Everyone agrees the 2019 Subaru Ascent is a better-executed three-row crossover than the company's first attempt, the B9 Tribeca. But in order for the Ascent to, um, ascend to the top of the modern midsize CUV class, it needs to be more than just a better version of its forebear.
Thankfully, there's a whole lot to like about the new Ascent. This isn't just a better Tribeca; the Ascent is a pleasant and practical package, and a more appealing three-row SUV than many of its key rivals.
Despite sharing its architecture with the compact Impreza, the Ascent is Subaru's largest vehicle to date. It has a big presence on the road, with its large headlamps, prominent grille, expansive glass area and chunky roof rails. The Ascent isn't exactly pretty (what Subaru is?) but the puffed-up-Forester aesthetic works here. It looks like what you might imagine if you closed your eyes and visualized "three-row Subaru."
Base Ascents ride on smaller 18-inch wheels, but 20-inch rollers are available on the Premium trim, and standard on the Limited (pictured) and Touring models. Steering-responsive LED headlights, as well as foglights, are also reserved exclusively for Limited and Touring trims.
Step inside, and the Ascent greets you with an open, airy cabin, trimmed in leather here on my Limited test car. The overall interior design isn't anything to write home about, with its relatively straightforward placement of vehicle controls and a center stack devoid of excess buttonry. But that also means it's supereasy to use -- get in the Ascent for the first time and you won't have to hunt for various vehicle functions. And don't forget: 19 cup holders.
Second- and third-row accommodations are about par for the course. Second-row head- and legroom measures out to 40 and 38.6 inches respectively; these numbers are nearly identical to those of competitors like the Chevrolet Traverse, Ford Explorer and Honda Pilot. Third-row numbers, meanwhile, are on the smaller side of the pack. The Ascent offers 36.3 inches of rearmost headroom and 31.7 inches legroom, compared with 37.8/33.3 in the Explorer and 38.2/33.5 in the Traverse.
That said, the third row is supereasy to access. A prominent lever tilts and slides the second-row seats forward, and a slightly raised portion of the side sill acts as a step for easier ingress. Second-row captain's chairs are available on Premium and Limited models as standard on the Touring, with a pass-through between the seats for minivan-style third-row access, if you prefer seating for seven instead of eight.
As for cargo space, the Ascent is certainly capacious, and falls on the higher end of mid-pack. You've got 17.8 cubic feet behind the third row, 47.5 behind the second row and 86.5 with all seats folded. The Ascent has greater maximum capacity than the Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander, but falls short of the larger Chevy Traverse.
The Ascent might not be the biggest in any one regard, but at no point during a week of people-carrying were there complaints about lack of space. The front and second rows offer comfortable, supportive seats, and the third row isn't so cramped that children would consider it a penalty box. Limited and Touring models even offer a pair of USB outlets for way-back riders.
Subaru's Starlink system handles onboard infotainment duties; base models use a 6.5-inch touchscreen while Premium, Limited and Touring trims get a larger 8.0-inch display with built in Wi-Fi connectivity. Factory navigation is only standard on the top-level Touring, though it's optional on any Ascent model equipped with the larger screen.
The interface itself is pretty straightforward. Large, colorful icons are neatly organized on the home screen, with redundant physical buttons for these key functions housed just below the display on the center stack. Navigating the various menus and submenus is also easy, though I noticed occasional lag in response times.
If you'd prefer to let your smartphone do the infotainment heavy lifting, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard on every single Ascent, regardless of screen size. However, if you require attention-grabbing rear-seat entertainment to keep your brood busy, you'll have to look elsewhere.
The Ascent introduces a brand-new 2.4-liter turbocharged flat-4 engine to the Subaru stable. With 260 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque, this engine's output is comparable to the turbo-4 and naturally aspirated V6 offerings in competitive vehicles, as are its fuel economy ratings of 21 miles per gallon city, 27 mpg highway and 23 mpg combined. That's with all-wheel drive, of course, which in typical Subaru fashion, is standard across the board.
A continuously variable transmission keeps the engine planted in its power band, relaxing to lower revs while cruising for maximum efficiency. Built-in "shift points" can be operated via steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters, but really, don't bother. The transmission's "shift" motions are occasionally abrupt during hard acceleration, but most of the time, it's smooth and refined. Quiet, too -- the Ascent has some of the lowest levels of powertrain noise, vibration and harshness I've experienced in any Subaru, ever.
While the Ascent may be competently average in most of the aforementioned areas, it's actually one of the better-driving vehicles in this segment. It's not the enthusiast's choice, mind you -- that crown still goes to the Mazda CX-9 -- but on the canyon roads leading up to my usual photo shoot location, the Ascent exhibited less body roll and more responsive steering than many of its classmates.
None of that comes at the expense of general ride comfort for city and highway commuting, either. The Ascent is a crossover you could happily and effortlessly drive for hundreds of miles at a time, with a compliant suspension that doesn't crash over broken pavement, even on upmarket 20-inch wheels. Great outward visibility and a commanding seating position go a long way toward making the Ascent easy to drive day to day, too.
Subaru's EyeSight suite of active driving aids offers additional peace of mind on the road. EyeSight bundles adaptive cruise control, precollision braking, lane departure warning and lane-keep assist, and is standard on every single Ascent. Blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, meanwhile, are standard on all but the base model. If you want a 180-degree front-view camera in addition to the backup display, you'll need to opt for the Touring.
Ascent pricing ranges anywhere from $31,995 for the base model to $44,695 for the Touring. The volume Premium and Limited models start at $34,195 and $38,995, respectively. None of these prices includes Subaru's $975 destination charge.
The Limited looks to be the sweet spot for me, mostly because of its standard LED lights, 20-inch wheels, power seats, heated front and second-row leather seats, heated steering wheel, power liftgate and 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system. From there I'd add seven-passenger seating (a no-cost option), and I might consider adding the $2,950 technology package, mostly for its upgraded Harman Kardon audio system and panoramic sunroof. If so, I'm looking at $42,920 out the door.
For comparison, a similarly equipped 2018 Honda Pilot Touring with all-wheel drive comes in at $44,865, but it also features a rear-seat entertainment system. Ascent pricing is pretty evenly matched with other three-row competitors, as well.
Competent as it might be, arguably the Ascent's biggest selling point has nothing to do with any of its specific attributes. Rather, it's that it says "Subaru" on the back.
Subaru customers are fiercely loyal, and largely satisfied with their purchases. Kelley Blue Book has named the automaker its most trusted brand for four years running, and Subaru has enjoyed 79 straight months of sales growth. For folks looking to size up from a Forester or an Outback, the Ascent is a natural progression. And for buyers who've always coveted the Subaru brand but need three-row, midsize SUV utility, the Ascent is as competitive as any other vehicle in its class.
Either way, the Ascent is the right vehicle at the right time -- a nicely equipped SUV that's enjoyable to drive and offers plenty of space. For Subaru loyalists and midsize SUV shoppers alike, the Ascent offers a very well-rounded package.