It’s hard to distinguish between want and need, especially when it comes to cars. Subaru has spent decades convincing shoppers that they not only want all-wheel drive, plastic body cladding, and extra ground clearance but that they need these features, too. Sure, they aren’t strictly necessary for your daily commute, but what if someday you just want to take a spontaneous camping trip into the wilderness in the middle of a snowstorm? The company wants you to believe that you need a Subaru.
Three-row SUVs play a similar game. A minivan may have the space and practicality that families need, but who wants to be seen in one of those? Minivan surrogates such as the new 2019 Subaru Ascent ostensibly package much (but not all) of that versatility into a considerably more desirable shell.
Having learned from its misadventure with the forgotten Tribeca-an SUV with an optional third row of seats sold from 2006 to 2014 that was too small, too expensive, and too weird-looking to succeed-Subaru is serious this time. The Ascent is aimed at the heart of the three-row-crossover market against such well-established models as the Ford Explorer, the Honda Pilot, the Mazda CX-9, and the Toyota Highlander. It fits squarely into this segment on paper with its sizable exterior footprint, seven- or eight-passenger capacity, tall-wagonoid shape, and a price that ranges from just under $33,000 for the base model to more than $45,000 for the fully loaded Touring.
Subaru Through and Through
This middle-of-the-road mission may seem at odds with the idiosyncratic character that has won Subaru so many loyal buyers, but the Ascent aims to please those people, too. For one thing, it looks unmistakably like a Subaru; it’s hard not to see the Ascent as an overinflated Outback. The design team played it safe on this one, a decision that’s tough to fault when the brand is setting sales records in the United States nearly every month.
The Ascent is also pure Subaru under the skin, riding on the company’s modular Global Platform that underpins the Impreza and the Crosstrek (and will eventually propagate across the lineup). Although there are a few hard points shared with those smaller Subies, the platform is dramatically widened and stretched for this application. Subaru proudly proclaims the Ascent as its largest vehicle ever, but it’s about average in size for its class at 196.8 inches long, 71.6 inches tall, and 76.0 inches wide.
Nonetheless, excellent packaging gives the Ascent one of the most accommodating cabins in its segment. The second row, available with either a three-place bench or a pair of captain’s chairs, is both capacious and flexible. The seats slide fore and aft on a long track, allowing you to position them to be pulled snug against the backs of the front seats-nice for those who want to be within easy reach of tots in car seats-or pushed way back for max legroom. The middle seats also fold and slide quickly out of the way at the pull of a lever to ease entry into the third row. The wayback seat is mostly adequate even for two adults, unlike those in many rivals, but it’s hurt by a somewhat low bottom cushion and by Subaru’s decision to fit three seating positions back there. Yes, it’s nice to be able to fit eight in a pinch, but we’d still give the nod to the Volkswagen Atlas’s two-place third row for overall comfort.
There are plenty of thoughtful details inside that impress. Models with the captain’s chairs have cool grab handles on those seats that are said to be inspired by those on Japan’s bullet trains; they can also serve double duty as bag hooks. The underfloor storage compartment in the cargo area behind the third row is clever in that its lid can be Velcroed to the back of the third-row seat to hold it open, and the compartment can accommodate the removable cargo shade when it’s not in use so it doesn’t take up room in your garage.
Boxer Blues No More
The Ascent’s new turbocharged 2.4-liter flat-four engine with 260 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of torque is another example of Subaru’s effort to maintain its quintessential traits while eliminating some of its characteristic weaknesses that could have turned off new converts. Like other Subaru powerplants, it’s a horizontally opposed, or “boxer,” layout, an engine type that has long endowed Subarus with a gravelly, unpleasant sound and subpar refinement. The Ascent’s engine produces an unmistakable boxer rumble, but it’s isolated well enough to keep excess vibrations at bay and prevent the racket from becoming bothersome.
The Ascent’s continuously variable automatic transmission, a new unit meant for high-torque applications, pairs well with this engine. It’s one of the few CVTs we’ve sampled that somewhat convincingly executes simulated shifts as you accelerate, mitigating the droning sensation that can exaggerate the boxer engines’ lack of refinement in other Subies. The gearbox also complements the engine’s torque curve nicely, effectively keeping the turbo on the boil and making the Ascent feel responsive and powerful when passing or merging. As is typical of most automatic-transmission Subarus, the Ascent has a jumpy throttle tip-in that can make it difficult to drive smoothly around town, but turbo lag is minimal.
The Ascent is a competent handler, too, with firm damping that keeps body motions nicely controlled in corners. Its light steering lacks feel and feedback, removing any sense of driver engagement from the equation, but only the 10Best Trucks and SUVs–winning Mazda CX-9 really provides that in this segment, anyway. Ride quality is good, but we wouldn’t call it plush. Instead, the Ascent sits at the tauter, sportier end of this segment, although the firm ride might settle down a bit with a full load of people and/or cargo on board. Impacts are never harsh, even in higher-spec models with the larger 20-inch wheels (lower trims come with 18-inchers). That said, road and tire noise can intrude at highway speeds.
Of course, there are plenty of considerations for three-row SUV buyers that go beyond such intangibles. Subaru is playing the numbers game expertly, making its Ascent class competitive in nearly every objective measure. Its EPA fuel-economy estimates of 22 or 23 mpg combined (the heavier Limited and Touring models are rated slightly lower than the base and Premium trims) are near the top of the class. It tows up to 5000 pounds. Several active-safety features, such as automated emergency braking and lane-departure warning, come standard on all trim levels. It can be equipped with up to eight USB ports, with optional charging ports even for third-row passengers. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto come standard on all models. A whopping 19 cupholders are aboard. There is no built-in rear-seat entertainment system available, but Subaru will sell you a pair of iPads with Bluetooth headphones for a reasonable $970.
All of this adds up to a well-rounded package that finally gives Subaru a no-apologies entry in this segment. We wouldn’t call it superlative in any single measure-it’s neither the most fun to drive, the most spacious, nor the most luxurious mainstream three-row SUV you can buy-but the Ascent hits nearly all of its targets and is priced competitively. Based on the company’s growing ability to convince buyers that they both want and need a Subaru, we think the Ascent will be an easy sell.
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