2020 Ford Explorer vs. Volkswagen Atlas: Critics Don’t Agree on the Winner

The SUV market has gotten very competitive in recent years and even old models are constantly getting improvements. The Ford Explorer is one of the most recognizable SUVs, first released in 1991. For its latest redesign, this SUV now has better handling, a higher towing capacity, and even a hybrid model.

One of its competitors, the Volkswagen Atlas, is relatively new to the SUV market. However, it’s already been well-received by Consumer Reports because of its great performance and roominess. Both the Ford Explorer and the Volkswagen Atlas are such great SUVs that even critics disagree on which one is better.

Comparing the Ford Explorer and Volkswagen Atlas

No matter which one you buy, both SUVs provide plenty of room for both passengers and cargo. The Ford Explorer can carry up to seven passengers and all three rows are spacious enough for adults. However, because the seats are so low to the ground, Consumer Reports recommends leaving the third row to smaller passengers.

The same is true for the Volkswagen Atlas, which can also seat up to seven people. However, CR found that making a slight adjustment to the second row gives third-row riders more legroom. The first and second rows have the largest seats, plus reclining functions. 

The Ford Explorer has a maximum of almost 88 cubic feet of cargo space, plus an underfloor storage bin. The Volkswagen Atlas’s cargo hold is a little more generous, offering almost 97 total cubic feet. Both SUVs also have several large door pockets and big center consoles.

Consumer Reports also praised both SUVs for having user-friendly infotainment systems. The Ford Explorer’s SYNC3 infotainment system comes loaded with smartphone integration and a Wi-Fi hotspot to keep everyone entertained. The Volkswagen Atlas comes with the same features, but it has a smaller touchscreen. 

Both SUVs also get decent gas mileage. The Ford Explorer’s standard engine averages 21 mpg on city roads and 28 mpg on highways. The Volkswagen Atlas’s base engine only gets 24 mpg on the highway, but it’s more efficient in town.

Big differences between the Ford Explorer and the Volkswagen Atlas

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On paper, it’s easy to see that the Ford Explorer is the more powerful SUV. A 300-hp turbo-four engine is standard, paired with a 10-speed automatic transmission. Higher trims can have a twin-turbo V6 that can make up to 400 hp. The highest trims can also tow the most weight, up to 5,300 pounds.

The Volkswagen Atlas’s turbo engine can only make 235 hp and it’s paired with an eight-speed automatic transmission. According to Car Indigo, this engine is underpowered at highway speeds, but the optional V6 motor is better. However, this engine is only available in the two-row model, which obviously doesn’t have as much interior space.

Car Indigo reported that the Ford Explorer is faster than the Volkswagen Atlas and has a better suspension. However, CR’s testers had some problems with their Explorer, reporting a stiff ride quality and wobbling over bumps. Additionally, the transmission gives drivers rough shifts at low speeds. Testers also found that the Volkswagen Atlas has a quieter cabin.

Which midsize SUV is the better buy?

Consumer Reports felt that the Ford Explorer is the best SUV of the two. It’s slightly more reliable, it gets better fuel economy, and its base engine provides more than enough power for daily driving. However, Car Indigo thinks that the Volkswagen Atlas is better than the Ford Explorer.

Editors at the site felt that the Volkswagen Atlas has a better interior design and more standard features. Still, since these cars have nearly identical starting prices, the Ford Explorer and Volkswagen Atlas are both good deals.