2021 Toyota Highlander vs. Volkswagen Atlas: The More Well-Rounded Choice Is Obvious

The Toyota Highlander and Volkswagen Atlas are among buyers’ first choices for a charming, three-row SUV. Toyota’s Highlander is an older favorite, while the Atlas has become more popular thanks to its alluring European style. But which midsize SUV is more well-rounded, the 2021 Toyota Highlander or the 2021 Atlas?

What the 2021 Volkswagen Atlas has to offer 

2021 Volkswagen Atlas on country road
2021 Volkswagen Atlas | Volkswagen

Many shoppers gravitate toward the Volkswagen Atlas because it has less “mom-ish” looks compared to its class rivals. The Atlas is Volkswagen’s largest SUV and is known for its easy-going performance. Critics especially like that the Atlas feels smaller to drive than it actually is. 

The base 2021 Atlas comes with a 235-hp, turbocharged four-cylinder engine. This turbo-four provides adequate power and is average for fuel economy. Models with this engine have an EPA rating of 22 mpg overall. For more power, consider the optional 276-hp 3.6-liter six-cylinder. Although, the six-cylinder sacrifices fuel economy by a couple of points. Both engines have an eight-speed automatic. Front-wheel drive is standard, all-wheel-drive is available.

A side-view of the 2020 VW Atlas' interior.
2020 VW Atlas interior | Volkswagen

For ample interior space, the Atlas is one of the best options in the midsize SUV class. This VW can seat up to seven people, and even its third-row is accommodating for adults. Leatherette upholstery is standard. Additionally, the VW has 96.8 cubic feet of total cargo space, which is above-average. 

The 2021 Atlas also does well with in-car tech. Standard infotainment features include a 6.5-inch touchscreen, Android Auto, and Apple CarPlay. Furthermore, it comes with advanced safety equipment, including automatic emergency braking and forward-collision warning. The main drawback to the Atlas’ interior is that its plastic finishings make the SUV feel cheap. 

What the 2021 Toyota Highlander has to offer 

Red Toyota Highlander in the sand by the shore
Toyota Highlander | Toyota

Toyota’s 2021 Highlander is another gentle ride that prioritizes comfort over sportiness. The traditional gas-powered Highlander features a 295-hp, 3.5-liter V6 and an eight-speed automatic. This V6 offers plenty of juice and feels responsive. As with the Atlas, the Highlander is standard with FWD, and AWD is optional. 

The Highlander is one of the better options in the class for fuel economy. The regular version has an EPA rating of a combined 24 mpg. There’s also the Highlander Hybrid, which can get up to 36 mpg overall. Not only is the Highlander remarkably fuel-efficient, but some reviewers also say that it’s more agile than the conventional model.

A 2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid with brown leather seats.
2020 Toyota Highlander Hybrid with leather | Toyota

Depending on the configuration you pick, the Highlander can seat up to seven or eight. The Highlander’s cabin feels upscale thanks to its high-quality materials and neat trimmings. This Toyota comes with cloth upholstery. The Highlander’s most significant flaw is that its third-row seat is on the narrow side.

Regarding technology, the Highlander is also one of the most desirable options. It comes with an 8-inch touchscreen, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Amazon Alexa, and a wifi hotspot. Lots of safety gadgets are also standard, such as adaptive cruise control and pedestrian detection. 

Which is the winner?

The 2020 VW Atlas boasts sharp lines and bold exterior color options.
2020 VW Atlas SUV | Volkswagen

The 2021 Atlas starts at $31,545, and the 2021 Highlander begins at $34,810. While the Atlas is slightly cheaper and arguably more stylish, the Highlander is the more well-rounded choice. With the Highlander, you get more standard power, a grander feeling cabin, and a longer list of in-car tech.

Toyota's 2021 Highlander XLE is displayed at the 2020 Chicago Auto Show Media Preview
The 2021 Toyota Highlander XLE | Joel Lerner/Xinhua via Getty

What’s the Difference Between the Toyota Highlander and 4Runner?

Aside from its third-row, the Highlander doesn’t have many glaring weaknesses. Additionally, the Highlander has a strong history of reliability, as Consumer Reports highlights. On the other hand, the Atlas is one of the lowest-rated vehicles for predicted reliability.