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Large SUVs are in high demand, and finding the right one to fit your needs can seem like a challenge. While building a list of SUVs to test-drive, you might be tempted to add the 2021 Honda Pilot and the 2021 Volkswagen Atlas to it. And you would be within good reason to do so. But should one of them be much higher up on your list than the other?
The truth is, one of them is a bit more well-rounded than the other. But both of them have their strengths and weaknesses. The new Pilot comes with a Special Edition trim level for 2021, which slates in the middle of the line-up and offers wireless charging and a hands-free liftgate. All trim levels now come with the 9-speed automatic transmission, which is certainly a good thing. Also, the base LX trim level now comes with dual-zone automatic climate control.
The Pilot is limited by its narrow third-row access and a few highly-sensitive driver aids. However, it benefits from a spacious cabin designed with high-quality materials. The Pilot also offers its owners a compliant ride quality, high fuel efficiency, and a lot of smartly crafted and versatile storage options.
Competitively priced, the 2021 Volkswagen Atlas gives you plenty of space in all three rows and a straightforward layout for the controls. The ride quality strikes a solid balance between comfort and precision with its handling. On the downside, you will have to put up with a bland base engine and a V6 option that is not much more exciting. It also does not give you the same impressive fuel economy that comes on the Pilot. Aside from a few interior appointment upgrades and a restyled exterior, the Atlas still feels stuck a few years in the past.
That being said, let us compare these two vehicles' powertrains, drivability factors, and safety features and ratings. These will explain why we have decided which vehicle has the best value and is the smartest overall purchase.
First, we need to discuss the powertrain details, starting with the 2021 Honda Pilot. A 3.5-L V6 engine comes equipped and is able to generate 280 hp and 262 lb-ft of torque. This engine gets paired up with a 9-speed automatic transmission which comes standard across the line-up now. While front-wheel drive is standard, all-wheel drive is available as an option, save for on the Elite and Black Edition (on which it is standard equipment). Also note that most trim levels come with seating for eight, but the Elite and Black Edition have standard captain's chairs in the second row, thereby reducing seating to seven.
The 2021 Volkswagen Atlas comes with two different engine choices. The first is a turbocharged 4-cylinder engine that is able to generate 235 hp. It comes standard on the S, SE, FWD version of the SEL with the Technology package equipped, the AWD SEL, and the AWD SEL Premium trim levels. Everything else is powered by the V6 engine, which generates 276 hp. Front-wheel drive is standard although all-wheel drive is optional.
What exactly factors into a vehicle's drivability? Well, quite a few elements have to be considered: the acceleration, braking performance, steering, handling, ride comfort and quality, and just how well the technological features work. How adequately these things function can make or break your overall driving experience.
So, let's first talk details about the 2021 Honda Pilot. Since its third generation was introduced in 2016, the Pilot has been garnering a lot of positive reviews. Most of them make note of the Pilot's capable engine but, in the past, decried its formerly standard 6-speed automatic transmission for being a bit out-of-date. With the previously optional 9-speed now being standard, the Pilot seems much more contemporary. And its driving performance reflects this.
The Pilot is able to get from 0 to 60 mph in 7 seconds flat, which is faster than the industry average for third-row SUVs. Sprinting to accelerate on the highway is no issue, nor is trying to pass a slower moving vehicle. Slowing down is equally as drama-free, given how smoothly the brakes operate. The vehicle will track linearly and come to a respectable panic stopping distance of 129 feet when going from 60 mph down to zero.
On top of that, the handling feels incredibly precise for a vehicle of this stature. You can wind around on curving mountain roads all you want. Steering might not offer a ton of road feel, but it too has a precise nature about it. This is by no means an off-roading vehicle since it lacks the ground clearance and hill descent control. However, the available AWD system keeps the Pilot stable on slippery road surfaces - a huge help for those who live in colder climates where inclement weather is constantly a hazard.
Comfort is something that Honda goes all-out on in the Pilot. Both in town and out on the highway, the cabin remains cozy to sit in. The ride comfort is all smooth sailing, and road imperfections get smoothed out. Never does the Pilot come off as being floaty or boring. The front seatbacks and bottoms offer plenty of support, and the rear seats remain comfy during long rides too. The second row is able to slide and recline for extra comfort. The wind and road noise are kept to a minimum, and even the V6 does not come off as sounding rough when hitting full throttle.
As far as the layout of the cabin goes, it is all about efficiency. The first two rows are plenty spacious, and even a couple of adults can sit in the third row. It is just that access to the third row is a bit narrow. Otherwise, up front, the driver can enjoy easy-to-use controls. The built-in navigation system works well, and there is a 10-speaker sound system that produces concert-like quality. The Honda CabinControl app can even connect to the in-vehicle WiFi in order to adjust controls for things like air temperature.
Now for the 2021 Volkswagen Atlas. Whether you choose the base engine or the V6, power is not something that the Atlas ranks high on. Both engines feel underwhelming, and its acceleration speed is reflective of this. The Atlas can get from 0 to 60 mph in 8.5 seconds, which is rather slow compared to the Pilot and a few other top rivals. In fact, it is about a full second slower than the average third-row SUV.
Other than its sluggish acceleration, the Atlas is a strong performer. Its brakes are easy to predict and modulate in almost any situation. The 8-speed automatic provides the vehicle with smooth shifts. You will get a decent amount of body roll while cornering, but the Atlas remains planted despite this. You just might not feel that comfortable taking sharp turns in it.
One of the minor annoyances you will encounter is the automatic engine start-stop feature. It cuts the engine off at literally every stoplight only to turn it back on a few seconds later without any input from you to do so.
The Atlas' comfort levels are plush, almost rivaling the Pilot's. It can absorb bumps with ease, and you get some well padded front seats. However, the second row's bottoms are fairly flat and give out quickly during longer journeys. Third row passengers will get smacked in the upper back by the tall headrests. Exterior noise does remain muted inside of the cabin though, and the tri-zone climate control system helps keep the cabin at your preferred temperature.
What sets the Atlas apart from most of its rivals is its spacious interior. It does not have the problem of a narrow accessway to the third row either. Outward visibility from behind the steering wheel is superb, and while most of the infotainment system works well overall, some of its menus are a tad confusing. That being said, there is a lot of standard tech included on the Atlas. The optional Fender sound system is a particular standout on this vehicle, but voice command is iffy, as is the navigation system.
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Safety is paramount for any automaker, and that typically goes without saying. However, when you go to buy a new vehicle, knowing what kinds of feature to expect is just as important as being aware of its safety ratings.
The 2021 Honda Pilot comes with Honda's standard Honda Sensing suite, which treats you to a handful of helpful features. Adaptive cruise control works down to 20 mph and will adjust the speed of the Pilot in order to maintain a safe following distance from the vehicle in front of it. Forward collision warning comes with automatic braking, meaning that it will apply the brakes if you do not when the system detects an impending frontal crash. Lane keep assist will make minor corrections for you in order to keep the Pilot centered within its lane. You also get automatic high beams as part of this bundle. Upgrading to the EX trim level nets you a blind spot monitor. The Touring trim gives you front and rear parking sensors to keep you from hitting stationary objects not visible above the bumpers while trying to park.
As far as safety ratings go, the Pilot the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) gave the 2021 line-up a full five-star rating overall. It did lose a few points for its frontal barrier crash rating but was overall a solid scorer. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) also gave the Pilot 'Good' marks on its tests.
The Atlas comes with a bundle of driver aids that are all known for working well. It has forward mitigation, a blind spot monitor, and rear cross-traffic alert. The SE with Technology adds adaptive cruise control and front and rear parking sensors. The SEL Premium comes with a 360-degree surround view camera as well as an automated parking system. As far as safety ratings go, the Atlas has been given many 'Good' ratings on its tests.
Which Has the Best Value?
Pounds for pound, the 2021 Honda Pilot has the best value. It offers more standard driver aids than the Atlas. Even if you go up to the line-topping trim level, you will feel like you are getting a ton of additional features for the cost. Still, a lot of drivers will love the features included on the mid-tier EX. The standard engine is plenty powerful, and the ride is nice and smooth. You will feel like you are riding around in a luxury vehicle without the luxury price tag. While the Atlas is an admirable competitor, its engines hinder it from true excellence.
Which is Better?
The clear winner here is the Pilot. The powertrain is one of the best ones equipped on a third-row SUV. The standardization of the 9-speed was a smart move on Honda's part. With how many features you can get on the Pilot, you can feel comfortable sticking with a lower trim level or splurging on one of the higher trims. Regardless, the Pilot should prove to be a safe and reliable vehicle that comfortably fits the whole family.