4WD, 380 Points
The verdict: A redesign boosts drivability and creates an arguable niche model, but it leaves potentially more important aspects like interior space, comfort and value behind.
Our Test Vehicle
As-tested price: $54,420
Powertrain: 300-hp*, 2.3-liter inline-four-cylinder; 10-speed automatic transmission; all-wheel drive
Estimated city/highway/combined mpg: 20/27/23
Observed mpg: 23.3*
*Engine specs based on premium gasoline; Cars.com testing and mpg based on regular
The Limited is the third of five trim levels available for the newly redesigned 2020 Explorer, but the highest with the turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder. The Platinum and ST have a turbocharged V-6; a hybrid is also available. For its first redesign since 2011, Ford switched the Explorer from a front-wheel-drive platform to a rear-drive one. Even in models with optional all-wheel drive, this translates to a rear torque bias and a sportier, RWD feel. Was it worth it? For the driving experience, our judges say yes, but it also seems to have downsides for the interior space, which wasn’t great in the front-drive generation to begin with. Maximum towing capacity, which we didn’t score, is 5,300 pounds, 300 pounds more than the as-tested competitors. Though this is also 300 pounds more than the 2019 Explorer’s maximum (or 600 pounds more with the new V-6), the 5,300-pound limit is available on all 2020 trim levels with an optional towing package, replacing the earlier Explorer’s 2,000-pound limit for front-drive and lower trims.
As we’ve detailed in previous Challenges, Ford’s engines run on regular gasoline, but the fine print says you get more power (and Ford bases its engine specs) on 91-and-above octane premium. We conducted all 2020 Explorer testing on regular gasoline. The Ford racked up four category wins and shared first place in two more. It finished last in three judging categories and shared the bottom in two more.
Handling: “The Explorer is the best-handling vehicle here,” Bragman said. “Body control, steering feel and responsiveness, turn-in and ride-versus-handling balance are nothing short of superb. It drives like a German luxury SUV.” Wong added: “You can also use the throttle to help push the Explorer through corners, which is worth a grin or two, and the steering feel is spot on for an SUV — enough tension in the wheel to let you know it’s there, but still low effort at low speeds and while parking.”
Powertrain: “The powertrain is also the best one here,” Bragman said. “It’s the same one used in the base Mustang and Ranger mid-size pickup, and it’s as good here as it is there, with surprising acceleration, smooth shifts and instant torque without being jumpy or frenetic like the Subaru’s turbo engine.” Mays added: “The turbo four-cylinder provides punchy acceleration, both off the line and in the passing lane, with quick revving thanks to the 10-speed automatic’s short gears. That we observed this while running 87-octane gas means you’d be daft to spend 23 percent more on average for the higher-octane fuel.”
In-cabin storage: “Though cargo space is tight, in-cabin storage is good,” Mays explained. “Front-seat provisions are average, but the Explorer leads in the second row thanks to a large storage console between the captain’s chairs.” The Explorer ranked first in this category.
Braking feel: The Explorer rated first for braking feel. “As good as it is at going, the Explorer is also great at stopping,” Wong said. “Proper pedal feel makes it easy to stop smoothly, and under hard braking, the Explorer stops quickly and with little drama; the back end doesn’t wiggle or feel out of place.”
Driver-assistance features: In a three-way tie with the Hyundai and Kia, the Explorer topped this category with 9 points. All three models had lane-centering and adaptive cruise control that operate at both low and high speeds, but none had the hands-free functionality offered on some luxury vehicles that could have achieved the maximum of 15 points.
Safety features: In another three-way tie, with the Ascent and Atlas, the Explorer tops this category. It matches the VW exactly, having earned points for a 360-degree camera system, rear cross-traffic detection, front parking sensors, reverse automatic braking and automatic high-beam headlights. The only missing feature was adaptive (pivoting) headlights. As stated in the Ascent section, the Subaru had adaptive headlights but lacked other features, resulting in the tie.
Interior quality: Rated above average, “The interior quality is competitive, with padding at most touch points and sturdy center controls,” Mays said. Bragman added: “This is the first time I’ve seen the Explorer’s standard gauges rather than the digital instruments, and they’re well done.”
Usable aisle: “About 9 inches separate the Explorer’s captain’s chairs (similar to the Atlas and a couple of inches wider than most others), which means it’s usable as an aisle to reach the third row, not just a DMZ between warring siblings,” said Mays.
Also noted: The Explorer was the only vehicle with USB type-C ports and one of two with a power-adjustable steering wheel (tied to the seat-memory feature).
Front seats: “Despite the redesign, the Explorer retains historically undersized front seats, which also have too much lumbar support,” Mays said. “Sliding range is limited, too.” Wong noted: “They have shortish bottom cushions and lack extendable thigh support. After a couple of hours behind the wheel, it’s time for a stretch and maybe a massage.” These seats rated last by a substantial margin.
Second-row seats: “The Explorer suffers from uncomfortable seats in all positions,” Bragman said. “The second-row captain’s chairs are oddly narrow.” Wong added: “They also have minimal bolstering, so in any kind of turn, you go sliding around from side to side. That’s fun.” The Explorer’s second row also rated last in our Challenge.
Third-row seats: “The third row feels like I’m sitting on the cargo area floor,” Bragman said, and Wong said, “it drives your knees up into your chest, like you’re doing a crunch.” Mays and his tape measure confirmed that the Explorer’s formerly high third-row seat has been slammed with the 2020 redesign, now 5 inches lower than the best-in-test Atlas. “Each captain’s chair has a button to release it, but sliding it forward and moving the seats around takes a lot of strength,” Wong said. “Children certainly won’t be strong enough to move them without assistance.” Mays suggested that “passengers might resort exclusively to the center aisle to reach the third row, as walk-in access from the sliding captain’s chairs is narrow anyway. If you slide the second row forward for a best-case compromise between second- and third-row legroom, both spaces end up tight. Ford is an equal-row offender.” Indeed; this row was also rated last.
Child-seat accommodation: Typically, when adults don’t fit as well, neither do children’s car seats, and that played a role in the Explorer’s last-place tie with the Pilot. Though the sliding second row was commodious enough absent any demands from third-row passengers, the execution of the Latch anchors left something to be desired, as detailed in the full Car Seat Check.
Value: “It’s the most expensive vehicle in this test, but it certainly doesn’t feel it,” Wong said. “Interior materials are middling, and the technology doesn’t blow you away. At this price, you don’t even get the larger touchscreen.” (Top Explorer trim levels have an optional 10.1-inch vertically oriented touchscreen, replacing the 8-inch horizontal touchscreen in lower trims.) Bragman added: “It’s roughly $7,500 more than the loaded Kia Telluride, but it certainly doesn’t feature $7,000-$8,000 more content; a competitively priced Explorer would be underequipped versus the competition. And this isn’t even the top Explorer trim level. Closing the front doors makes the lower cladding rattle. It feels cheaply assembled and doesn’t communicate a quality feel.” The Explorer rated just three-tenths of a point above the last-place Traverse.
Visibility: “A gigantic C-pillar cuts down visibility from the driver’s seat, putting a big blind spot over your right shoulder,” Wong said. Mays added: “Head restraints in both the second and third rows fold down to clear up the view — and it’s the only SUV with that provision for the second row — but that can’t make up for thick A- and C-pillars. Visibility is an overall weakness.” This is another tie for last place, with the Traverse.
Ride quality: “All seven SUVs rode with reasonable comfort, but suspension tuning in the Explorer is on the firm side of the group,” Mays noted.
Smartphone charger: “The wireless charging pad is located in front of the storage bin in space that isn’t normally utilized, but it’s too small to fit larger phones,” Wong said.
3. 2019 Volkswagen Atlas SEL Premium 4Motion, 406 Points
The verdict: Our previous champion holds up well in important ways, accommodating occupants and cargo simultaneously better than the others with the best third row, as well as driving nicely, but its interior quality holds it back, especially versus the newcomers.
Our Test Vehicle
As-tested price: $50,320
Powertrain: 276-hp, 3.6-liter V-6; eight-speed automatic transmission; all-wheel drive
Estimated city/highway/combined mpg: 17/23/19
Observed mpg: 21.5
The V-6 SEL Premium we tested is the highest 2019 trim level and, being equipped with 4Motion all-wheel drive standard, is powered by the required V-6 engine. The Atlas launched in 2018, and being the only 2019 model in the test is notable mainly because it includes Volkswagen’s generous six-year, 72,000-mile bumper-to-bumper and powertrain warranty. If you purchase a 2020, you’ll find it’s been decreased to four years or 50,000 miles, which makes it shorter than Kia and Hyundai’s five-year, 60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper coverage (and 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain). Note that the change happens with the model year, not the calendar, so don’t rush to buy a 2020 Atlas now or hesitate if you see a 2019 after Jan. 1. Changes to the 2020 Atlas are otherwise modest.
The Atlas topped only two judging categories and shared the top in two others, but it scored pretty strongly overall and rated last in only one category.
Third-row seats: The Atlas won third-row superiority over its competitors by the greatest margin in all of the subjective judging. “I’d pick the third row in the Atlas over the second row in the Explorer or Ascent,” Mays enthused. “It’s excellent on both legroom and headroom.” Bragman said, “Such space! Definitely the roomiest interior here, which really shows VW’s excellent packaging skills. And getting into and out of the third row is really easy even for big, full-sized adults thanks to how well the second row flips and folds forward.” Wong added, “Great visibility, especially to the front because the seats sit up a little higher.”
Child-seat accommodation: Another big win was the Atlas’ accommodation of child-safety seats. It earned straight A’s in the Car Seat Check, including the second- and third-row seats, while the next-closest Ascent earned B’s in the third row, translating to a 2-point deficit and second place in this Challenge category.
Second-row seats: “The second row is roomy, with plenty of legroom and headroom, even with the front seats in reasonable positions,” Bragman said. The Atlas tied for first in this category with the Palisade.
Safety features: Sharing the top score with the Ascent and Explorer, the VW matches the Ford exactly, having earned points for a 360-degree camera system, rear cross-traffic detection, front parking sensors, rear automatic braking and automatic high-beam headlights. The only missing feature was adaptive (pivoting) headlights, which the Ascent had.
Handling: Ranking second, the Atlas has “a good handling score that’s a product of both the steering feel and the suspension,” Wong said. The other judges also lined up behind the steering: “It’s surprisingly light and responsive for such a big vehicle,” Bragman said. “It makes it feel not so big when you’re negotiating twisty roads and tight urban streets.” Mays called it “the best steering here.”
Cargo storage: “There’s tons of cargo room in back,” Bragman said. “This thing can haul as much as traditional truck-based SUVs.” The Atlas might share third place overall for cargo, but it’s only 2 points behind the leader, out of 30 possible, and it had the most measured volume behind the notably roomy third row — meaning you get plenty of cargo space when the seats are in use. It was dinged only for being the only model with insubstantial under-floor space and for lacking cargo-area seat-folding releases.
Value … for now: “Our Atlas was the only 2019 model among 2020s, but that worked in its favor on the value front, as Volkswagen’s excellent bumper-to-bumper warranty (six years or 72,000 miles) goes away come the 2020 model year,” Mays said. The Atlas’ value rated second highest.
Also noted: A massive panoramic moonroof that makes the already large cabin seem larger, a satisfying steering wheel and a touchscreen that senses an approaching hand and displays buttons, preserving all of the display for information when menu buttons aren’t needed.
Media and connectivity: “The Atlas is a step behind on the connectivity front, with just four USB ports — three less than in the Hyundai or Kia — plus no wireless smartphone charging,” Mays said. The VW rated last in this category.
Interior quality: In a tie with the Traverse, the Atlas ranked second to last. Mays cited “rickety controls, lots of cheap surfaces and unimpressive leather.” Wong noted “lots of cheaper plastic bits in awkward places and touchpoints that aren’t up to the same standard as the South Korean models.” Bragman said: “I can hear the dash and panels creaking just from acceleration and deceleration. It makes me wonder how well the interior will hold up long term.”
Gas mileage: Achieving 21.5 mpg in our mileage loop, the Atlas was just 0.5 mpg ahead of the Traverse; they tied for last in this category.
User interface: “Capacitive controls flanking the touchscreen are too sensitive and don’t do a good job of indicating they’ve been pressed,” Wong said. Mays agreed, adding: “There’s no easy way to surf radio stations while using Apple CarPlay.” Bragman noted: “I’m not thrilled with the digital gauges, either. They seem plain, and finding the information I want when I need it isn’t easy. Switching between all the views doesn’t improve things.”
Transmission: The Atlas’ overall powertrain score was slightly below average, but “the transmission has an annoying hesitation when you come to a rolling stop and get back on the throttle,” Bragman said. “It really doesn’t like kicking down unless you force the issue.” Mays agreed: “Whatever gear the automatic lands you in, it’s a long climb to the next one.” Wong made it three for three: “It can make passing maneuvers a little tricky.”
No ceiling vents for rear seats: Where most contestants have ceiling vents for the second and third rows, the Atlas and Pilot put them lower, in the center console and side panel or pillars. “The Atlas’ second-row air vents are in the center console, so your knees will get warm or cold before the rest of you,” Wong said.
Panic braking: “Under simulated panic braking from 40 mph, the Atlas exhibited a little bit of skittishness,” Mays said.
Front seat shape: Though the front seats scored comparably overall, Bragman found them “a little oddly shaped, slightly narrow for the plentiful cabin space they have available.”
Camera system: “You can’t set the 360-degree camera system to open up with an overhead view by default,” Wong noted. “You always have to hit a button to get it to split between the rear view and the overhead view.”
2. 2020 Kia Telluride SX AWD, 428 Points
The verdict: More of a 1B than a second-place finisher, the Telluride shares many of the winner’s strengths, with perfect size, top-notch materials, and calm and easy driving behavior wrapped up in a quality package that’s priced thousands less than competitors.
As-tested price: $46,860
Powertrain: 291-hp, 3.8-liter V-6; eight-speed automatic transmission; all-wheel drive
Estimated city/highway/combined mpg: 19/24/21
Observed mpg: 24.5
New for 2020, the Telluride is larger and richer than the Sorento, which continues in the Kia lineup. We tested an SX, the highest trim level. Like Chevrolet and GMC, South Korean companies Kia and Hyundai are closely related, though if you raise the name of one brand to the people who represent the other, they tend to react like politicians asked about associates who are under criminal investigation. “Well, we’ve heard of that brand, but it’s not like we’re friends or anything….”
In truth, though the companies have done an excellent job of distinguishing the Palisade and Telluride stylistically, the two vehicles are very similar in foundational ways, and that’s overwhelmingly a positive here. We’re sure both companies would prefer we regard their contestants as different as we do Chevy and VW, but that would just make the reporting below suspiciously, confusingly familiar. These two scored closer, section to section, than any models we’ve had together in any Cars.com Challenge, and it complicates judging a bit — tightening the scores and skewing the averages. We usually focus on the big wins and losses, but doing so would underreport either model much of the time. So we attempt to explain where they edge out each other as well as when they top or — rarely — are bested by the rest.
The Telluride had one outright category win, and shared four other wins — two with the Palisade alone and two with the Palisade plus additional contestants. Though we don’t judge based on styling, our editors ultimately coalesced around the Kia’s boxiness and rugged interior design over the Palisade.
Gas mileage: Perhaps its biggest win in our testing was the Telluride’s 24.5 mpg observed mileage in our 240-mile test, beating even the Palisade by 0.6 mpg.
Value: “At some $3,000 less than the average as-tested price in this comparison — and tied with Hyundai for the group’s best powertrain warranty of 10 years/100,000 miles — Kia’s new SUV packs characteristically excellent value,” Mays said. The Telluride and Palisade tied for first place in this category.
Driver-assistance features: Along with the Palisade and Explorer, the Telluride topped this category with points for possessing lane-centering steering and adaptive cruise control that operate at both low and high speeds. None had the hands-free functionality offered on some luxury vehicles that could have achieved the maximum of 15 points, but judges expressed appreciation for the effectiveness of Lane Following Assist, which aids in steering.
Media and connectivity: Both this and the Palisade beat the competitors with three USB ports for the front seats, two for each second row and two for the third; the Chevy and Subaru were closest with six total.
Ride quality: “Is it my imagination, or does the Kia’s ride and body control feel just a little bit better than the Palisade’s?” Bragman asked. Wong answered: “The Telluride is a bit too soft in the rear suspension for me and takes a few more beats than the Palisade to get settled after bumps.” Mays added: “They ride with a similar degree of sophistication, but they employ different shock absorbers. As such, the Telluride is a tad softer, but I think the Palisade’s slight firmness returns slightly more body control.” Opinions differed about the two, but once the scores were averaged, they both tied with the Traverse for first place in this category.
Interior quality: “For the second-most-affordable model in our Challenge, it has a remarkably upscale interior — I’d characterize this and the Palisade as near-luxury in terms of materials and design,” Wong said. Mays added: “Cabin materials aren’t quite Palisade good, but they’re close enough, with sturdy controls and consistent materials with no quality drop-offs in the rear seats.” As for the rest of the competitors, “Materials quality is better than most of the competitive field here,” Bragman asserted. The Telluride ranked a close second to the Palisade.
Visibility: “Visibility for the driver is fantastic, with large windows all around and thin pillars that give a sense of command over the environment,” Wong said. “And looking forward, you can see the end of the hood, which makes maneuvers in tight spaces even easier.” The Telluride’s visibility was enhanced by the optional blind spot monitor, which shows an image of either blind spot in the center of the instrument panel when the turn signal is activated. “The Palisade had the same trick cameras,” Mays said, “but the Kia improves on inherent visibility thanks to narrower C-pillars.” The Telluride scored slightly higher in this category, ranking second behind the Honda and Subaru.
User interface: “The Telluride falls just short of the Palisade but remains a superior experience to the rest of the field,” Wong said. “It has a larger screen (10.25 inches) than the others and is reachable and easy to see. As a bonus, the multimedia system is easy to navigate and use. Kia also includes plenty of physical controls for climate and to access some of the root menus in the multimedia system, which are much appreciated. Also, a bright, large head-up display gives you just the right amount of information.”
Third-row seats: Though the Atlas ran away with the points in this category, the Telluride was best of the rest. Some contestants have more headroom than the Telluride, but “the third row feels as if it has more headroom than the Hyundai does,” Bragman said. Mays noted: “Adult passengers in the second and third rows can reach a workable compromise for legroom.” Wong added: “Large side windows and a panoramic moonroof that stretches back give third-row passengers great visibility.”
Second-row seats: “The Telluride is one of two as-tested SUVs to have ventilated second-row seats. The other, unsurprisingly, is the Palisade,” Mays said. Wong added: “Both also have more padding and some actual bolstering in their second-row seats, which made them more comfortable than the others.” Hyundai ranked first, Kia second.
Average in-cabin storage: “More pockets or a larger bin that could hold valuables would be very welcomed additions,” Wong said. Mays implicates the Telluride’s conventional gear selector, which “takes up a fair bit of console space” versus the Palisade’s push-button solution.
Average child-seat accommodation: Though not bad, the Kia and Hyundai scored average in their accommodation child-safety seats, with three competitors scoring worse and two better. See the Telluride’s full Car Seat Check.
User interface give and take: “Locating some of the vehicle controls low and rearward on the center console is not great, but it’s balanced by Kia’s retention of a traditional shifter instead of a push-button module,” Bragman said. Opinions different on the gear-selector design, and the Kia still placed second to the Hyundai in this category.
Third-row access and quibbles: Though the Telluride’s third-row seats rated second behind the Atlas, “Getting to it isn’t the easiest,” Mays said. “The aisle between the second-row captain’s chairs is narrow for this group, and if you slide those chairs forward for outboard access, the pathway back is unremarkable.” Wong also called out “a very uncomfortable set of head restraints if you tilt the seat back and try to use them,” which wasn’t the case for the Palisade. Bragman bemoaned, “Why are there no power-folding third-row seats? Why is that reserved for the Hyundai only?”
Average powertrain: “The powertrain feels strong but merely adequate,” Bragman said. Mays agreed: “The big V-6 cranks out plenty of immediate, if noisy, power. The low-rpm grunt is so stout that it evokes a diesel motor at times. But when you need passing power, the eight-speed automatic is all over the board with downshifts when in Normal mode. The driver-selectable Sport mode ticks off reliably quick shifts, though.”
Wide center console: “Like the Palisade, the Telluride intrudes on front occupants’ knee space with a wide center console,” Mays said.
Instrument panel: The two South Korean models were top-rated for user interface, but the Hyundai’s all-electronic instrument display was one point of distinction between the two. The Kia had a smaller display between two conventional gauges. “The side-view camera images that pop up in the gauge cluster are neat, but Hyundai’s layout does it better, using left and right gauges for the left and right images,” Bragman said. Wong agreed this is more intuitive than the Kia’s single, central location.
Noise: In another relative win in the form of a narrow loss to the first-place Palisade, “The Telluride is the second quietest vehicle in the test,” Wong said. “There’s more wind and tire noise — by a hair — in the Telluride.”
Android Auto limitation: “As in the Palisade, Android Auto doesn’t utilize the widescreen’s full width, and instead of showing any useful other data, it just displays an Android Auto icon in a large box on the side,” Wong said. Note that such Android Auto limitations are typically determined by the smartphone app and can be alleviated in future releases, though Apple CarPlay didn’t exhibit this shortcoming.
1. 2020 Hyundai Palisade Limited AWD, 433 Points
The verdict: Premium materials, a pleasant driving experience, plenty of room and a smoking value to boot. If our Palisade had cost $10,000 more, it might still have come out on top.
Our Test Vehicle
As-tested price: $47,605
Powertrain: 291-hp, 3.8-liter V-6; eight-speed automatic transmission; all-wheel drive
Estimated city/highway/combined mpg: 19/24/21
Observed mpg: 23.9
The Palisade isn’t Hyundai’s first three-row SUV (it replaces the Santa Fe XL, winner of this Challenge in 2014 and a replacement for the earlier Veracruz), but it’s the best. We tested the top Limited trim level. As explained in the Kia Telluride entry, these models are closely related, and the photo-finish five-point spread shows that either one should satisfy buyers; a style preference, which we didn’t judge, could easily tip the scales for you. The Palisade topped four judging categories, tied for first in five more, and took or shared second place in seven more. Its worst showing was being two-tenths of a point below average in one judging class. (The Telluride was very close behind.)
Interior quality: “Interior materials quality is excellent, with quilted leather that looks and feels premium,” Bragman said. Wong added: “The diamond-stitched leather on the doors (even the rear ones) matches the pattern on the seats.” The Palisade rated first in this category, just ahead of the Telluride and well above the crowd. “Both SUVs are good where it counts,” Mays explained. “But the Palisade goes beyond that with handsomer dashboard materials plus padding at key touch points, like where your knees may contact the doors and center console.”
Value: “With our Palisade lavishly equipped at $2,234 less than the average as-tested price in this comparison — with a lengthy warranty to boot — Hyundai’s new SUV packs characteristically excellent value.” It tied with the Kia, substantially ahead of the pack, in this category. “I still find it hard to believe that this was one of the lowest-priced models in the test,” Wong mused.
User interface: “With a 10.25-inch touchscreen (versus the 8-inch screens in most others), head-up display and reconfigurable digital gauges, the Palisade is a tour de force of technology, but it doesn’t come at the expense of usability,” Mays said. “The learning curve is low.” Wong added: “I’m still a big fan of Hyundai’s multimedia system; it presents its features without fluff and the menus are easy to navigate — what you want to find never feels far away.” Bragman capped it off: “The digital gauges are slick, and the side-view blind spot monitors are genuinely useful. I really like the control layout that has everything forward of the driver’s elbow, unlike the Kia, which puts some controls down at the elbow position in the center console. I also really like that the buttons are huge and easy to find.” The Palisade ranked first in this category, the Telluride a close second.
Front seats: With the exception of the poorly rated Explorer, most contestants’ front seats were tightly scored. The Palisade edged them out for first place thanks in part to more supple leather.
Second-row seats: “The captain’s chairs in the Palisade were the only ones with nearly enough bolstering for me, and the only ones along with the Telluride to offer ventilation in addition to heating,” Wong said. The Palisade tied for first with the Atlas in this category.
Third-row legroom: The Palisade’s third row rated just above average, but the judges still praised its legroom in context of all seats. “Not all of these SUVs afford a workable compromise between adult-friendly legroom in the second and third rows, but the Palisade does,” Mays said.
Ride quality: “Excellent ride quality, and it feels very solid without being overly firm,” Wong noted. “It’s comfortable and composed at the same time, while the Traverse was comfortable but listed from side to side like a sailboat.” Bragman agreed: “The ride and handling seem to be a good compromise from the athleticism of the Ford and VW and the cushiness of the Chevy.” The Traverse shares first place in this judging category with the Kia and Hyundai.
Driver-assistance features: Along with the Telluride and Explorer, the Palisade topped this category for possessing lane-centering steering and adaptive cruise control that operate at both low and high speeds. None had the hands-free functionality offered on some luxury vehicles that could have achieved the maximum 15 points, but judges expressed appreciation for the effectiveness of Lane Following Assist, which aids in steering.
Cargo provisions: The Palisade’s second-place cargo score started with measurements of generous space both behind the third row and for maximum volume but was really buoyed by its inclusion of second- and third-row seat-folding releases in the cargo area.
In-cabin storage: In a tie with the Honda for second place, the Palisade got a boost from an unlikely source: “I’m usually against push-button shifters, but in this case I don’t mind it because the extra space it saves was used to open up a large storage area below the floating control panel that’s large enough to fit a purse or small bag,” Wong explained.
Average powertrain: “The powertrain is adequate but not exciting,” Bragman said. “The transmission doesn’t like downshifting if it can help it, and I wonder how good acceleration would be with a full complement of family members on board.” Mays added, “The driver-selectable Sport mode provides reliably quick shifts, but Normal mode sometimes results in prolonged multigear kickdowns.”
Average visibility: “The third-row head restraints and a ceiling-mounted seat belt compromise visibility, but this is true of several other vehicles in the test, as well,” Wong said. Mays added, “The Palisade’s visibility is slightly worse than the Telluride’s due to wider C-pillars, which limit over-the-shoulder views. Get one without the Blind View Monitor — a feature included only on the highest of three trim levels — and that pillar will matter a lot more.”
Average child-seat accommodation: Though not bad, the Kia and Hyundai scored average in their accommodation of child-safety seats, with three competitors scoring worse and two better. See the Palisade’s full Car Seat Check.
Wide center console: “Like the Telluride, the Palisade intrudes on knee space for both front-seat occupants with a wide center console,” Mays said.
Third-row headroom: “Headroom in the third row is tight — taller adults will be slouching to fit,” Bragman said. “The Kia seems to have more.”
Android Auto limitation: “As in the Telluride, Android Auto doesn’t utilize the widescreen’s full width, and instead of showing any useful other data, it just displays an Android Auto icon in a large box on the side,” Wong said. Note that such Android Auto limitations are typically determined by the smartphone app and can be alleviated in future releases, though Apple CarPlay didn’t exhibit this shortcoming.
Missing features: “Despite the Palisade’s handsome interior, some missing features are head-scratchers,” Mays said. “It was one of three SUVs in the test without a sunglasses holder and one of two without power-folding mirrors.”
Steering: The Palisade rated just below average for handling due in part to its steering. “It has a reasonably quick ratio but enough power assist that it feels like a video game,” Mays said. “It requires less effort than the Telluride, which is more akin to the Palisade’s steering in Sport mode that provides less power assist. Shoppers who want low effort above all else will appreciate the Hyundai, but others will find it too numb.”
Push-button transmission: “I’m still not a fan of push-button transmissions,” Bragman said. “It opened up the center console for more storage, but it’s still tricky to use quickly should you need to.”
Instrument panel control: Though the Palisade got the top overall usability rating, Wong found an exception: “The instrument panel screen is controlled by buttons on the steering wheel, and the control scheme is convoluted,” he said. “It can take a little while to get the screen set up with the information you want.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated Dec. 18, 2019, to reflect that a household power outlet is standard on the Hyundai Palisade’s Limited trim level.
Cars.com’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with Cars.com’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of Cars.com’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.