Eager to strike while the crossover iron is hot, Subaru is rejoining the three-row fray with the Ascent. And they hope the second time’s the charm. “We learned a lot of lessons from the Tribeca,” Subaru planning manager Peter Tenn said, “and we’ve applied them to the Ascent.” Introduced in 2006, the Tribeca ended production after the 2014 model year, having never found a foothold in the market. Its absence created a gap in the company’s product portfolio that forced Subaru owners to look elsewhere when their families outgrew smaller vehicles like the Crosstrek and Forester.
The Ascent is Subaru’s largest and heaviest vehicle to date, yet a new, 2.4-liter turbocharged flat-four is the sole engine option. Output is a respectable 260 horsepower and 277 lb-ft. The boxer motor pairs with a revised version of Subaru’s continuously variable transmission (CVT), which features eight pre-set ratios to simulate gears. Those “gears” are selectable from steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles. The engine, gearbox, and all-wheel drive system come standard across the Ascent lineup, as does a suite of active safety features. Subaru calls it “Eyesight,” which includes automatic pre-collision braking, adaptive cruise control, lane departure and sway warning, pre-collision throttle management, and a new head-up display that provides system warnings and vehicle information.
Competing against the Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota Highlander, Subaru brings space and convenience to the Ascent to woo buyers. Seating capacity is for seven or eight passengers, depending on whether buyers choose second row captain’s seats or a bench. The Ascent’s 113.8-inch wheelbase and 196.8-inch overall length put it squarely in mid-size territory. Inside, the cabin is spacious and focused on the expected needs of large families –- along with three-zone automatic climate control, 86.5 cubic feet of cargo space with 2nd and 3rd row seats folded, and as many as eight USB ports, the Ascent features no fewer than nineteen cup holders.
The base model comes standard with a lot, but is limited to just 2000 lbs of towing capacity. Premium trim includes equipment to tow up to 5000 pounds. At that level, you also get a power driver’s seat, an 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system, upgraded interior materials and body-color side mirrors. Moving up a rung to Limited adds 20-inch alloy wheels, adaptive LED headlights, chrome accents, push-button start and keyless access. The top-spec Touring trim features unique leather appointments, heated and ventilated front seats, navigation, upgraded audio, a panoramic power moonroof, rain-sensing wipers, and a clever rear-view mirror that uses a dedicated camera to allow the driver to see what's behind the vehicle even when the cargo area is loaded to the brim.
That's what 86.5 cu ft of cargo space looks like.
Though the Ascent’s aesthetic doesn’t stray far from the rest of Subaru’s lineup, it commands a presence by virtue of its size. The expanded footprint is immediately evident in the cabin, where passenger volume is ample. “One of our design philosophies was that everyone in the vehicle should have the same level of comfort as everyone else,” Tenn told said. “Including the third row.”
Subaru meeting that target in the third row is debatable, but the first and second row have an abundance of head, leg and shoulder room. The Ascent feels premium inside, thanks in part to a surprisingly quiet cabin.
Before the drive, I was, admittedly, skeptical of a 4600-pound crossover’s ability to get out of its own way with just a four-cylinder mill and CVT, let alone tow two and a half tons. But the powertrain exceeded my expectations. The flat-four is buzzy under heavy throttle, but mid-range torque is stout. Subaru says the Ascent out accelerates the Explorer, Highlander, and Pathfinder from 0-60 mph. And the low center-of-gravity of the engine only helped the engineers strike a nice balance between tuning the suspension for responsive handling and comfortable ride. Although the Ascent is the biggest vehicle Subaru has ever made, it never felt cumbersome from behind the wheel, even when pulling a 4200-pound Airstream trailer behind it.
There was also a brief chance to try the Ascent off-road on a course carved into a rock quarry. With all-wheel drive and 8.7-inches of ground clearance, the Ascent easily overcame all the ruts and loose terrain in its way. During a steep decline, the Ascent’s hill decent control made the drop easy and stable. It’s no Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk, but the Ascent is plenty capable for most buyers in this segment.
Not its natural habitat, but the Subaru Ascent can tackle any sort of trail driving the average owner is likely to put it through.
The base Ascent starts at $32,970, putting Subaru’s three-row crossover right in line with its competitors. More than price, the Ascent is middle-of-the-road in most every way by design. In an effort to not build another Tribeca, they almost purposely avoided giving it a distinct character.
But maybe that’s not a bad thing. While the Ascent doesn’t stand out in any particular discipline, it strikes a solid balance in terms of comfort, capability and value. With standard all-wheel drive and high ground clearance, this is a sport-utility for buyers in regions where harsh winters are commonplace and with families who’re looking to stray from the beaten path now and again. That’s a lot of buyers. Plus, Subaru offers a lot of features that feel luxury despite mainstream market pricing. Thinking in cost/benefit terms, and folks' general affection for the brand, it may well be that the second time’s the charm.
On Sale: Summer 2018
Base Price: $32,970
As Tested Price: $45,670
Powertrain: 2.5-liter turbocharged H4, AWD, continuously variable automatic transmission
Output: 260 hp @ 5,600 rpm; 277 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm
Curb Weight: 4,603 lbs (Touring)
Fuel Economy: 20/26/22 mpg(EPA City/Hwy/Combined)
Pros: Spacious inside, torquey boxer engine, standard all-wheel drive
Cons: Anonymous exterior design, price climbs rapidly in upper trim levels