Test Drive:2019 Subaru Ascent
Since it discontinued the Tribeca midsize 3-row SUV after the 2014 model year, Subaru has lacked a larger vehicle into which it could direct growing families, and attract new ones. That changes with the debut of the 2019 Subaru Ascent.
Styling and Design
Looking much like a larger Outback, the new Ascent’s styling is immediately familiar to Subaru loyalists. Looking not at all like the original Tribeca, the new Ascent’s styling is mainstream enough to attract new customers to Subaru showrooms.
In other words, it’s a success.
Based on the automaker’s new global vehicle architecture, the Ascent shares a platform with the much smaller Crosstrek crossover. Here, though, the underlying vehicle structure is both stretched and strengthened to serve 8-passenger crossover SUV duty.
Purposeful roof rails are standard, and all four of the Ascent’s trim levels (base, Premium, Limited, and Touring) include aluminum wheels in either 18- or 20-in. designs. During a ride-and-drive event held in Oregon, I was able to examine each paint color in natural light, and they’re all appealing. Even Cinnamon Brown Pearl.
Inside, Ascent buyers will choose between black cloth (base trim), tan or black water- and stain-resistant cloth (Premium trim), tan or black leather (Limited trim), and brown leather (the only color for Touring trim). Naturally, the more money you spend, the nicer the cabin’s fittings.
The driver and passengers find comfortable seating in the first two rows. The third-row seat is tight for adults, especially when grown-ups are already sitting on the second-row bench seat or in the available captain’s chairs.
A standard 3-zone automatic climate control system helps to ensure happiness, and the Ascent offers heated front seats, heated rear seats, a heated steering wheel, and ventilated front seats, depending on the trim level.
Storage space is plentiful throughout the cabin, and Subaru supplies a total of 19 cupholders. Cargo volume behind the third-row seat measures 17.6 cu. ft., and a storage bin beneath the floor is large enough to hold the available cargo cover when it is not in use, along with lots of other items.
With the third-row seat folded down, the Ascent provides up to 47.5 cu. ft. of cargo space, while maximum volume behind the front seats measures 86.5 cu. ft. When equipped with the panoramic sunroof, these figures shrink just a little bit.
Features and Controls
You won’t have trouble finding and using the Subaru Ascent’s controls. From the Starlink infotainment system to the driver information system located within the instrumentation, Subaru has refined the user experience to the point that you are unlikely to reference the owner’s manual.
Better yet, there are lots of buttons, knobs, and switches on the Ascent’s dashboard. That minimizes interaction with touch screens while driving, which is always a good thing.
In structuring the Ascent’s trim levels and option packages, Subaru wanted to offer customers as much choice as possible without introducing too much quality-sapping complexity to the SUV’s Indiana assembly line.
Base trim is anything but basic. Color and interior selections are restricted, and you don’t get dark-tinted privacy glass, but even the least expensive version of the Ascent includes all-wheel drive, a touch-screen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, 4 USB ports, important safety technologies, and triple-zone automatic climate control.
Premium trim adds a wider array of paint colors, nicer wheels, upgraded cloth, an 8-way power driver’s seat, heated front seats, a wiper de-icer, larger 8-in. infotainment system screen, a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot, and a blind-spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic and lane-change alerts.
Limited trim installs 20-in. wheels, leather seats, nicer interior materials, upgraded instrumentation, heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, reverse automatic braking, automatic high-beam headlights, power tailgate, keyless access with push-button engine starting, and a PIN code entry system perfect for active lifestyle types.
Touring trim includes everything Subaru offers for the Ascent, outside of dealer-installed accessories. Highlights include exclusive Java Brown leather, woodtone interior trim, ventilated front seats, second-row captain’s chairs, panoramic sunroof, navigation system, Harman Kardon surround-sound system, a 180-degree front camera system, and a “smart” rearview mirror that supplies an unobstructed video feed view of what’s behind the SUV at any given time.
Safety and Technology
Long known for engineering safe vehicles, Subaru bakes crash protection into every car and SUV it builds. In fact, when it debuted its latest global platform under the redesigned 2017 Impreza, the company claimed a 40% improvement in crash energy absorption. And that was compared to a car that already met IIHS “Top Safety Pick+” standards.
For the larger Ascent, this platform employs extra-high-strength steel, necessary for the rigors faced by a midsize SUV with 8-passenger seating and a maximum towing capacity of 5,000 lbs. It also upgrades the SUV’s crashworthiness, and Subaru conducted extensive testing to ensure maximum rear-impact protection for occupants seated in the third-row seat.
Subaru’s EyeSight suite of driver-assistance and collision-avoidance systems is standard in every 2019 Ascent, and now it includes a new Lead Vehicle Alert function. This beeps if traffic ahead of the SUV moves but the Ascent does not, a common occurrence when drivers are busy looking at their smartphones instead of the road ahead. EyeSight also receives a new head-up display that shows warnings and alerts on the windshield to help eliminate distraction.
You’ll need to upgrade to Premium trim to get a blind-spot warning system with lane-change assist and rear cross-traffic alert. Reverse automatic braking is optional for this trim, while the Ascent Limited adds automatic high-beam, steering-responsive LED headlights. Touring trim is required to get front and rear 180-degree-view camera systems.
A free 3-year subscription to Starlink Safety Plus service comes with every new Ascent except the base model. It includes both automatic collision notification and SOS emergency assistance, among other features. A 6-month trial of Starlink Security Plus service adds safe teen driver functions related to speed and curfew alerts, along with additional upgrades.
Both subscriptions are tied into the Ascent’s Starlink infotainment system with a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot and an 8-in. touch-screen display. This is an upgrade over the version in the base Ascent, which features a 6.5-in. display. Both include HD Radio, satellite radio, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto. Navigation and a 14-speaker Harman Kardon surround-sound system are available as upgrades, depending on the trim level.
Because Subaru supplies numerous knobs and buttons with Starlink, interaction with the display screen is minimal. Voice controls help the driver to operate the system in a hands-free manner, but during my testing the results of using voice commands proved disappointing. Just connect your smartphone and use Siri or Google.
A new turbocharged, 2.4-liter boxer-style 4-cylinder engine debuts in the Ascent, generating 260 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 277 lb.-ft. of torque between 2,000 rpm and 4,800 rpm.
The engine is paired to a new, high-torque continuously variable transmission (CVT) with eight programmed ratios and a set of paddle shifters. It feeds the engine’s power to all four of the SUV’s wheels, and the standard all-wheel-drive system is equipped with Subaru’s X-Mode traction and hill-descent control systems.
With 8.7 ins. of ground clearance, the Ascent will go many places its competition simply cannot. And with a lower center of gravity thanks to its horizontally opposed engine design, it handles exceptionally well on pavement.
During my first half an hour behind the Ascent’s steering wheel, driving in the city and on a country highway, I temporarily forgot that it has a CVT. The transmission is that good. Acceleration is lively, too. Subaru quotes a zero-to-60 mph time of 7.4 seconds, though under full throttle the CVT behaves more like one.
Subaru has tuned the Ascent for a smooth, quiet, absorptive ride. But the rigid vehicle architecture, low center of gravity, and active torque-vectoring system collectively provide capable handling. In my opinion, the steering is too light off-center, but the Ascent tracks straight and true when the pavement is. Braking is not an issue, but they did stink after a rousing run down a writhing forest road.
Tackling a rock-strewn hill, the Ascent chugged its way up a path that few typical crossover owners would dare to try, the X-Mode traction system determining which wheel needed what amount of power. A fairly tight turning circle made it easier to point the SUV back down the slope, and the hill-descent control system prevented the Ascent from gathering too much speed while picking its way back down to level ground.
Subaru is not going to have any trouble selling the 60,000 Ascent SUVs that it plans to build at its factory in Indiana. Brand-loyal buyers are going to love it, and because it is absolutely competitive with other midsize 3-row crossover SUVs, people who may never have considered owning a Subaru will be tempted to give it a try.