Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the Subaru Ascent, it is helpful to understand who buys this midsize SUV, and what they like most and least about their vehicles.
Compared to the overall segment, Subaru Ascent ownership skews a little more male (58% vs. 56%) and younger (median age of 52 vs. 56). Ascent owners enjoy a median annual household income of $134,191 (vs. $116,933), and 32% of them identify as Millennials (vs. 23%).
Additional differences with all midsize SUV owners include less agreement that they prefer to buy a vehicle from a domestic company (40% of Ascent owners vs. 56% for the segment). Still, that’s more than a third of the Subaru owners, who may know the SUV is built in Lafayette, Indiana.
Ascent owners are more likely to agree that they will pay extra for a vehicle that is environmentally friendly (64% vs. 52%), which might help to explain why they’re really dissatisfied with the Subaru’s real-world fuel economy.
People who buy the Subaru are also willing to pay extra to ensure their vehicle has the latest safety features (91% vs. 83%), and they’re more likely to agree that they need a vehicle that accommodates a busy lifestyle (92% vs. 87%).
Owners say their favorite things about the Ascent are (in descending order) the driving dynamics, visibility and safety, interior design, exterior styling, and engine/transmission. Owners indicate their least favorite things about the Ascent are (in descending order) the seats, infotainment system, storage and space, climate system, and by huge margin, fuel economy.
In the sections that follow, our expert provides her own perceptions about how the Subaru Ascent measures up in each of the 10 categories that comprise the J.D. Power 2019 Automotive Performance, Execution, and Layout (APEAL) Study.
The 2020 Subaru Ascent conveys a muscular image, with an unnecessarily tall hood and bulbous wheel well flares. It fits in perfectly with other Subarus, though, adhering closely to family design cues. The result is a blandly handsome SUV that neither offends nor excites, and is decorated with gray plastic cladding to express purposeful intent.
I recommend the 20-inch aluminum wheels to balance the Ascent’s proportions. They are optional with Premium trim and standard with Limited and Touring trim.
Subaru did a great job crafting an upscale cabin for the Ascent Touring, with a lovely coffee-toned leather for the seats that contrasts well with the black dashboard and light tan leather trim. Most Ascents offer a panoramic glass sunroof that adds plenty of natural light.
For the most part, materials quality matches the look, with soft padding in the places you’re likely to contact and matte-finish plastics in most of the obvious areas. Nighttime illumination is impressive, with strips of ambient light giving the cabin a warm glow.
The Ascent Touring’s driver’s seat offers 10-way power adjustment, and includes a manual thigh extension for added leg support. While this allowed for a good range of driving positions, the seat cushion is overly firm and more side bolstering is necessary.
With Touring trim, both front seats offer heating and ventilation. The front passenger’s seat lacked a seat height adjuster, though, missed mainly because there isn’t much in the way of leg support for whomever is riding shotgun. The Ascent does, however, offer an uncanny amount of seat track travel, making this Subaru a good choice for tall people.
Touring trim includes second-row captain’s chairs (optional with Premium and Limited trim), which provide good legroom and shoulder space. They also diluted arguments between my kids, who jealously guard their space. Other features like side window sunshades and heated cushions also delighted my girls.
Some people will get the 3-person bench seat to make the most of the Ascent’s passenger capacity (Base, Premium, and Limited trim only), but really, if you plan to use the third row often, we would suggest otherwise.
Know, however, that the Ascent’s third-row seat is suitable only for smaller children. Even adults of shorter stature will find it punitive. I found it difficult to get into and out of, even with second-row captain’s chairs, and my knees were flush against the second-row seat backs, Subaru says that three people can fit in the back, but they’d better be in elementary school.
Climate Control System
The Ascent’s climate control buttons and knobs are in a completely different module from the touchscreen infotainment system, which is preferable to screen integration.
Two knobs govern temperature settings, but the markings on the buttons are small and require a bit of hunting in order to find the functionality you’re searching for. Triple-zone climate control is standard, but you need Premium trim or higher to give rear passengers a control panel on the back of the center console.
Notably, Subaru provides air conditioning vents in the third-row seating area, helping to ensure comfort for everyone.
My Ascent Touring included the top version of Subaru Starlink infotainment. The 8-inch touchscreen offers familiar smartphone-style operations such as swiping and pinch-to-zoom functionality, as well as clean, modern graphics. Buttons provide quick access to main functions and the power/volume and tuning knobs make adjusting the stereo system fairly easy.
If you’d rather use your smartphone, you can always summon Siri, and both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard in every 2020 Ascent. Everyone in the car will be happy to find USB charging ports, even in the third-row seat.
Storage and Space
On the outside, the Ascent isn’t one of the bigger vehicles in its class. Boxy design, however, makes the most of the space inside.
Behind the third-row seat, you’ll find 17.8 cu.-ft. of cargo volume as well as a useful underfloor storage bin to hold groceries or other small items that might otherwise roll around in the cargo area. Fold the third row down using the straps – which isn’t as easy as levers to use – and 47 cu.-ft. of space is at your disposal. Folding both rear rows down will get you 86 cu.-ft., which is on the generous side for a midsize utility vehicle.
Within the cabin there are useful bins in the center console that accommodate your smartphone and other small items, as well as a shallow tray embedded into the dashboard above the glove box. Cupholders aplenty means there are at least two for every potential passenger.
Visibility and Safety
Thick windshield and roof pillars can hamper the outward view, but big side mirrors, clear sightlines over the hood, and the Touring’s 180-degree front and rear camera views aid in terms of visibility.
Subaru considers the whole concept of safety to be one of its core values, so needless to say the company takes it very seriously. Subaru builds the Ascent on its latest global vehicle architecture, engineered to provide exceptional protection in a collision. The result? A Top Safety Pick+ rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
In order to prevent collisions from occurring in the first place, the Ascent has a comprehensive array of active safety items, bundled together in its EyeSight suite of technologies. Every Subaru comes with forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning with lane keeping assist, and adaptive cruise control.
My test vehicle also had a blind spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert, reverse automatic braking and headlamps that swivel as you steer to help the driver to see around dark corners.
And for 2020, Subaru includes a rear seat reminder system in every Ascent. It’s a subtle thing with a subtle ding, but it could possibly prevent you from leaving someone (baby, pet) or something (laptop with presentation) in the back seat before locking up and leaving.
A 2.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine motivates the Ascent with 260 horsepower and 277 lb.-ft. of torque. You can tow up to 5,000-pounds when the SUV is properly equipped, the biggest number for any Subaru. A stepped continuously variable transmission (CVT) with eight programmed “gears” delivers the power to the Ascent’s standard all-wheel-drive system.
When driving this 4,603-lb. vehicle, acceleration feels underwhelming upon throttle tip-in, although the turbo four responds with decent mid-range thrust. Perhaps the CVT can be reprogrammed to make the drivetrain feel livelier off the line, but there’s no denying the current hobgoblin of turbo lag in stop-and-go traffic around town.
Worth noting, people living in the cold, thin air of higher altitudes will enjoy the turbocharged Ascent’s responsiveness compared to normally aspirated competitors.
Fuel economy is cited as the least favored aspect of Ascent ownership, and I discovered first-hand why. The EPA estimates that you should get about 22 mpg in combined driving (20 city/26 hwy), but my average of 18.9 mpg in mixed driving conditions fell disappointingly short of that expectation.
I’ve often found this to be a common shortfall with turbocharged 4-cylinder engines tasked with moving big, heavy vehicles. Six cylinders for family-sized SUVs, please.
Subaru Ascent owners love the way their SUV drives, saying it’s their favorite aspect of the vehicle.
There are many things to love about driving this Subaru, chief among them the standard all-wheel drive system. Equipped with sophisticated upgrades like Active Torque Split power distribution and an X-Mode off-road traction system, in combination with its 8.7 inches of ground clearance a Subaru Ascent will get you further beyond dry pavement than other, more docile crossovers.
It’s enhanced traction, brake-based torque vectoring system, and low center of gravity thanks to the engine’s boxer-style arrangement, pay dividends on the asphalt, too, providing greater stability when turning into corners.
During the daily drive, however, the suspension feels harsh over bumps and exhibits wallow over rises and dips. The steering, while nicely weighted, lacks feel and precision, and the brake pedal felt mushy under my foot. Plenty of road noise made its way into the cabin at freeway speeds, too.
My impression of the Ascent’s driving dynamics diverges from what owners tell J.D. Power. In my opinion, the Ascent lacks the scrappy, spirited character that Subarus exhibited for decades, and which now exists only in the company’s WRX models. Ultimately, the company must satisfy its customers, and the Ascent’s ride and handling qualities, not to mention it’s off-road capabilities, clearly do that.
But I feel like something is missing from this recipe. Perhaps Subaru thinks that it and its customers have grown up, and that its vehicles should too. I disagree.