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First drive: 2019 Subaru Ascent [Video review]

by Drew Johnson
2019 Subaru Ascent review - image 1

Subaru is hoping to attract young families with its three-row Ascent.

Subaru's U.S. sales have been booming over the last few years, but the company's internal data shows that the company has been missing out on sales to one key demographic — families with kids.

That stat shouldn't come as a huge surprise since Subaru hasn't offered a family friendly three-row utility vehicle since it pulled the plug on the ill fated Tribeca in 2014. But Subaru is finally ready to fill that hole in its lineup with the all-new Ascent three-row SUV, which boasts seating for up to eight and no fewer than 19 cup holders. But will it simply be a case of ‘if you build it, they will come' for the new Ascent? Come with us as we find out.

What is it?
Although classified as a mid-size SUV, the Ascent is sized more like a full-size utility vehicle. At 196.8 inches in length, the Ascent fits right in the middle of the family utility segment that includes the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander and Ford Explorer. Impressively, the Ascent's jumbo body rides on the same general architecture that underpins the Impreza compact.

The Ascent is available in four different trim levels: base, Premium, Limited and Touring. The base Ascent gets some good technologies as standard, but misses out on others. All Ascent models come standard with Subaru's EyeSight safety suite -- which includes adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist and emergency braking -- but only Premium and above models get standard blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic detection and an 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system (the base trim uses a 7-inch touchscreen). The base Ascent is also stuck with a second-row bench while all other trims can be had with captain's chairs as a no-cost option (Touring models can only be had with captain's chairs).

Regardless of trim the Ascent is powered by a 2.4L turbocharged boxer four-cylinder engine rated at 260 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of torque. Although the Ascent's horsepower rating may not be class-leading, its torque rating is only outclassed by the EcoBoost-powered Ford Explorer. A CVT is the only transmission available and the Ascent comes standard with the same kind of torque-vectoring all-wheel drive system Subaru uses in the WRX STI.

The Ascent is actually a fairly heavy vehicle — with curb weights ranging from 4,400 pounds to more than 4,600 pounds — but it's still pretty peppy. Subaru says the Ascent will do 0-60 in 7.4 seconds, which is near the head of its class. Despite that kind of performance, the Ascent is also near the top of the segment in terms of fuel economy. The base model equipped with 18-inch wheels is rated at 21mpg in the city and 27mpg on the highway, while upper-end models — which are saddled with heavier equipment and larger 20-inch wheels — are rated at 20/26mpg city/highway.

How does it look?
To put it bluntly, the Ascent's predecessor — the previously mentioned Tribeca — wasn't a very good looking vehicle. Thankfully, that's not something we can say about the Ascent. Its styling is mostly derived from other vehicles in the Subaru lineup, like the Outback and Forester. And that familiar styling actually makes the Ascent seem like a smaller vehicle — when you see an Ascent in person, your brain subconsciously categorizes it as a vehicle closer in size to the Outback.

And those Outback-like looks should please a wide range of shoppers, from Subaru loyalists to newcomers to the brand. The jump from an Outback to an Ascent shouldn't be all that jarring to a current Subaru owner thanks to that family resemblance, and the Ascent is a stylish vehicle in its own right that should appeal to the average new car buyer.

Inside the Ascent
Inside the story is much the same. The Ascent's cabin is classic Subaru — style is admittedly on the conservative side, but all controls are easy-to-use and logically arranged.

The vast majority of Ascents sold will come equipped with Subaru's latest 8-inch touchscreen infotainment system, which runs both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The 8-inch system offers good resolution and is also quick to respond to inputs. And best of all, Subaru has included some hard buttons for the infotainment system in the middle of the center stack.

Climate controls are just below and consist of big buttons and chunky dials — these are the kind of controls you'll be able to use on a cold winter's day when you're wearing gloves. The front of the center console houses controls for the Ascent's X-Mode off-road mode and automatic vehicle hold; the shift lever and electronic parking brake sit just behind. The Ascent's gauge cluster includes a couple of clear analog dials and color multi-information display.

Materials in the Ascent are interesting no matter the trim. Lower-spec models get cool-looking stain resistant cloth upholstery and unique accents on the dash that almost looks like ivory carbon fiber. If you opt for the luxury-oriented Touring, materials improve to stitched leather and dark wood accents.

The Ascent's front seats proved to be extremely comfortable during our day-long drive, no doubt helped by the ventilated seats fitted to our Touring test car. Front-seat head and leg-room is excellent.

The Ascent's second-row is surprisingly spacious. There's miles of legroom and even though our test car had a headroom-zapping panoramic sunroof, we still had a good four or five inches of space above our noggins. Although we didn't spend a lot of time in the Ascent's second row, the optional contoured captain's chairs felt comfier than the standard flat bench during our lightning round evaluation. It's also easier to access the third row with the walkway provided by the captain's chairs, but it's a simple process to fold and slide forward either seat configuration.

Third-row space is just OK with decent legroom but cramped headroom. The third row backrest does tilt, which give you a bit more headroom, but it's still on the tight side for adults around the six-foot mark. It's probably best to leave the way-back to the kids.

Third-row passengers do get a few perks, however. The Ascent can be optioned with mobile Wi-Fi and up to eight USB ports, two of which are located in the third row. There's also five cup holders back there, and Subaru even included a pair of bullet train-inspired grab handles mounted to the second-row seat (those horn looking things) to make getting out a little easier.

Like most three-row utility vehicles, space behind the Ascent's third row is limited, and the carryover height is on the high side. However, the upside of that high load floor is there's room for a below-floor cubby that's big enough to stow the Ascents cargo cover, which typically just gets thrown in the basement and forgotten about. Manually folding the third row is a cinch and reveals an expansive cargo area.

The WRX of three-rows
Three-row crossovers aren't exactly known for their driving dynamics, but the Ascent breaks that mold. Not only is the Ascent a quiet and comfortable cruiser, it's also decent in the twisties. Obviously a vehicle weighing 4,600 pounds isn't going to feel like a sports car, but the Ascent is remarkably sharp. Thanks to its boxer engine — which sits lower than a traditional V-configuration engine — the Ascent has a low center of gravity, which prevents excessive rolling through corners. The Ascent just feels planted at all speeds. And that WRX STI-derived torque vectoring system combined with direct steering helps the Ascent zip through corners without any fuss. It's a cliche saying, but the Ascent really does drive smaller than it actually is.

The Ascent is also well behaved on the highway thanks to its standard adaptive cruise control and lane keep assist, both of which help to cut down on driver fatigue. Those systems worked as advertised during our test drive and proved to be a reassuring safety net.

Pricing for the 2019 Subaru Ascent starts at $31,995 and stretches to $44,695 for a fully-loaded Touring model. Those prices place the Ascent squarely in the heart of the three-row segment. And depending on model, the Ascent actually has some good value compared to the competition.

Leftlane's bottom line
With the 2019 Ascent, Subaru has plugged the largest hole in its lineup and then some. The Ascent isn't just some three-row that Subaru rushed to market just to get a piece of the sizzling SUV market. The Ascent is a really well thought out vehicle that's also incredibly nice to drive. Subaru built it and they will come, now it's just a question of if Subaru will be able to keep up with Ascent demand.

2019 Subaru Ascent base price, $31,995. As tested, $44,695. Prices exclude $975 delivery charge.

Photos by Drew Johnson.