One of the best things about the new 2019 Subaru Ascent, aside from the robustly safe new vehicle architecture, and the elevation defying turbocharged engine, and the standard all-wheel drive with 8.7 inches of ground clearance, and the roomy class-competitive interior space, and so many other laudable things about this new family-sized 3-row SUV, is that you can get water- and stain-resistant cloth seats in combination with big wheels, captain’s chairs, and all of the desirable technology for less than $40,000.
Whew. I know. Long sentence.
So here’s the deal with the new Ascent. People who buy Subarus end up loving Subarus. Except for the B9 Tribeca, the company’s first attempt at building a midsize 3-row crossover SUV. People didn’t love that, and it died after an undeservedly ignominious run of nearly a decade.
Since the Tribeca departed for that big junkyard in the sky, Subaru lovers who needed a bigger SUV, one with more cargo space and seating capacity, had nothing within the automaker’s lineup to which to upgrade once they and their expanding families outgrew their Foresters and Outbacks.
With the new Ascent, that changes.
And Subaru knows that some people like cloth seats and don’t want to give up all the good stuff in order to get them.
Stretched like taffy and infused with extra high-strength steel for its new assignment, the same global platform that serves as the basis for the current Subaru Crosstrek is tucked beneath the much larger Ascent.
Into this architecture, Subaru bolts a brand-new, turbocharged and direct-injected 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine, boxer-style for a lower center of gravity and the lovable grumble and vibration that is a characteristic of such power plants.
A new high-torque continuously variable transmission (CVT) distributes the 260 horsepower and 277 lb.-ft. of torque to all four wheels, and Subaru says the Ascent climbs to 60 mph in 7.4 seconds. The company’s X-Mode traction and a hill descent control system is standard, too, making it possible to ascend to places where few other crossover SUVs dare travel.
Adventures often take place in mountainous regions, and Subaru acknowledges what the denizens of Denver have known for decades: turbocharged engines are relatively impervious to altitude. Properly equipped, the Ascent will tow 5,000 pounds of whatever you want to take along for a trip, and more safely thanks to standard trailer stability assist technology.
According to the EPA, you can expect to get 22 mpg or 23 mpg in combined driving, with the heavier Limited and Touring trims drinking more lustily from the gasoline well. A big 19.3-gallon fuel tank means fewer stops for fuel, providing more than 500 miles of highway driving with the Base and Premium versions of the Ascent.
As you may have surmised at this point, the Ascent is available in Base ($32,970), Premium ($35,170), Limited ($39,970), and Touring ($45,670) trim levels. All prices include a destination charge to ship it to your dealer from the Indiana factory that builds them.
I spent a day in northern Oregon with the affordable Premium trim, upgraded with the sensibly named 7-Passenger Sporty Package. This package installs second-row captain’s chairs, keyless access with push-button start and PIN code entry, a power rear liftgate, an auto-dimming rearview mirror with a compass and Homelink, reverse automatic braking, a panoramic sunroof, an upgraded Starlink infotainment system with navigation, a cargo cover, and yes, sporty 20-inch wheels. The grand total came to $39,430.
Yes, less than 40 grand for the SUV you see in the photos. Value much?
Subaru says that Premium trim is the most popular choice across its current lineup of vehicles, but the company expects most Ascent buyers to get the leather-lined Limited.
That might prove true. But at my house, we like cloth seats. They’re cooler in the summer, and warmer in the winter. And if they’re water- and stain-resistant, like the ones that come in the Ascent Premium, we’re even happier with ‘em.
Trouble is, when you’re shopping for a vehicle in this segment, you must commonly upgrade to leather in order to get the nice wheels, and the fully featured infotainment system, and all the driver assistance and collision avoidance technologies. I know. I bought a midsize 3-row crossover in the summer of 2017.
And that, in part, is why I think the Ascent I drove in Oregon, with Premium trim and the Sporty Package, is so impressive.
Aside from how Subaru caters to my own quirky tastes in vehicles, the Ascent represents an impressive effort. From comfort and cargo to controls and capability, this big Subie delivers.
Technically, you can stuff eight people into the Ascent. However, as is true of most 3-row crossover SUVs, six people are going to be happiest unless the extras are children. Small ones. We’re talking tiny.
And with 19 different cup holders on board, there is no way that such a collective gathering of bladders will outlast the Ascent’s highway driving range.
An 8-way power driver’s seat is standard for all but the base trim. It is wide and supportive, and I had no trouble getting comfortable. Armrests are densely padded, the steering wheel is pleasing to grip, and outward visibility is excellent.
Because Subarus are popular in places where it often snows, all but the base Ascent include heated front seats and a wiper de-icing system, while Limited and Touring add a heated steering wheel and heated outboard second-row seats. Desert and Deep South dwellers will like the ventilated front seats in the Touring version of the SUV.
You can’t get a front seat height adjuster in the Ascent. I was going to take Subaru to task over this, but after sitting in that location for a while it became obvious that one isn’t really necessary. You sit up high enough off the floor and with enough thigh support that you won’t miss extra vertical adjustment.
Subaru expects just 30 percent of Ascent buyers to get one with a second-row bench seat, which is specifically designed to hold three child safety seats across. That means most Ascents will have captain’s chairs, which are standard with Touring trim.
My Premium trim test vehicle had them, and they’re comfortable, though the inboard armrests lie too low to be of much use to adults (kids will deem them perfect). Subaru might also want to add greater range of adjustment to maximize legroom for grown-ups when nobody is riding in the third-row seat. The accommodations are not cramped for taller people, but they aren’t generous, either.
Same goes for the third-row seat. I rode back there for 20 miles, and with the second-row captain’s chair set in a compromise position that I would deem acceptable in terms of shorter trip comfort, I was able to squeeze into the third-row, one leg mashed hard against the seatback and one leg extending between the captain’s chairs.
If third-row seating space is critically important to you, there are other choices in this segment that are more accommodating. But really, you ought to get a minivan.
Because Subaru installs three sets of seatbelts in the third row, it was hard for me to buckle up. Only the narrow of waist (not me) should apply to ride in this location, and the shorter their legs are, the happier they’ll be. If nothing else, climbing in is relatively easy, in part because Subaru purposely designed the roof pillars to allow for a wider entry and exit portal.
Cargo space measures up to 17.8 cubic-feet behind the third-row seat, including an underfloor storage bin. Subaru says that it designed this space to maximize rear-impact crash protection, putting as much distance between the third-row occupants and the bumper as it could within reasonable packaging constraints.
If you don’t need the third-row seat, fold it to expand cargo capacity to 47.5 cu.-ft. Maximum volume measures 86.5 cu.-ft. with both rows of seats folded down. Note that if your Ascent is equipped with the panoramic sunroof, it chews into these figures by half a cube.
Whatever doesn’t fit inside can likely be attached to the Ascent’s substantial roof rails. And Subaru dealers offer a wide array of crossbars and carriers and baskets and holders and racks to accommodate multiple active lifestyle requirements.
Subaru covers all bases when it comes to conveniences and technology, too. The controls are presented in a simple, logical layout with blissful clarity of purpose, and if you can’t find a nook, or cranny, or bin, or tray in which to stash something, you need new eyeglasses.
Want to adjust the stereo volume? Twist a knob. Require a temperature change? Twist another knob. Need to reference the navigation map? Push a button. Want to check conditions ahead on the route? Swipe the map with your finger. Don’t worry. Subaru makes it super easy to resume your current position.
A triple-zone automatic climate control system is standard, which means nobody should be complaining about being too hot or cold. A Starlink infotainment system is also standard, supplying a 6.5-inch display, HD and satellite radio, a whole bunch of embedded apps, and both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity.
Starting with Premium trim, Starlink adds a larger 8-inch display along with satellite radio and hands-free text messaging support. This version offers a navigation upgrade for Premium and Limited models, while Touring trim includes it as standard.
I had trouble with the navigation system’s voice recognition technology. Feeling sleepy, I asked it to direct me to the nearest Starbucks in McMinnville, Oregon. Instead, the Ascent led me to a Walgreen’s drug store. Maybe the Starbucks was in there, but I’ve never seen one inside of a drug store before. Grocery store, yes.
After that, I asked it to plot a route to my home near Los Angeles, but the Ascent could not, apparently, understand my Spanish-language street name.
Then I requested directions to our hotel, which it could not find. Granted, the hotel was new. But when I tried to simply get a list of the nearest hotels in McMinnville, that effort also failed to produce results of any kind. Good thing Apple CarPlay and Android Auto come standard.
Charging devices is easy thanks to front and second-row USB ports. Limited and Touring trim also provide them for the third-row seat. And if you install the Starlink Entertainment Anywhere Package ($970 for two 32GB iPads with cases and two sets of Harman Kardon Bluetooth headphones), and keep the Ascent’s available 4G LTE Wi-Fi service activated, at least a couple of the people aboard will be entertained.
Everyone else can listen to the 14-speaker Harman Kardon surround sound system that’s an upgrade with Limited trim and standard for the Ascent Touring.
Subaru is synonymous with safety. For decades, the automaker has purposely chosen to make preserving the lives of its customers a top priority. In fact, in addition to “quality” and “trust,” “safety” is one of the top three reasons that car buyers switch from another brand to a Subaru.
Considering that the new Ascent is designed for families, you can bet the automaker has made every engineering effort to ensure that you, your spouse or partner, your kids, and even your pets can survive a collision.
Weighing a minimum of 4,430 pounds, the Ascent is equipped with a standard EyeSight system. What’s that? Powered by dual cameras mounted at the top of the windshield, EyeSight is a suite of driver assistance technologies that can help to prevent an accident from occurring. It includes adaptive cruise control, a collision warning system with pedestrian detection, automatic emergency braking, and three different lane discipline assist systems.
Oh, and if you’re prone to using your smartphone while waiting for traffic lights to turn green, a new thing called Lead Vehicle Start Alert will beep at you if EyeSight detects that traffic is once again on the move. So go ahead. Post photos of your cute little kids to Facebook while sitting in traffic.
EyeSight works well. Since the technology debuted for the 2013 model year, Subaru has upgraded the system to reduce false alarms and improve refinement, and has spread the technology throughout its model range (except for the BRZ sports car). You can program varying degrees of response, and even turn off the lane keeping assist system, which I find fatiguing because I feel like I’m fighting against the technology. New head-up indicators that display warnings on the windshield are useful.
Premium trim and above adds a blind spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert and lane change assist, a must-have feature in my book. Reverse automatic braking is optional for Premium and standard for Limited and Touring. Automatic high-beam assist is included for Limited models, while Touring trim includes a 180-degree front camera view system.
Subaru also offers Starlink Safety Plus and Security Plus service for the Ascent, on Premium trim and higher. The Safety Plus subscription is free for three years, and includes important functions like automatic collision notification, SOS emergency assistance, easy access to roadside assistance, and more. Security Plus is free for six months, and, among other functions, adds speed and curfew alerts, which is perfect for parents with teenaged drivers in the household.
Crash testing hadn’t been performed as this review was written, but Subaru expects the Ascent to excel in both NHTSA and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) testing.
Given the company’s track record, that’s a, umm, safe bet.
Turbocharging is a beautiful thing. It adds a big, fat dollop of torque right where you want it most for accelerating onto a highway or passing slower vehicles. With Subaru’s new 2.4-liter 4-cylinder turbo, the 277 lb.-ft. of maximum torque is available from 2,000 to 4,800 rpm, trailing off just as the 260 horsepower is reaching its peak at 5,500 rpm.
Normally, that 2,000-rpm delay up front would result in something called turbo lag. I didn’t really notice it, though, perhaps because the point of a CVT is to continuously vary the transmission’s drive ratio to maximize either efficiency or power.
In the Ascent, Subaru is using a new CVT design for high-torque engines, and it features eight programmed ratios that make acceleration sound and feel more like a traditional automatic transmission. If you want more control over the CVT, paddle shifters provide it, though the resulting gear changes are rather unsatisfying.
Quick acceleration and responsive passing power are hallmarks of the new boxer engine, and it emits a pleasing grumble and vibration, characteristics that I genuinely enjoy.
No matter the driving situation, the CVT drew little attention to itself. In fact, for the first half an hour I was driving the Ascent, I completely forgot it had one. Under hard acceleration, the programmed “shifts” between ratios felt a little soft and slushy instead of sharp and decisive, but otherwise the transmission’s “CVT-ness” was entirely imperceptible.
On the winding roads between Oregon wine country and the coast, the Ascent handled remarkably well. The SUV’s suspension is tuned for compliance and a comfortable ride, and the steering feels too light off-center, but the Ascent’s rigid vehicle architecture, low center of gravity, active torque vectoring, and large 20-inch aluminum wheels lend it plenty of athleticism.
The brake pedal is responsive, easy to modulate, and pleasing to use. I did note a hint of brake fade (and significant brake smell) after a rousing run on a forest road, but neither trait negatively impacted performance.
During an off-roading jaunt at a rock quarry, the combination of X-Mode and 8.7 inches of ground clearance allowed the Ascent to scramble up a rock-strewn hill that you’d never tackle in your own Subaru. Maybe a friend’s, or a rented one, but not your own. At one point, the Ascent got stuck while traversing a berm at an angle, but X-Mode automatically sorted everything out and as long as I stayed on the gas it extracted itself from the situation.
Driven through soft sand on a windblown stretch of Oregon beach, the X-Mode and AWD also performed beautifully, plowing through the soft, dense material without concern that the SUV might get stuck.
Fuel economy averaged 18.1 mpg over 140.7 miles of driving. That is well short of the EPA’s estimate of 22 mpg.
However, you should consider this to be a worst-case scenario. My number reflects numerous full-throttle acceleration runs, lots of idling during photography, travel across hilly countryside, passing of slower vehicles, gunning the engine through sand, and an off-roading excursion. No doubt, Ascent owners will see better results.
By now, you’ve figured out that I like the new 2019 Subaru Ascent. A lot. I wish it had gone on sale last summer instead of this one.
When my wife and I bought a new SUV almost a year ago, we started with the list of IIHS “Top Safety Picks.” After all, the only reason we decided to get rid of our low-mileage, paid-for, still-reliable 2005 Nissan Murano was to have a family car with modern safety engineering and technology.
With that list as a starting point, we needed to find one with all of the latest driver assistance and safety systems, comfortable front seats, a third-row seat, and enjoyable driving dynamics. She would not consider anything that did not offer a tan interior with white or dark blue paint, and I wanted the big fancy wheels. Both of us wanted to buy something assembled in the U.S., and neither of us wanted a rear-seat entertainment system. Finally, cloth seats would be preferable.
It proved impossible to satisfy these requirements. We wound up leasing an Acura MDX with the Technology Package, with which we have a love/hate relationship.
This new Subaru Ascent, though, checks all of the boxes and, in Premium Sporty Package specification, for ten grand less than our Acura (more, actually, since our MDX doesn’t have AWD).
Something tells me Subaru had better start an Indiana plant-expansion project now. The planned 60,000 Ascents per year might not be enough.
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