Subaru has had a longstanding SUV problem; namely, the lack of an SUV. The Tribeca — a model that lasted ten years and was mercifully retired in 2014 — never really counted, because nobody wanted it. That bland vehicle was routinely among the worst-selling vehicles in the U.S., lacking, as it did, the nearly ineffable qualities that make a Subaru a Subaru. Because of that, and its lack of an immediate replacement, the company has been by its own admission “hemorrhaging customers” to competitors offering three-row models with seating for seven or eight passengers. This market — families — is hugely important, of course, so the company is taking another swing at the legit family hauler: the Subaru Ascent ($31,995). The car comes loaded with cool features and innovative twists, and it finally brings Subaru’s A-game to the contest. It’s late to that particular game, of course, but it’s playing catch-up for all it’s worth.
The Good: First and foremost, the handling on twisty roads is exemplary. The Ascent feels stable and confident, something that carries over to off-road scenarios as well. Also, its all-wheel-drive system has an easy X-Mode that allows you to quickly jack up the system’s sensitivity to wheelspin and throttle modulation in rocky or sandy situations, ensuring you don’t get bogged down. It’s no Wrangler, but it’ll get you on—and off—the beach with little fuss. During a drive along Oregon’s coast, I experienced this first-hand. It would be no problem toting the family to the ocean in the Ascent.
Who It’s For: Being a versatile Subaru, it’ll fit whatever Subie lifestyle you happen to inhabit. More practically, though, think families in need of seven or eight seats, or adventurers constantly hauling around camping gear, kayaks, and the like. That crowd won’t be able to go too far off the beaten path, but it’ll make quick work of rutted dirt roads and light scrambling. The third row is cramped for adults, so keep that in mind if you bring your pals along on a lot of adventures. Also, it’s great for heavy drinkers. Not of the alcohol variety — can’t condone that — just in general. Nineteen cupholders… you can tote a lot of bottled water or craft root beer or three gallons-worth of Super Big Gulps.
Watch Out For: Each one of those 19 cupholders. The things are magnets from dirt and the sticky schmutz that accompanies children everywhere they go. Since these things will be used for everything from actual beverages to smartphones to toys to discarded candy wrappers, the goo will undoubtedly migrate onto stuff you’d rather it didn’t. Do yourself a favor: keep the cupholders clean, even though it will mean venturing into the dark dungeon of third-row kid-dom every now and then. Yuck…
Alternatives: The mid-sized SUV category is about as hot right now as the crossover, and as such is heavily populated with high-quality alternatives. The Honda Pilot, the Volkswagen Atlas, the Kia Sorento, the Mazda CX-9, the Toyota Highlander and the GMC Acadia, among others, all share space in the Venn diagram that comprises the not-quite-premium segment of this category. (Yes, there are many categories and segments now.) All are great options, and the Ascent leads or holds its own in many of its metrics, from leg room to road noise to towing capacity — among about a thousand other qualities. They also have comparable base pricing, in the Ascent’s case starting at $31,995, though the Ascent offers all-wheel-drive and its EyeSight driver-assist package as standard, which is a rarity.
Review: I drove the Ascent from suburban Portland, Oregon, to the coast, tackling a wide variety of driving conditions, though ones obviously optimized to show off precisely what the car was capable. That included brisk curves in the woods, beaches and a light off-roading course, but nothing more challenging. On the road, the ride is terrific — quiet, smooth, and surprisingly flat. This is major body-roll turf for large SUVs, and while pushing the Ascent through the rural hills of eastern Oregon, the ride was fun and energetic, with good acceleration and braking performance — though the Ascent was minimally loaded — and good handling. The 260-horsepower 2.4-liter boxer engine helps by bringing down the center-of-gravity, but the four-wheel independent suspension proves a good match for the road and the machine. Also impressive: the complement of driver aids that comprise Subaru’s EyeSight system, including automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and a head-up display that flashes warnings as you need them. It’s nice to see a manufacturer making this standard, even if just in one model line.
On the beach, it handles the sand nicely, but couldn’t absorb some higher-speed traverses of washboard ruts left behind by a receding tide. So take it easy, lest you start bouncing up and down and dislodging dozens of drinks from the safety of their cupholders. While driving an off-road course consisting of a serpentine route over some rocks and up some slippery gravel slopes, it fared perfectly fine, easily managing the challenges, much of that courtesy of the healthy 8.7-inch ground clearance. The standard hill-descent control also helped modulate what would have been a quick plummet in a beginner’s hands. These challenges are likely at the far end of the Ascent’s capabilities, but they’re good enough to make the car use and to expand the places you can reach on a trip without any fuss. If you push too hard, though, you will get in trouble, no matter what you’re in—something we saw first-hand when a jacked-up Jeep driven on the beach by some inexperienced or over-exuberant drivers found itself mired up to its axles on the same sand we were driving. Take-home: Respect your opponent, lest ye embarrass yourself.
Inside, the new Subie’s trappings are high-quality and competitive, with excellent fit and finish, substantial heft and strong tactile feel in the materials. Plastic abounded, as is natural, but it doesn’t feel “plasticky,” and the leather upholstery available in the higher trim levels — Limited and Touring — lent the ride a definite premium flair. The rear doors open wider than most SUVs, at 75 degrees, easing access, particularly with child seats, and there’s an excellent under-floor storage compartment in the rear. The connectivity system also stands up to scrutiny, with eight USB plugs for charging devices, available 4G LTE Wi-Fi, and, up front, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, with a full complement of music-streaming apps accessible on the standard 6.5-inch display or the upgraded eight-inch system. It ticks all the boxes that are expected in this category and for this (mostly) family-centric audience.
My favorite feature — as it is whenever I see it — is the digital rear-view mirror. Fed by a camera in the back, it, of course, eliminates the visibility problem you have with a large vehicle, especially when packed tight with people and gear. It’s not quite as bright and crisp as summer higher-tiered samples I’ve tried, but it works well and generates a perfectly usable and useful unobstructed view. It was a nice surprise seeing that in there.
Verdict: It’s always been a bit baffling that Subaru has never really had a dog in this hunt — has never been a contender in the big SUV category. Of course, it’s a small company that can’t practically compete in every category, which helps account for that gap. But it’s now been filled with a worthy product. The Ascent is fun enough to make a rural road trip a pleasure and robust enough to take you a few miles further than the roads might allow. It can wear the Subaru badge with pride.
What Others Are Saying:
• “During testing on serpentine, woodsy roads on the Oregon Coast, it felt like a five-passenger sedan rather than an eight-passenger family barge. Steering is hardly sports-car tight, but it’s accurate with inputs, with little of the numbness that plagues too many crossovers in this segment. — Michael Frank, Men’s Journal
• “[It handled] with aplomb anything we tossed at it during a long day’s drive. That included a delightful excursion down a long and wet beach strand at low tide that likely would have bogged down many crossovers. We later had the chance to test the 2019 Subaru ute on a run through a rutted gravel pit. A third demonstration showed Ascent’s solid towing capabilities, the base model rated at 2,000 pounds while higher trim levels – which add an oil cooler — can easily manage a 5,000-pound trailer.” — Paul Eisenstein, The Detroit Bureau
• “Interior design won’t be winning any awards for innovation, but the materials are certainly better than we’ve seen from Subaru lately. Nothing rattled or vibrated during my short time with the vehicle and I found the driver’s seat to be a comfy place to spend the day.” — Emme Hall, Roadshow
Engine: 2.4-liter 4-cylinder horizontally opposed turbocharged boxer engine
Transmission: continuously variable transmission with selectable eight-speed manual shift mode; symmetrical all-wheel-drive
Torque: 277 lb-ft
Weight: 4,430 lbs
Fuel economy: 23 mpg combined city/highway for 18-inch wheels; 22 for 20-inch wheels
Price: $31,995 (base)
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