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Midsize SUV Comparison Test: Kia Telluride vs. Honda Pilot vs. Subaru Ascent

Midsize SUV Comparison Test: Kia Telluride vs. Honda Pilot vs. Subaru Ascent

Three stellar SUVs, three distinctive approaches

  • These three-row SUVs mix comfort, storage and style
  • Standard tech features and driver aids add to the experience
  • Extra refinement and utility help elevate the Telluride over the Pilot and Ascent

It's fair to say the Kia Telluride took us by surprise when it debuted for the 2020 model year. After our intensive testing process, we rewarded it with the No. 1 position in our three-row SUV rankings. That said, the Honda Pilot and Subaru Ascent are intriguing choices as well. To help you pick one for 2021, we decided to hash it out with a comparison test.

The 2021 Kia Telluride currently sits in our top spot for its luxury-level interior and smooth ride quality. But the 2021 Honda Pilot is not far behind. Its versatility is a trademark of this well-established SUV and evident in everything from side-sliding second-row seats to multiple clever storage solutions. Following those two is the 2021 Subaru Ascent and its punchy turbocharged engine and standard all-wheel drive.

So which model takes the cake in this midsize SUV comparison? Whether you're considering the Telluride vs. Pilot, Telluride vs. Ascent or any other combination, this is the guide for you. Read our hands-on experiences below to see how each one would fit into your lifestyle.

Price comparison: Telluride vs. Pilot vs. Ascent

Most three-row SUVs this size are priced right around $33,000 to start, including destination fees. These models are no exception. While all three SUVs share many features, there are some key differences to consider.

For 2021 the Kia Telluride starts with the base LX trim. You can also choose the Telluride S, the Telluride EX or the top-level Telluride SX. Price out a 2021 Telluride at the SX trim level and with the optional SX Prestige package and you'll be looking at $47,915. Feature highlights here include 64-color ambient interior lighting, ventilated front seats and a 10-speaker Harman Kardon sound system.

The base trim on the 2021 Honda Pilot is also called the LX. From there Honda offers the EX, EX-L, SE, Touring, Elite and Black Edition. New for this year, all Pilots are equipped with a nine-speed automatic transmission and dual-zone climate control. We tested a Pilot Black Edition, the highest level available for 2021, which came with a sticker price of $51,790. Among the equipment included as standard are a panoramic sunroof, captain's chairs in the second row, ventilated front seats, and black exterior trim with red accents inside.

Finally, the 2021 Subaru Ascent comes in four trims: base, Premium, Limited and Touring. This year, all Ascents come with adaptive LED headlights and adaptive cruise control — and remember, all-wheel drive is standard on all trims. We tested the top-trim Touring, which came with an as-tested price of $46,055. For a fully loaded top trim, this is especially appealing if you're shopping the Ascent vs. Pilot. It has second-row captain's chairs and both heated and ventilated front seats, plus a forward-facing camera.

2021 Honda Pilot

2021 Honda Pilot

Storage and towing: Telluride vs. Pilot vs. Ascent

Each of these SUVs brings toughness and strength to the table in the form of their towing abilities. They also offer roomy storage areas — but some have qualities that the others can't match.

The Telluride is unquestionably the leader in this arena. It has 21 cubic feet of storage space behind the third row, and if you fold down the second-row and third-row seats, it opens up to 87 cubic feet. What's more, all models can tow up to 5,000 pounds when properly equipped. The Telluride has a seven-pin trailer towing wiring harness too. This is a more capable setup than the typical four-pin wiring harness and allows you to add an aftermarket trailer brake controller to better control the electronically controlled brakes on a heavy trailer.

Meanwhile, if you're shopping the Kia Telluride vs. Honda Pilot based on storage, it will be an easy decision. The Pilot has less cargo capacity than the Telluride, at 16.5 cubic feet behind the third row and 83.9 cubic feet when everything is folded flat. Some models are limited to 3,500 pounds of maximum towing capacity, but the Pilot can be optioned up to handle 5,000 pounds when properly equipped. We like its underfloor storage area better than the Telluride's since it's easy to use and spacious too. However, the lack of seven-pin wiring leaves the Pilot hamstrung if you plan on heavy towing.

For those considering the Subaru Ascent vs. Honda Pilot, there's a lot to like about the Ascent. But it's a different story when you consider the Subaru Ascent vs. Kia Telluride. The Ascent offers 17.6 cubic feet of space behind the third row and 86 cubes with the second-row and third-row seats folded down. There's a handy underfloor cubby too. The base Ascent has a towing capacity of only 2,000 pounds, but all other trim levels boost that number up to 5,000 pounds when properly equipped. But like the Pilot, the Ascent lacks a seven-pin trailer towing wiring harness.

2021 Subaru Ascent

2021 Subaru Ascent

Interior and tech: Telluride vs. Pilot vs. Ascent

What's more important in a three-row SUV than a comfortable interior and technology that doesn't make you want to pull your hair out? Plenty of shoppers would decisively answer, "Nothing."

The Telluride shines in this regard. Its interior is upscale and sophisticated. The buttons and controls feel authentic and high-quality, and the seats are comfortable and attractive. We are also fans of its technology. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration comes standard, and advanced driver aids such as adaptive cruise control work smoothly without much jerkiness that can annoy passengers.

In a Honda Pilot vs. Kia Telluride faceoff, take a test drive of the two and you will immediately notice a difference. The Pilot takes a more reserved approach. Its interior is certainly spacious, with loads of room for passengers in all three rows. However, the appointments are less plush. You will notice more hard plastic panels, for example. But you may be willing to accept this in exchange for numerous storage cubbies that are classic Honda ingenuity. The Pilot also has a responsive touchscreen. Just be aware that the base Pilot LX does not have Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. We are also disappointed by its driver aids, including a clumsy adaptive cruise control system that cuts out below 22 mph. Its warnings and alerts are also too sensitive.

The Ascent provides a good middle ground. The interior design seems a touch unfocused compared with the other two SUVs, but there is also a lot to like. Its cabin is visually interesting, and ours came with rich walnut-colored seats that were comfortable but a little flat in the bottom padding. If you like cupholders, you'll love the Ascent — it has 19 in total. Yes, really. The third row also gets USB ports, which is rare for this class. Driver aids work very well, with smooth controls that are easy to operate — in a Honda Pilot vs. Subaru Ascent contest, the difference on this front is glaring. In the Ascent, CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, and the touchscreen is vibrant. Space in the third row is a little tight and should be reserved for children, but otherwise the Ascent is a winner.

2021 Kia Telluride

2021 Kia Telluride

Behind the wheel: Telluride vs. Pilot vs. Ascent

So you've picked your SUV, brought it home and loaded the whole family inside. How does it feel behind the wheel?

If you picked the Telluride, you'll notice right away that there's a smooth ride and it's easy to operate. The Telluride feels a bit larger and more boat-like than the Pilot or the Ascent, but that mostly translates into a soft and comfortable ride. Even over rough surfaces, the Telluride is composed. Its V6 engine is not the strongest, but an easy-to-drive nature makes the Telluride an immediate hit.

The Pilot is the sportiest SUV of the bunch. It offers a more direct feeling to the wheels, whether through a responsive gas pedal or its lively steering characteristics. The Pilot feels as good on curvy roads as any three-row SUV in its class, and it will also make you feel confident on tight city streets. It also has a strong V6, and the Pilot makes good use of it with plenty of passing power when you need it. The brakes are also easy to operate smoothly.

As for the Ascent, it's got a smooth ride and secure handling. The downside is the turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Combined with a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), it makes the Ascent feel jumpy off-the-line. The Ascent lets in the most wind and road noise in this SUV comparison too. On the upside, the Ascent has good off-road capability thanks to extra ground clearance (8.7 inches total for the Ascent, versus 8 inches for the Telluride and 7.3 inches for the Pilot), and standard all-wheel drive.

2021 Honda Pilot

2021 Honda Pilot

Edmunds says

When all is said and done, the Telluride is still our top pick in this three-row SUV comparison. It offers the most complete all-around package, with particularly impressive comfort, technology and utility. It also offers enough performance and value to fend off the Pilot and the Ascent.

The Pilot is a known quantity with a good reputation, and that familiarity goes a long way. However, it has fallen a bit behind the times, trailing when it comes to its frustrating driver aids and lack of storage space. We still think the Pilot is a good buy thanks to its driving experience and smooth ride. It's enough to land this Honda in the No. 3 spot in our rankings.

At this stage in the Ascent's production cycle, it's simply not as well rounded as some competitors. Still, there are enough standout abilities, such as its helpful storage areas and outdoorsy versatility, to launch it ahead of some other big-name SUVs.

2021 Kia Telluride

2021 Kia Telluride