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    SUVs With Distinct Identities

    By Philip Ruth–

    SUVs come in two basic flavors: city slicker or backwoods explorer.

    The two we’re checking out this week are distinct in their chosen identities. The $48,445 Volkswagen Atlas SEL is a three-row model with smooth styling and a legitimately luxurious interior. The Subaru Forester is smaller with two rows, and the $32,820 Wilderness trim ups its off-road cred.

    The Forester Wilderness has features that aren’t just usable when you’re out hugging the redwoods. The rutted streets of Oakland, where an online comment described a pothole as being deep enough to cradle a small child, were one place where the extra ground clearance (from 8.7 to 9.2 inches) and thick-tread Yokohama tires gave extra confidence. 

    Contrast that with the Atlas, which impresses first with its sheer size. The boxy contours and full-length character line that pinches out over the wheel housings give the Atlas a look that’s at once tailored and supersized. Where the Wilderness has matte black wheels and copper accents to stand it boldly apart, the Atlas has a careful blend of styling cues to help it blend into its very competitive market segment.

    Subaru Forester Wilderness

    Performance is decent in both, even with only four cylinders each. The Forester Wilderness has the same 182 horsepower, 2.5-liter engine as its Forester brethren, but its perkier transmission gives it some extra oomph. The horizontally opposed engine has the usual Subaru charm in its more characterful exhaust note, and my Forester Wilderness presser was quick off the line in city driving.

    The 2024 Atlas’ turbocharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder replaces the six-pots from previous years, and its 269 horsepower makes it a solid performer, though not quite with the low-end torque of a six.

    Both are happy highway cruisers, and the Atlas distinguished itself with its exceptionally calm demeanor as speeds climbed. Steering that’s firmer and more communicative would complete the package.

    Volkswagen Atlas SEL

    Inside, both the Atlas SEL and the Forester Wilderness spoke clearly of their design intentions. The Atlas’ dashboard has a gorgeous sweep of wood trim that frames the instruments and serves as a backdrop for the infotainment screen. A backlit Atlas script illuminates within the wood on the passenger side. It’s all very impressive to Atlas newcomers.

    A controversial change to the 2024 Atlas is its slider controls, which replace knobs and switches with slots in which to drag your fingers. Maybe the sliders won’t require the extra attention mine did after living with them for a while, though I wish VW had kept physical buttons for the climate control, rather than drivers having to dig into the screen for them.

    The Forester Wilderness interior is familiar Subaru territory. The center screen works well, and the 180-degree front monitor is a real boon when parking. The anodized copper trim seems a bit contrived at first, but your eye blends it in as you drive.

    Whether it’s the extroverted sportiness of the Forester Wilderness or the smooth-operator feel of the Atlas SEL, both these SUVs clearly express their respective focuses.

    Philip Ruth is a Castro-based automotive photojournalist and consultant with an automotive staging service.

    Published on September 21, 2023