CARS.COM — For popular three-row SUVs, a reason for being is the third row that provides extra seats for a big family, carpooling or the ability to take a bigger group in just one vehicle. So you'd think that automakers would create real seats for real people back there and not just for kids, but that's often not the case.
The 2017 Three-Row SUV Challenge
Results | Cargo Space | Third Row | Mobile Devices | Video
Our 2017 Three-Row SUV Challenge compared the new 2018 Volkswagen Atlas, the redesigned 2018 Chevrolet Traverse, the refreshed 2017 Toyota Highlander and the 2017 Honda Pilot (winner of Cars.com's last Three-Row SUV Challenge), all priced less than $46,000 with destination fees. While doing that overall evaluation, we specifically put these SUVs' third rows to the test to see which was best.
We evaluated each SUV's third-row access, seat comfort, visibility, Cars.com Car Seat Check scores, and whether it had places for your stuff and power for your devices. Climate controls weren't rated because each crossover featured tri-zone climate control and vents for the third row.
Note: In evaluating comfort, we had one of three Cars.com editors, all in the neighborhood of 6 feet tall, in each of the three rows — because no one ends up in the back unless the better seats are occupied and third-row comfort can be relative to the compromise you reach with the person adjusting their seat in the second row.
Here's how the third rows rated:
The Traverse and Atlas have longer wheelbases (120.9 and 117.3 inches, respectively) than the Pilot (111) and Highlander (109.8), and that made the biggest single difference for the entry space between the door pillar and second-row seat, allowing bigger rear doors and less rear-wheel intrusion. All four have second-row seats that slide forward for access to the third row, with Atlas seats sliding about 8 inches. The Atlas' and Traverse's second-row seats also tilt up and slide for easier access, even with a forward-facing child-safety seat installed. But the Traverse's second row does that only on the passenger side.
Winner: The Atlas pockets a win in this category.
The big Atlas and Traverse beat the Pilot for overall room in the back, though the Atlas is equipped for just two occupants, while the Traverse and Pilot offer seat belts for three passengers (though the three would have to be much narrower in their jeans than any of the Cars.com editors). All three overshadow the smaller Highlander — which has a more "occasional" back row (though it, too, is optimistically fitted with three sets of seat belts) — and are better choices for your last stop before a minivan.
For seat-cushion comfort and seating height, the Atlas and Traverse finished in a draw, though the Pilot was close on comfort; the Highlander was knees-in-the-air lowest on the seating-height front. The high-roofed Pilot offered the most headroom for adults back there; the Atlas' and Traverse's squared-off rear rooflines give them adequate headroom. Those two SUVs also had equally good available legroom for an adult, edging out the Pilot, though the VW test vehicle's second-row bench meant less flexibility for legroom compromises with third-row occupants than the Chevy's captain's chairs (captain's chairs are offered in the Atlas). The Highlander had the least room for legs, a problem compounded by also having the least space to slide your toes under the seat ahead. The Traverse, meanwhile, had the most extra toe space.
With the Atlas and Traverse close on leading space and seat comfort, the tiebreaker became the unfortunate design of the Atlas' head restraints. The Atlas, and also the Highlander, use a simpler (and likely cheaper) "clamshell" design for head restraints that push down over the seatback for visibility when the seat is not in use. The Traverse, as well as Pilot, restraints flip down for better rear visibility; we also found them to be more comfortable when in use. The clamshell head restraints must be positioned forward to fit over the seatback when down, but that means that in use, depending on your height, they can push your head uncomfortably forward.
It's less of a problem in the Highlander because the third-row seats recline a little, which also helps with headroom, but it leaves a tall person's head uneasily close to the rear glass. The Atlas, however, compounds the problem with much bigger clamshell head restraints that not only push your head forward, but the head restraint's lower edge pokes some people in the back depending on their height.
Winner: It's a close call, but the Traverse pulls away with this category, tilted by its better-designed head restraints.
With the current fashion for high beltlines, none of these SUVs felt airy in the back. That said, the Atlas and Pilot have relatively smaller pillars behind the rear doors and more glass thanks to an additional fixed panel behind the rear door window. The Atlas and the Traverse, meanwhile, offer extra light from above via moonroofs over the second row, a panoramic moonroof in the Atlas and a second moonroof panel in the Traverse. The Pilot and Highlander had traditional rectangles over the front row.
Winner: The Atlas lets the light into the third row with its panoramic moonroof and additional window panels.
Car Seat Check
Cars.com Car Seat Checks tested the third rows for ease of access and good fit for a forward-facing convertible child seat and a booster seat, grading on an A to F scale. The Atlas got straight A's for access and for fitting the two types of car seats; that put it on this year's Car Seat Check Honor Roll as one of only 10 vehicles with all A's out of 65 tested vehicles from the 2017 and 2018 model years. The Pilot earned a B for third-row access, but A's for forward-facing convertible seat fit and its set of third-row Latch anchors (the only one among these four) as well as a B for booster seat fit. The Highlander got B's except for a C with the third-row booster seat. The Traverse's third row, however, "needs work," according to our Car Seat Check installation team, which gave the SUV a B for third-row access, a B for forward-facing convertible seat fit and a C for booster seat fit issues. See full car seat details on each here.
Winner: The Atlas makes the grade with its top ratings in Cars.com's Car Seat Check.
In three-row SUVs, the passengers relegated to the wayback need places to store their stuff. The Highlander, Pilot and Traverse all have multi-use double cupholders for keeping clutter somewhat controlled. The Atlas also has third-row dual cupholders, but it also has three open cubbies for smaller items.
Winner: Any additional spaces for keeping third-row clutter under control is a win. The Atlas tucks this win into its cubbies.
The Chevrolet laps the field with a pair of USB charging ports — one on each side of the third row — plus access to a 12-volt outlet in the cargo area, which offers power for various uses, including USB charging with an adaptor; the Traverse was the only one with USB ports in the third row. The VW and Honda also have a 12-volt outlet access. Toyota passengers must make friends with the second row.
Winner: The Traverse is plugged in when it comes to providing charging access in the third row.
The Volkswagen Atlas takes the crown, with the most category wins in this test, and also ranking top in our expert judges' scoring of third-row comfort in the Three-Row SUV Challenge. But the Chevrolet Traverse was a close second in most of these categories, and it edged the VW on comfort and device charging power.
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As-tested price: $44,370
Engine, drive type: V-6, all-wheel drive
Estimated city/highway/combined mpg: 19/26/22
Mostly unchanged since its 2016 win, the Pilot now includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity standard on all trim levels except the base LX. Sadly, the nine-speed transmission criticized last year remains an issue. If you want a higher trim level or higher estimated efficiency, you're stuck with it in place of the standard six-speed automatic.
Outward visibility: "I feel I have very good visibility in this car," Gorman said. The Cars.com judges agreed, rating the Pilot highest. Meier called out "the old-school safety of big windows, and even an extra little triangle window in each front door where most others have a blind spot."
Noise levels: "It's very quiet," Gorman said. "I hear no wind noise whatsoever." Our Pilot rated best for quietness.
Interior quality: "The interior has an upscale look with a high-quality fit and finish," Meier said of our Pilot, which was awarded the second-most points for interior quality.
Cabin storage: Though our Pilot tied three ways with the Traverse and Atlas for in-cabin-storage points, judges called out "a huge bin in the center console and various storage areas in the doors that provide lots of space for odds and ends," Hanley said. Wong noted, "The compartment has a removable rubber liner that can be taken out and washed in case of spills."
Cargo bin: "The cargo space behind the third row includes a wide, deep underfloor bin with a carpeted cover that flips to offer a washable surface or stows to create a bigger, deeper cargo space," said Meier.
Rear entertainment: "The only competitor with a standard rear entertainment system, and it offered enough input types (Blu-ray, HDMI, RCA jacks) to play any modern system or movie," Wong said. "I also liked the independent volume controls for each of the two wireless headphones."
Powered third-row access: "With the touch of a button on either side of the Pilot, the second-row seat slides forward and tilts to accommodate passage to the third row," Wong said.
Powertrain: Though it's ostensibly an upgrade appearing on higher Pilot trim levels, the optional nine-speed automatic transmission earned our Pilot Touring the lowest powertrain rating. "Press the accelerator from any point other than a dead stop and there's what feels like a second or two of hesitation before it translates into added forward motion," Wong said. Hanley added, "It takes too long to kick down when you need more power to pass." Meier called upshifts "neither quick nor positive." In our experience, the standard six-speed transmission is much better behaved.
Gear selector: The row of gear-selector buttons "doesn't make it easier to change gears and adds no extra storage space in the center console," Hanley said. The judges were more accepting of unconventional shifters that at least conserve space.
Touchscreen and multimedia: Rated better than the Toyota but a good distance behind the second-rated Traverse, our Pilot's "maddening, menu-heavy media system has tiny touch-sensitive controls that require your eyes to be off the road," Meier said. It has no volume or tuning knobs. "At least it has Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, because if not for those ... I try not to think about that," Wong added.
Third row: Though it again was ahead of the Highlander for points, our Pilot's third row was far behind the leading competitors. "It has a lot of headroom, but legroom is only adequate," Wong said, wishing the second row could slide forward farther. "The rear wheel wells intrude a lot into the hip room," Meier added. "There's no way to fit three normal-sized people back there, and it'd be a squeeze even for kids."
The LaneWatch feature shows the passenger-side blind spot on the dashboard display when the turn signal is activated for a right-hand turn or lane change.
Our Test Vehicle
As-tested price: $44,185
Engine, drive type: V-6, front-wheel drive
Estimated city/highway/combined mpg: 18/27/21
The fully redesigned 2018 Traverse is about the same size as the 2017, but it has a more SUV-like shape and a 2-inch-longer wheelbase. As before, it comes with a 3.6-liter V-6 but now offers an optional turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder on the Traverse RS with front-wheel drive. Our vehicle had front-wheel drive with the V-6 and new nine-speed automatic transmission.
What They Liked
Ride quality: "The composed, comfortable ride is one of the reasons behind its serene driving experience," Hanley said of our Traverse and its top ride-quality ranking. Gorman enthused, "It's very comfortable, it handles nicely. All in all, it's a comfortable ride. It's almost as quiet as my [Audi] Q7."
Cargo capacity: "The big Traverse has ample cargo space with the seats folded," said Meier. "But even with all seats up, there's room for gear behind the third row — the most in the Challenge — plus a bin large enough for a couple of backpacks under the floor." The Traverse historically has ruled the cargo category, but this time it's a close second to the big new Volkswagen Atlas in awarded points.
Third-row seat: It's a similar story for our Traverse's wayback seat, a close second to the VW. "The comfortable third-row bench seat is almost minivan-like with good headroom and decent legroom for adults," said Hanley.
Electronics extravaganza: "With seven USB ports scattered throughout the cabin, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity and a built-in Wi-Fi hot spot, the Traverse has the tech to keep your family connected on the go," said Hanley. Meier also cited "12-volt power up front and a household outlet behind the console."
Powertrain: "The 3.6-liter V-6 is smooth and responsive, the best engine in the Challenge at moving a big SUV," said Meier. The powertrain earned fewer points than the VW, in part, because "the nine-speed automatic still has some rough edges," he said.
What They Didn't
Safety technology: Our Traverse took a distant last place in this category because it wasn't equipped with forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control or lane keep assist. "It was strange that these were missing on a vehicle that cost almost $45,000," noted Wong.
Seat comfort: The Traverse's roomy third row was an exception because its front seats rated last and its second row rated below average for comfort. "The second row is impressively roomy, but the cushioning of the captain's chairs is hard," Hanley said. Meier added, "More second-row slide would make it easier to compromise on space between the rows."
Outward visibility: "An unnecessarily large C-pillar hampers visibility on both sides," said Wong, and Gorman added, "The A-pillars and B-pillars do inhibit visibility a little bit" as well. Our Chevy rated just a smidge better than the last-place Highlander in this category.
Interior quality: Though the Highlander scored worst for interior quality by a substantial margin, our Traverse trailed the other two, taking a hit because of inconsistency. "The upper door trim is hard plastic, making it a less comfortable place to rest your arm when driving," Hanley noted.
Exclusive to the Traverse
The rearview mirror is also a wide-angle rearview camera mirror, a technology that first debuted on Cadillacs. It's usable when driving forward, not just in Reverse, and eliminates blind spots and anything that might otherwise block your view, like passengers' heads.
Research the 2018 Chevrolet Traverse | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check | Photo Gallery
1 2018 Volkswagen Atlas SEL 4Motion, 778 points
The verdict: Volkswagen's new three-row SUV hits the mark with its refined driving manners, ample passenger and cargo space, and easy-to-use technology.
Our Test Vehicle
As-tested price: $43,615
Engine, drive type: V-6, all-wheel drive
Estimated city/highway/combined mpg: 17/23/19
This summer, the redesigned Volkswagen Tiguan won our Compact SUV Challenge by a record-narrow 2 points. Not this time: Its new big brother, Volkswagen's first SUV with a standard three rows of seats, has won by one of the larger margins in Challenge history, 98 points. Challenge winners typically do well in many judging categories and get top scores in some; our Atlas beat its competitors in nine out of 14 categories, tied for best in one, finished second best in three and was second to last in one. In no quantified category did it come last. It bears noting that judges found some fault, as they always do, but in the end, the story is told by the points — including the highest total for worth the money.
What They Liked
Touchscreen and multimedia: "The touch-sensitive controls around the touchscreen are a little too sensitive," said Hanley, but our Atlas' system still earned the most points from him and each of the other judges with what Wong called its "sharp screen, intuitive menus, and Android Auto and Apple CarPlay waiting in the wings if you prefer those interfaces." Meier said, "The system is fast, the screen is sharp, and the creative color graphics are designed to look great and be easy to use."
Powertrain: Though judges found some fault with the V-6 engine, our Atlas' powertrain rated highest because its transmission behaves as all should. "The eight-speed gives you smooth, crisp shifts and will downshift without missing a beat," Meier said. "Best gearbox in the Challenge."
Safety technology: Our Atlas led the safety-tech tally by including all-speed forward collision prevention, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, front and rear parking sensors, and lane-centering steering assist where the Highlander and Pilot excluded one or two each.
Child-seat accommodation: The only contestant to make our 2017 Honor Roll with straight-A's in the Car Seat Check, the Atlas aced the second-ranked Pilot, which scored B grades for third-row access and booster-seat fitment in the second and third rows.
Backseat comfort: Our Atlas scored the most points for both rear-seat rows. "Even though the second row is a bench, it was very supportive," Wong said. Meier added: "Nine inches of slide adjustment made it easy to balance comfort for an adult in each row." Unlike the Traverse, both outboard seats can tilt and slide to provide third-row access, even with a forward-facing car seat installed. Once seated, Wong said, "third-row room was impressive." But Meier noted, "The big clamshell head restraints either push your head uncomfortably forward or poke you in the back."
Backup camera views: The backup camera's "different camera views help with various activities, including parallel parking or hooking up a trailer, and an ultrawide view makes it safer to back out of parking spaces and driveways," Wong explained. Meier called the wide-angle front and rear parking sensors' audio and visual alerts "as useful as 360-degree cameras in warning of safety hazards or people in the blind spots."
Handling: "The Atlas' steering is direct and smooth, and helps make this SUV easy to drive," Hanley said. Meier added, "The Atlas' driving dynamics are nimbler than you expect in an SUV this size."
Cargo capacity: Top-rated in this category, "The big Atlas can carry a world of cargo in its cavernous space with the seats down — and the bench second row in ours was the ideal for a flat load floor without gaps," said Meier.
What They Didn't
Noise: "The cabin is well-insulated from road and wind noise, but the engine can be loud at higher rpm," Said Wong. Our Atlas rated second to last for noise.
Engine performance: Gorman said the V-6 "feels completely capable," but it isn't exceptionally powerful for an optional engine and carried the lowest gas-mileage rating in the test. As Wong noted, "All of that noise doesn't mean a lot of acceleration; the Atlas feels a bit sluggish, even at high rpm."
USB stinginess: "The Atlas' four USB ports are the fewest of the SUVs tested," Hanley noted.
Interior design: Though it got the most points for quality, Meier questioned our Atlas interior's design: "The simple interior design seems bland, almost somber, compared with some flashier SUV interiors." On the upside, he said, "I don't think it will look out of style as fast, either."
Exclusive to the Atlas
The Atlas' bumper-to-bumper new-car warranty is unmatched with coverage for six years or 72,000 miles.
Research the 2018 Volkswagen Atlas | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check | Photo Gallery
How the Competitors Fared in Each Category
Cars.com graphics by Paul Dolan
How We Tested
Our weeklong test took place in the Chicago suburbs where Cars.com's expert judges drove each SUV on the same loop for back-to-back impressions. The fourth judge was an in-market shopper recruited through Cars.com's consumer panel, The Driver's Seat Community, which is where users can go to share experiences using Cars.com and get a peek under the hood of new features before they're released to the public.
Other areas scored included awarding points for as-equipped crash avoidance technologies including forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, blind spot warning, lane departure warning, lane departure steering and lane-centering steering. Plus, we evaluated and scored how well child-safety seats fit in each SUV.
The scoring broke down this way:
- 78.2 percent from the judges' scoring
- 8.6 percent from our in-market shopper
- 6.6 percent from child-safety seats
- 6.6 percent from crash avoidance safety features
Here's how each car scored:
Cars.com graphics by Paul Dolan