The Ascent isn’t just the biggest Subaru ever, it’s also a huge opportunity to grow the brand.
While Subaru has developed a cult following for its all-wheel drive, safety, and toughness in its cars and crossovers, it has done so with a very limited lineup. Not only is the lineup small, but the cars trend to the compact segments, with the longstanding Impreza compact (and its sporty WRX and STI derivatives) and Forester SUV recently joined by the Crosstrek and BRZ in recent years. The largest vehicle in the lineup until this year was the Outback, a mid-size Legacy sedan at heart, jacked up and butched up to handle rougher terrain and haul more cargo, but limited to just five passengers.
Subaru has been incredibly successful with its evolution of the Forester from boxy wagon to traditional SUV styling, but with just enough unique Subaru character to stand out. The smaller Crosstrek has been wildly popular since the day it launched thanks to excellent capability and practicality for such a small vehicle. And the Outback is the original crossover, yet continues to find more new converts every year because of a spacious interior, mild capability, but a reasonable size that’s not intimidating to drive.
Well, as popular as all these crossovers are, Subaru understood the need for something larger, with three rows and seating for seven to compete with the huge market of larger families snapping up Honda Pilots, Ford Explorers, and Hyundai Santa Fes. Then again, many small families also appreciate extra cargo space of a larger SUV and don’t mind a larger footprint if they live in the suburbs or a rural setting with wide roads and driveways.
Although a little late to the mid-size, three-row SUV party, Subaru has finally arrived with the 2019 Ascent, and they like to point out at every opportunity that it is the biggest Subaru ever.
How big? Well, I’m glad you asked, because it’s massive for a segment we used to think of as midsize – remember back when Tahoes, Suburbans, and Expeditions full-size SUVs were considered merely ‘large’? I’m not sure what to call them now, but this certainly eclipses midsize and deserves some kind of ‘large’ or ‘big’ designation. It is 196.8 inches long and 76 inches wide, which is 16 feet long by more than 6 feet wide, and with a 113.8-inch wheelbase, it provides suitable passenger space in all rows.
Not only is the seating area spacious, it’s also well lit, the panoramic sunroof spanning both rows and large windows providing plenty of light. The big windows make for good visibility looking out as well, even in the third row, where elevated stadium seating is high enough for kids to see out of the mini window, although headroom and legroom are child-sized only.
While there are three tether anchors on the back of the third row seats, there is only one set of LATCH anchors, so you could do one anchored child seat, plus two secured by belt or a couple of boosters if you can find child seats narrow enough to fit back there. Getting into the third row is greatly helped by little steps up to the third row and second-row seats that tilt and slide well forward for a wide opening, while the doors open incredibly wide, too.
Although the third row is sized for kids, they’re treated well, and aside from the high seating for a good view, there are cupholders, speakers and even a couple of USB charging ports. Second row occupants get even more perks with cupholders in the door and center armrest, their own ventilation controls and heated seats (in Limited and Touring trims), and more charging ports. Most trims also have the option of second-row captain’s chairs that I imagine are even more comfortable, especially paired with the good legroom the Ascent provides. Even in eight-passenger configuration, the two outboard positions are supportive, with manual recline, so they offer long-distance comfort even for adults, and it’s not too high a step in, so it would be great for grandma and grandpa.
For less precious cargo, both rear rows are split 60/40, so you can get a long shelving unit in while still keeping up to six seating positions in eight-passenger models. In more traditional configurations, you have over 17 cubic feet behind the third row, 47 cu-ft behind the second row with the third seat stowed, and up to a maximum of 86 cu-ft. You also get a completely flat floor with all the seats stowed, so it’s a good emergency shelter if your tent gets flooded on your annual camping trip, and pretty spacious at 82 inches long (that’s 6’10”) by 46 inches wide at its narrowest, so it should do for all but your NBA centers or NFL linemen.
If that’s not enough cargo space, the roof rips are standard, although cross bars are an extra couple hundred bucks, and towing capacity up to 5,000 lb on all but the base trim. Aside from the hefty tow rating, the Subaru Ascent features Trailer Stability Assist (TSA), which utilizes sensors to monitor trailer sway and then brakes individual wheels as necessary to stabilize the trailer.
Compared to some of its leading competitors, the Ascent is hard to beat, topping the Honda Pilot, Ford Explorer (except behind third row), Toyota Highlander, Mazda CX-9 and many more, while only the largest of the breed like the Chevrolet Traverse (23/57/98) and Volkswagen Atlas (20/55/96) offer more cargo space. Being that big, you might expect it to be similarly heavy, but it’s not bad for something so large, at most 4,603 pounds, but between the power and light steering, it certainly doesn’t feel too big.
Power comes from a turbocharged four-cylinder boxer engine, which sends power on through a continuously variable transmission and on to all four wheels through Subaru’s Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive. At 2.4 liters, it’s not a large engine by any means, but the twin-scroll turbocharger, direct injection, and variable valve timing maximize the returns in terms of both power and efficiency. Peak horsepower is 260 hp at 5,600 rpm, and 277 lb-ft of torque is available from 2,000 to 4,000 rpm, but fuel consumption is on par with the most efficient all-wheel-drive three-row SUVs at 20/26/22 mpg city/highway/combined with 20-inch wheels. Base models with 18-inch wheels are one mpg better in every category.
Subaru has done a fine job relaxing the throttle for this large utility vehicle, so it gets going smoothly (I’ve often found their smaller vehicles a bit jumpy), and the CVT rolls on power seamlessly. It’s not fast by any means, and less so when loaded up for the annual camping trip, but it never struggled to keep up with traffic from a light, reach freeway merging speeds, or even kick down and build up speed quickly for passing maneuvers. Because our camping trip took us on a long highway cruise, the 21.3 mpg we saw in the trip computer at the end of the week is more highway than usual, but still impressive for the amount of practicality it delivers.
If you were hoping the Ascent might deliver some STI magic, you’d likely be disappointed, because this is more like its competitors than a WRX or even Forester XT. Yes, it handles turning and stopping admirably, but don’t bother looking for a sport mode, because the focus is on comfort and practicality. More than anything, this shows that Subaru is serious about competing in this segment instead of trying to force the brand’s more engaging driving qualities onto a segment that doesn’t warrant it and potential customers that have it well down on their list of priorities.
One disappointment for us was the steering, as both my wife an I found it too light and too loose, leading to a lot of wandering on the highway. Thankfully, lane departure warning is part of the standard EyeSight Suite, which also includes forward collision alert and emergency braking and adaptive cruise. Blind spot detection with lane change assist and rear cross traffic alert with reverse automatic braking are also available as a options.
The adaptive cruise works very well on the highway, although the lane keep assist tended to react late and sometimes jerk the car, where the better systems apply a more gentle subtle steering correction that is barely noticeable.
Despite that, the long trip went quickly, with the front seats providing all-day comfort, the navigation providing adequate guidance, and the Harman Kardon audio system alternately belting out satellite radio or my favourite playlist via Apple CarPlay. While the Starlink infotainment system is loaded with features and much improved, it still looks a generation behind others and has a tendency to hang up after it recognizes some request, which can be confusing and frustrating. Still, it’s highly functional and as good as all but a few of the best in this segment.
Beyond the infotainment system, the controls were all easy to decipher, and the materials of good quality, so it’s a welcoming cabin overall. Oh, and the plentiful cupholders and bottle holders meant we were well hydrated and caffeinated the whole way.
The Ascent is also priced competitively, so even though all-wheel drive is standard across the board, prices match up with many of the FWD models from other brands. The base model starts at $31,995 plus $975 destination fee, and is well feature right out of the gate with the aforementioned Eyesight suite, a 6.5-inch touchscreen for the Starlink infotainment system with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, three zone climate control, and 18-inch alloy wheels.
Prices climb through several trims and option packages, adding features like 20-inch wheels, Wifi connectivity, leather, heated seats, power tailgate, panoramic sunroof, larger 8-inch touchscreen with navigation, 14-speaker Harman Kardon audio system and a front camera to match the standard rear camera. Fully loaded Touring models run up to $44,695, and aside from all the features, it adds an exclusive Java brown leather seating that should bring a luxurious atmosphere. But for my money, the Premium trim with the “Sporty Package” gets the big screen with nav, big wheels, sunroof, and some extra convenience features for just a tick over $40K with the destination charge factored in.
The Subaru Ascent isn’t any sort of game changer in the segment with revolutionary technology or groundbreaking design that will blow up the established order. Instead, it’s a carefully considered return to the popular three-row mid-size SUV segment by Subaru that is competitive in every regard, from practicality and efficiency to power and conveniences. For existing Subaru owners that need more seats and more space it’s a no-brainer to stick with the brand and stay in their comfort zone, though it might not have quite as much driving character as they're used to. And for families that have never thought about the Subaru brand, and anyone who likes to go on big adventures, the 2019 Ascent earns our Worth A Look rating and needs to be on your list of test drives.