In the three-row crossover market class, the sales leaders tend to be vehicles that have been around for years, like the Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander. Of the sales leaders, the 10-year-old Chevrolet Traverse, is the relative newbie.
But two much newer models are also establishing themselves as worthy choices, particularly if maximum interior space is a priority. They are the Volkswagen Atlas, which first debuted as a 2018 model, and the just-released 2020 Kia Telluride.
Both these vehicles have third-row seats that are roomy enough even for adults, and their boxy styling conveys a sense of toughness that’s absent from many family-focused crossovers. At the same time, they have the pleasant on-road driving dynamics that separate car-based crossovers from the traditional SUVs derived from pickup trucks.
The Telluride — named for a historic town in Colorado — is a particularly compelling blend of family-car virtues with luxury-SUV style.
Its boxy shape and big windows result in a roomy interior and excellent outward visibility, while at the same time recalling the design of a high-end Range Rover or Toyota Land Cruiser. The dashboard design pulls off a similar blend of lovely high-end looks and user-friendly operation, especially with the extra-wide 10.3-inch touchscreen on upper-trim models.
On the road, things are more mild-mannered. Telluride commercials show the vehicle blasting through muddy fields, but its main strength is going about its business with quiet composure. The standard 3.3-liter V6 engine gets you moving promptly and without fuss, while still sipping a relatively thrifty 23 miles per gallon in mixed driving. The ride is smooth even on the tested vehicle’s big 20-inch wheels, while it avoids the cumbersome handling associated with a big SUV.
To its credit, Kia gives all-wheel-drive Tellurides a choice of driving modes, which optimize the vehicle for snowy weather or lock four-wheel traction in low-speed sticky conditions. The Telluride can also tow up to 5,000 pounds.
A peek at the Telluride’s features list also reveals its family-friendly design. Notable touches include a microphone, which projects the driver’s voice through the rear speakers, and a “quiet mode” that turns off the sound system to the rear rows — letting mom and dad listen to their tunes while the kids are sleeping in the back.
That said, unlike with a Pilot, Highlander or Traverse, it’s easy to see the stylish Telluride as more than just a family bus. Its luxury-grade interior trimmings and boxy exterior give it a higher “cool” factor than you’d find in most competitors.
You wouldn’t pick the Telluride over a Jeep Grand Cherokee to go off-road, but you can appreciate its superior fuel economy, better-finished dashboard, easier outward visibility and extra interior room.
The Telluride also can be a strong value for the money, particularly its lower-trim models. Although its base price of $32,735 isn’t the screaming bargain you might expect from the Kia name, the Telluride brings more standard features than competitors’ entry-level models, particularly when it comes to advanced safety gear.
You can also add heated leatherette seats, a sunroof and all-wheel-drive while staying at about $37,000, while most comparably equipped competitors push into the $40,000s.
That said, value-focused buyers should be warned that dealers might not be willing yet to give big discounts on the just-released Telluride. That’s not true of the Volkswagen Atlas, which Edmunds.com estimates will sell for more than $5,000 off its sticker price.
The Atlas lacks the sumptuous luxury you can find in the Telluride and a few other crossovers. Its cabin is more austere and functional, with hard plastics, straight lines and little overall pizzazz. But it’s comfortable and almost ridiculously spacious. Many three-row crossovers end up squeezing everyone a little bit so there’s enough legroom to go around; the Atlas lets middle-row passengers stretch out as if they’re in a limo.
You don’t have the option to seat eight, though, like in the Telluride and some other competitors.
Though it’s designed primarily for the U.S. market, some German engineering still shines through on a winding road. The Atlas isn’t exactly sporty, but it does quietly let you build up more speed than you realized, keeping calm even as you take curves at high speeds. On the flip side, the suspension is firmer than that of most competitors, meaning that bumps can punch through a little harder.
Another Atlas downside is its fuel economy. Most models achieve EPA ratings of just 19 miles gallon in mixed driving, which is low for the class.
Atlas sticker prices start at $31,800, but, as noted, there can be frequent discounts. That makes the Atlas less expensive to buy than most competitors, even though it beats most of their interior room.
Another three-row crossover that’s simultaneously fun-to-drive, luxurious, relatively affordable and impressively fuel-efficient is the Mazda CX-9, though it’s not as roomy as the boxier Atlas and Telluride. And if you’re looking for a quiet, roomy, family-friendly crossover, the Honda Pilot and Subaru Ascent are well-rounded choices, even if they don’t burst with personality.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.