Subaru customers are well-known for their love of the brand, ranking at or near the top of vehicle manufacturers when it comes to loyalty. But what happens when long-time Subaru drivers outgrow their Outbacks and Foresters? Until this year, they would've needed to jump ship, as Subaru has largely been absent from the world of three-row SUVs. That has changed with the 2019 model year, with the debut of the Subaru Ascent, a three-row SUV that can carry seven or eight passengers.
At 197in (5,003mm) long and 76in (1,930mm) wide, the Ascent is the largest car in Subaru's lineup. And if there's a record for cupholders, Subaru probably owns it now, with 19 sprinkled throughout the car. At first glance, though, the Ascent doesn't necessarily look like it belongs in the Subaru lineup. The Japanese carmaker's station wagons, crossovers, and SUVs have a familiar shape and style. The Ascent, on the other hand, looks more like a generic SUV with a higher hood line than its Subaru siblings. There's the familiar black Subaru grille, trimmed in chrome, with the unmistakeable badge front and center. And the raised roof rails are standard. Aside from those details, however, the Ascent doesn't scream "Subaru" at the same volume as an Outback or Crosstrek.
Built on the same new Subaru Global Platform used in the Crosstrek and Impreza, the Ascent is geared toward comfort and a quiet ride. For the chassis, that means highly stiffened joints between structures and optimized cross sections for better stability, comfort, and agility (to the degree that a seven-passenger SUV can be agile). Subaru is also using acoustic front-door glass and windshield to try and keep road noise to a minimum (more on that below).
Under the hood lies a 2.4-liter inline flat-four turbocharged Boxer engine. It's capable of 260hp (191kW) and 277lb-ft (375Nm) of torque, enough to move you from zero to 60mph in 6.9 seconds and capable of towing up to 5,000lb (2,268kg). That engine is paired with an eight-speed, high-torque Lineartronic continuously variable transmission with always-on symmetrical all-wheel drive.
The Ascent starts at $31,995 and comes in four trim levels: Ascent, Premium, Limited, and Touring. AWD, the Starlink infotainment system, and EyeSight driver-assist tech are standard across the lineup (would you expect anything else from a company that makes safety the centerpiece of its advertising?). Eight-passenger seating in the form of a second-row bench is standard on the base and Premium ($34,195) models. You can go with captain's chairs in the second row on the Premium and Limited ($38,995); the bench is not an option in the $44,695 Touring model. A massive 54" (1.37m) moonroof is an add-on with the Premium and Limited but standard on the Touring model, which also gets leather-trimmed upholstery and 20-inch alloy wheels.
If you select the Touring model—which was the car I drove—you really don't need to worry about extra options, as the only other add-ons are things like remote engine starters, cargo separators, and trailer hitches. All of the good stuff is there.
Room for everyone
If you've sat in a Subaru made this decade, the interior of the Ascent will make you feel right at home. The 10-way driver's seats (eight-way for passengers) are comfortable, and you can battle swamp butt with the standard (in the Touring model) seat fans. You may be dismayed by the mere four cupholders in the front row (two in the middle and one in each door), but you can distract yourself from the lack of arm's-reach beverage storage options with the heated, leather-wrapped steering wheel. The Ascent I drove had java-brown seats with an ivory stitching that also makes an appearance on the black dashboard. There are some nice-looking fake wood-grain inserts in the doors and around the dashboard, along with plenty of places to put stuff. There's also a compartment for your sunglasses just above the rear-view mirror. And speaking of rear-view mirrors, this one has an HD display built in, perfect for seeing what's behind you when you can't see out the back window because the car is loaded with kids and their gear. The display is crisp and bright, giving you a picture you'd rather not see of the driver behind you hunting for nose goblins.
Unlike some other three-row SUVs Ars has reviewed—like the Mazda CX-9 and the Volvo XC90—the Ascent feels spacious from front to back. With the captain's chairs in the second row, getting through to the third row is not much of an ordeal. The second-row seats also slide back and forth, giving third-row passengers smooth entry and egress. Four adults can easily ride in comfort in the Ascent—the third row is best-suited for young ones, although you can provide a reasonable amount of legroom for the folks back there at the expense of second-row passengers. Second-row passengers also get their own sets of cupholders (nine in total), along with a 115V outlet, a pair of USB ports, and their own climate controls.
There's plenty to like from a design standpoint from the driver's point of view. The center console is smartly laid out, with just a gear lever and cupholders at the driver's side. Up toward the front are a pair of USB ports (CarPlay and Android Auto are both standard across the entire Ascent lineup) and an auxiliary port (do anyone else's kids ask if they can "aux"?). Just above the USB ports is the perfect place to store your smartphone; the only thing missing is wireless charging. Moving up, we come to the climate controls and Starlink infotainment system.
I covered Starlink at length in my Crosstrek review, so I'm not going to rehash it here. Suffice it to say, Starlink is well-thought-out and a notch above what you will see from many other automakers in the same segment. One particularly clever touch I appreciated shows up on the small display on the dashboard. With a button press, you can get a 180° view from the front of the car, which is great when pulling into a parking space or your garage.
I'm no longer as enamored of Subaru's steering-wheel controls. To summarize, you get the usual infotainment controls on the left and driver-assist stuff on the right. On the left at eight o'clock are three tabs to control the little 4.2" display in the instrument panel. They're fine for quickly cycling through the view options but very fiddly when you want to change the settings. In fact, there are three different places for you to change settings. This does not strike me as smart design.
As you would expect from a three-row SUV, there is plenty of cargo space. Even with the third row up, you still have 17.8 cubic feet of storage space. Drop the third row and that goes to 47.5 cubic feet. With the back two rows down, you have 86.5 cubic feet—enough for your friends to call on you when they have large, heavy objects they need help moving.
Once on the highway, the Ascent feels very SUV-like. The driving position is appropriately high, and it offers a solid, steady, and unspectacular ride. If you drive it like it's meant to be driven, the Ascent does what's asked of it. You'll want to slow down on those corners, however, as there's the merest hint of body motion if you're going too fast.
The steering feels light with just a tad too much play in the steering wheel. That left me more disconnected from the road than I would have liked. The 2.4-liter engine sounds like it's working hard when you put weight on the accelerator, due in part to its horizontally opposed engine. The end result is an excess of engine noise that, combined with the sounds of the road, makes for a slightly louder ride than similarly priced three-row SUVs like the Volkswagen Atlas and Mazda CX-9. The Ascent is not as loud as the Crosstrek, but it could be quieter.
Subaru's EyeSight driver-assist technology works almost too well. Adaptive cruise control is a gift on the highway, and lane-keep assist works well enough. The problem is all of the beeping, which I could turn down but not turn off. I'm fine with an auditory alert if I drift onto the shoulder and the lane-keep assist activates. But I don't need the car to beep at me each time the adaptive cruise control locks on to a car ahead. In addition to the sound cues, there are also warning lights that flash in a rudimentary heads-up display. And when EyeSight is engaged, the small display on the dashboard changes from whatever useful information you had showing up there, instead reminding you that yes, EyeSight is active.
Subaru says the Ascent will get 20mpg in the city, 26mpg on the highway, and 22mpg overall. Those numbers are typical for a three-row mid-size SUV, but I only got 19.4mpg in a week of mixed driving. I would ascribe some of that to the shift points in the CVT, which seemed unnecessarily elongated—the car took a beat or two too long to move to the next gear.
What people want
When I get a review car, I can generally guess what people's reactions will be. The faster and sportier, the more interest from my friends and acquaintances. But I was surprised by the number of questions I got about the Ascent. One couple I know, who have two sons, are huge Subaru fans and feel they are outgrowing their Forester. They want to move up to a three-row SUV and despaired because that meant buying something other than a Subaru. When I told them I was driving a for-real three-row Subaru, I was peppered with questions and ended up giving a tour after church.
That's the audience Subaru is surely looking to reach with the Ascent: drivers who love their Outbacks, Foresters, and Crosstreks but want something bigger. Those folks will likely love the Ascent. Even if you're not avidly pro-Subaru but are in the market for a mid-size three-row SUV, the Ascent is worth investigation. It has a strong set of standard features, it's competitively priced, and Subaru makes the EyeVision safety features standard. And I love the option of seeing an HD display in the rearview mirror.
On the other hand, I could do without having the vehicle settings strewn across three different displays with three different interfaces. I also found the steering to be a bit too loose and the ride louder than I would have liked. But I don't view those things as dealbreakers. If you are contemplating a three-row SUV, the Subaru Ascent is definitely worth your attention.