2019 Subaru Ascent First Drive - Can You Hear Me Now?

Matthew Guy
by Matthew Guy

The three-row crossover field is a crowded arena. Gearheads like us can rhyme off verbatim the critical differences between models. But the Average Joe or Josephine who’s simply trying to buy a machine that’ll ferry the brood? For many of them, it’s like trying to pick their favorite trumpeter out of a college brass band with 50 players.

Subaru’s killer app is, natch, the standard inclusion of all-wheel drive. Will mountain goat levels of traction, a quirky ad campaign, and 19 cupholders be enough to let it play the loudest in a noisy segment?

Subaru was upfront about lessons they learned during its last foray into the three-row market, having binned the B9 Tribeca in 2014 (the B9 part was actually tossed years before that).

National Manager of Product Communications, the convivial Dominick Infante, said in the Thursday morning product brief, “We didn’t get it right the first time.” That’s about as direct a statement one can ever hope to hear from an OEM and it’s damned refreshing to hear such straight talk. Subie showrooms have been without a seven-passenger option for five long model years, at the height of consumer demand for such machines, no less.

The brand knows this. When crafting the Ascent, they targeted two distinct – but similar – set of customers. One target is current Subaru owners who have nowhere to go when their clan outgrows an Outback or Forester. Many of these people are growing out of the brand and going elsewhere, explained Infante, and Ascent is intended to prevent the child-raising generation from leaving the Subaru family, capturing existing customers who are exiting for other three-row crossovers and SUVs. Conquest buyers are the other target.

Looking at the trucklet, it’s every inch a Subaru. Nearly 197 of them, in fact, making it over a foot longer than the Forester and the longest Scooby ever to roll out of the factory. Its exterior style is familiar and shares a great deal of language with the rest of its showroom cousins. Black cladding resides over the wheel arches to give Ascent the appearance of having more height than it actually does.

Not that it needs it. Ground clearance is measured at 8.7-inches, 1.7 more than a Pathfinder and 0.4 more than an Explorer. This is the third machine to be built on the Subaru Global Platform, following the 2017 Impreza and 2018 Crosstrek. Said to increase structural rigidity by 70-100 percent, the SGP is designed to lower the center of gravity. The all-wheel drive, 4,600-pound Ascent didn’t complain while being threaded over twisty Oregon logging roads. If toddlers upchuck all over the interior, it likely won’t be because they’re carsick. The engine is mounted low for center-of-gravity and crash protection reasons, too.

Speaking of under the hood, customers peeking at the drivetrain will find a sole engine choice: a turbocharged 2.4-liter direct-injected boxer four.

*record scratch* Wait, what?

Despite targeting the Pilot, Pathfinder, Explorer, et al during development (all of which are available with a six – some only with a six), the company formerly known as Fuji Heavy Industries is imbuing the biggest passenger vehicle they’ve ever made with a four-cylinder engine. At first blush, this seems like a mistake, especially with a tasty 3.6-liter boxer six in the corporate cupboard.

That is, until you drive it. This engine, despite its lack of cylinders and displacement, actually makes more horsepower and torque than the 3.6-liter. Rated at 260 hp and 277 lb-ft, the four out-torques its larger stablemate by 30 lb-ft and out-twists all the above mentioned competitors save for the EcoBoosted Fords. The challenge for sales staff at Subaru dealers will be getting conquest buyers behind the wheel. If they can do that, the engine will speak for itself. While many boxers run on adrenaline, this one runs on regular unleaded. Bank on fuel economy in the mid-twenties.

The turbo’s intercooler sits atop the engine and is fed cold air via a large scoop that inhales atmosphere from the front grille. Ten minutes and a Sawzall would provide a natty functional hood scoop in the visage of old Outbacks or the previous Forester XT. I mentioned this to Kazuhito Ozora, Subaru’s Deputy GM of Total Vehicle Performance, who became extremely animated and carried on a great conversation with me, waxing about scoops on WRXs and STIs as we poked around the Ascent’s engine bay. Alas, no scoop is planned for Ascent, as it doesn’t fit the image it’s currently trying to project. I’ll hold out hope for the future.

Subaru had examples from three of the four model trims available to sample, ranging from the $34,195 Premium to the $44,695 Touring. That extra 10 grand buys a panoramic moonroof, leather chairs, front-view camera, and a few other goodies. Stepping back to the $31,995 base Ascent will further give up heated power seats and a power liftgate.

Still, the Ace of Base model acquits itself very well with tri-zone climate control, air vents for all three rows, and enough USB ports to keep all hands charged up including a brace of 2.1A quick-chargers up front. Subaru’s trick EyeSight suite of safety nannies is standard equipment on every Ascent and, in a typically practical Subaru manner, houses all its forward-facing cameras inside the car where they’re unlikely to be hampered by road debris. So mounted, a minor fender-bender won’t break the expensive driver-assist equipment, either.

It would be my pick of the litter, except popping for the Premium endows the Ascent with a 5,000 lb towing capacity courtesy of oil and transmission coolers that are absent on the base car. Hooked to a 4,200 lb Airstream camper, the Subaru rolled through a parking lot slalom at 25 mph without complaint. The receiver hitch is hidden behind a plastic panel on the rear bumper and has all the kit for burly safety chains like on my full-sized truck at home. No weight distribution bars were fitted.

One towing oddity was the trailer brake controller, a dealer-installed unit that’s tucked away under the dash and not accessible without removing the fusebox cover. Doing so is the only way to adjust the electric trailer brake gain and would quickly become a chore. A dash-mounted integrated controller would go a long way to helping Subaru further stand out in the crowded three-row segment.

In a nod to affordability, the leatherless Premium model is available with either a second-row bench or captain’s chairs, proving that Subaru doesn’t make you move too far up its food chain to find options generally reserved for top trims. Those middle captain’s chairs have a delicious function-over-form grab handle protruding from the inboard seatbacks, designed so little hands can easily haul the second-row chairs back into place after clambering astern. A power-fold feature for the third-row would be nice but is unfortunately AWOL.

Practical touches such as that second-row seat pull continue throughout the cabin, such as the door sills which have a wonderfully large ledge on which to rest an arm. A deep and functional dash pockets is carved vertically in front of the passenger, perfect for accepting a smartphone or bags of granola or whatever else it is that Subaru owners enjoy. The fuel door pops open with a push instead of using a traditional floor-mounted pull latch but then locks when the passenger doors are locked. Practicality, thy name is Subaru.

Subaru cars finished on the podium in no fewer than four categories this year in Kelly Blue Book’s Best Resale Value Awards, winning the Compact and Sporty Compact classes while earning silver in the compact crossover and mid-size sedan categories. Subaru buyers, a group notoriously long on pragmatism, will count this in their buying decisions. Smart conquest buyers will surely take note, too.

Suits in the corner office are targeting sales of 700,000 units this year, roughly 52k more than last year. Given successes with other models (Crosstrek is up 70 percent, year over year, at this point) and new volume from the three-row Ascent, I believe they will achieve this goal. Hold me to that statement at the end of the year.

If they pull it off, you’ll have no trouble picking out Subaru’s trumpet from the rest of the band.

[Images: Matthew Guy/The Truth About Cars, Subaru]

Matthew Guy
Matthew Guy

Matthew buys, sells, fixes, & races cars. As a human index of auto & auction knowledge, he is fond of making money and offering loud opinions.

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  • Big Al from Oz Big Al from Oz on May 22, 2018

    Good move by Subaru. Even with it's generic soft roader (car) looks (it's not a truck, nowhere's near a truck ……… only in America) it's inoffensive. I like the fact that the grille isn't some Chinese inspired design like the direction Toyota/Lexus are moving in. The engine will more than suffice, with the power and torque it would tow 6 000lbs, not much different than a Grand Cherokee. Being Subaru it should give many years of service as well.

    • Gtem Gtem on May 22, 2018

      "The engine will more than suffice, with the power and torque it would tow 6 000lbs, not much different than a Grand Cherokee. Being Subaru it should give many years of service as well." Not towing 6000lbs it won't :p I'm as excited as anyone for this car, but man that CVT with 4500lb+lots of torque to pull around is not a long term bet I'd be willing to take. The ebautiful thing about Subies though is you can drive one for 5-6 years then sell it and not get killed in depreciation without dealing with any Subie issues, be it traditional weak points from a decade ago or whatever new pattern failure may emerge from these CVT/DI/turbo wonders.

  • Spyked Spyked on May 22, 2018

    I'm sure they will sell, but I wouldn't count on it selling as well as people think. Subaru buyers are often people that LOVE the Outback precisely because it's a "wagon" and not an SUV. To many, there is shame and stigma with SUVs. Anyway, if you are into SUVs and like a turbo 4 in a large SUV, why not go Mazda CX-9? Looks expensive, drives great. If you insist on blocky styling, why not cheaper NA 6 Atlas? Or just get the Highlander Hybrid? This Ascent is not offering anything more than what's already out there, and I see some Subaru owners looking down at it. They'd be "sell-outs" if they bought this thing. Might as well get a Sienna AWD!

    • Gtem Gtem on May 23, 2018

      "Subaru buyers are often people that LOVE the Outback precisely because it’s a “wagon” and not an SUV" Ehh that was the core fanatics that already moved on once the '10 "CUV-ified" Outback came out. Subaru was getting killed by not providing something larger for families that outgrew their Outbacks to move into, Pilots and Highlanders were I'm guessing where many migrated to, either that or minivans (like the Sienna AWD you mention). I think you're honed in on the vain subset of Subaru owners of which I'm sure there are some, but the brand is growing in leaps and bounds by drawing in truly pragmatic people that are buying for the value for money and utility of the brand. Said people want Subarus of all sizes, up to and including a three row crossover and as I've outlined below I think an argument could be made for a Subaru minivan.

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