I WAS OPENLY hostile to the idea of Subaru building an extra-large family SUV, now called the Ascent. Of course there were sales to be had and profits to be made, but where does it end? Finally, Senator Subaru, have you no shame?
At the macro level, the Subaru brand has always been pitched as resisting mainstream mentalities—a lighter touch, a smarter choice, generally cooler, definitely younger. The Ascent ($31,995 base MSRP, $42,920, as tested) is none of those things. At a glance it appears just the latest in an endless stream of three-row SUVs cashing in on the trend.
But that is what makes Ascent so subversive. It only looks like a Buick. Underneath it’s a Subaru.
It didn’t have to be. Subaru could have farmed out its American three-row SUV project to any number of large-animal breeders with assets in the Midwest, including Toyota, Honda or Ford. It could have been a joint venture/badge job, like the Subaru BRZ and Toyota 86. There was a business case. All the recent crop of mid-sized to large SUVs are pretty much the same—built to the penny, drive like a bus, ugly as sin. Ford, Toyota, Nissan. They all sell pretty well. People don’t seem to care what badge you slap on the nose.
Instead, Subaru chose to build the Ascent itself in the Land of the Rising Sun, Lafayette, Ind. And in an interesting way, too: by putting a jumbo body on the company’s inimitable small-car mechanicals. Turn on your X-ray specs, look beyond the bad-haircut styling, and you will see, way down deep, Subaru’s faithful 2.4-liter turbocharged flat-four engine, a CVT transmission and Subie’s all-wheel drive hardware (“Symmetrical” AWD by virtue of a 50/50 mechanical torque split). Also known as the franchise.
I don’t want to get bogged down in the details, but for a host of reasons Subaru’s AWD architecture is the best of its kind, functionally superior to on-demand all-wheel drive systems, also known as slip-and-grip systems. Such systems are strongly front-biased and often pretty weak on snow and ice surfaces, especially starting off, especially on an incline. A slick patch under a front and rear wheel can immobilize cars so equipped.
Subaru’s AWD is always splitting torque front/rear, unless conditions call for more. A multi-plate clutchpack—not a power-sapping viscous coupling—moves the torque for and aft, deftly and quickly. The new, computer-enhanced version of Symmetrical AWD is even more sure-footed (though it isn’t symmetrical anymore).
‘The Subaru Ascent is bluntly, unapologetically humongous.’
Many Subaru owners will never draw on their cars’ broader capacities. They could certainly get along with a less able system. But it’s also worth noting the through-line between the brand’s save-the-day robustness and emotional indexes such as being among the highest in owner loyalty and highest residual value of any mass-market brand. Subaru’s sales in the Snow Belt and Canada testify, say Amen.
So the Ascent brings these considerable competitive advantages to the full-size SUV segment, along with its 8.7-inch ground clearance and a grille shaped like an Apple power port. The question is, can it get out of its own way? There is a reason why so many key competitors retain V6 engines. Is it reasonable to expect the Subie’s smallish turbo four to push around the Ascent’s big square butt?
But horsepower and torque are agnostic. These elements care not where they come from as long as they arrive in sufficient numbers. The Ascent’s turbo’d and direct-injected flat four pulls like a hero: 260 hp at 5,600 rpm and class-leading 277 lb-ft between 2,000-4,800 rpm, a nice fat torque band. The Ascent hurls its uninteresting shape to 60 mph in under 8 seconds (the CVT transmission simulates upshifts of conventional automatic, which is weird but harmless, I guess).
With the trailering package the Ascent is rated for up to 5,000 pounds towing so you can bring along your liberal guilt.
Go ahead, try to explain to Summer in the Whole Foods parking lot why you’re driving a zeppelin. The Ascent is bluntly and unapologetically humongous: 196.8 inches nose to tail, 76 inches wide and 71.6 inches tall, including roof rails. Its total interior volume is a whopping 153.5 cubic feet, offering seven- or eight-person seating options, and up to 86 cubic feet of cargo capacity behind the first-row seats. If it helps with Summer, the Ascent’s fuel economy is among the best in class, up to 27 mpg on the EPA’s highway.
Beyond the running gear, the Ascent is among the most cunning efforts to separate parents from their wallets I’ve seen in a long time. It’s like one big rolling focus group. There are cubbies and USB ports and cupholders galore, 19 in all. Standard equipment includes the EyeSight Driver Assist Technology package with lane-departure warning and forward collision/emergency braking. There are four trim levels; the tester was a Limited, with the optional multimedia navigation, Harman Kardon audio, and panoramic moonroof, for $42,920.
The value sweet spot seems to be the Premium ($34,195, before options) with the multimedia touch screen, Wi-Fi and heated front seats. Buyers have the option of the second-row captain’s chairs. My wife and I call them princess pedestals.
There it is, the best family SUV in its class. You can’t say Subaru didn’t learn a thing or two.
2019 Subaru Ascent Limited
- Base Price $38,995
- Price, as Tested $42,920
- Powertrain Turbocharged direct-injection 2.4-liter flat four with variable valve timing; continuously variable transmission; permanent all-wheel drive
- Power/Torque 260 hp 5,600 rpm/277 lb-ft @ 2,000-4,800 rpm
- Length/Width/Height/Wheelbase 196.8/76.0/71.6/113.8 inches
- Ground Clearance 8.7 inches
- Curb Weight 4,499 pounds
- 0-60 mph Less than 8 seconds
- EPA Fuel Economy 20/26 mpg, city/highway
- Cargo Capacity 17.6/47.5/86.5 cubic feet (behind 3rd/2nd/1st row)