By on October 22, 2018

2019 Subaru Ascent duo - Image: Subaru Operating in a higher price spectrum and with Subaru’s typically tight grip on the incentive account, there’s no telling what the new Ascent is doing for Subaru’s bottom line. But as Subaru conservatively predicted, the Ascent isn’t generating much in the way of greater sales activity inside Subaru showrooms.

Instead, the Ascent is growing Subaru’s volume by the leanest of margins, in part because it’s by no means a segment leader in sales; partly because nearly all of Subaru’s other models are suffering significant sales slowdowns.

Fortunately for Subaru, the Ascent is now selling at the approximate pace Subaru had forecasted. But it appears to be doing so at the expense of other Subarus.

2019 Subaru AScent Limited white - Image: SubaruFor at least two reasons, this isn’t a poor outcome. First, Subaru expected it and evidently planned for such a development. Second, Subaru needed a vehicle that kept loyal Subaru owners from leaving the brand when the Outback and Forester were deemed to be undersized.

The Ascent has plugged that hole.

It has not, however, slowed the momentum of top-tier rivals. Prime competitors such as the Toyota Highlander and Honda Pilot are both growing at rapid rates in 2018. In a challenging market made more competitive by the addition of the Ascent (and Volkswagen Atlas), sales of that duo are up 24 percent through the first nine months of 2018. As if to clarify the extent to which the Ascent is making no dent in their demand, both of these top-selling, Japanese, American-made, three-row utility vehicles are on track for record annual sales in the United States.2018 Subaru Outback grey - Image: SubaruInstead of stealing large quantities of sales from rivals’ large crossovers, the Ascent is making hay off of existing Subaru demand. After going on sale in June, the first full three months of availability produced 14,683 Ascent sales in America (and 16,580 in total to date.) Q3 sales of the Outback, meanwhile, fell 13 percent, while Forester sales were down 3 percent during the same period. Those two crossovers combined for an 8,650-unit decline in the third quarter, negating much of the Ascent’s additional volume.

Although it appears as though the Ascent is distracting Subaru’s existing shoppers, it remains a small player, not just in terms of its place in its segment but also its position in the Subaru lineup. In September, for example, the Forester, Outback, and Crosstrek were all easily twice as popular. The Ascent produced 10 percent of Subaru’s September volume in the new SUV’s best month yet, less than the Impreza but more than the Legacy’s 6-percent slice of the pie.2019 Subaru Forester green - Image: Subaru

Likewise, the Ascent doesn’t generate nearly the volume of high-volume competitors. In September, Ford’s Explorer outsold the Ascent by more than three-to-one, the Honda Pilot outsold the Ascent by nearly 10,000 units, and the Toyota Highlander generated nearly quadruple the Ascent’s volume. Even the struggling and outdated Nissan Pathfinder, down 19 percent so far this year, outsold the Ascent, as did the Dodge Durango, Kia Sorento, and Chevrolet Traverse.

The Ascent has nevertheless reached the rate of sales Subaru anticipated, and it did so quickly. Subaru was seeking 60,000 annual U.S. sales, we reported in April 2017, or 5,000 per month. Subaru sold 4,589 Ascents in July, 4,235 in August, and 5,859 in September. Non-Ascent volume at Subaru of America was down 5 percent in Q3.

But one gets the impression, whether it’s based on 82 consecutive months of year-over-year growth or a market share improvement from 1.2 percent in 2007 to 3.8 percent in 2017, that the Ascent hasn’t plateaued yet. Though it may not be true now, Subaru’s recent history suggests it won’t be long before the Ascent is stealing plenty of sales from its high-volume competition.

[Images: Subaru]

Timothy Cain is a contributing analyst at The Truth About Cars and Driving.ca and the founder and former editor of GoodCarBadCar.net. Follow on Twitter @timcaincars and Instagram.

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62 Comments on “The Subaru Ascent Is Doing Just What Subaru Expected: Cannibalizing...”


  • avatar
    bkrell

    We cross shopped the Ascent when we got our Atlas. The Ascent is a competitive car if you dont actually need the third row.

    • 0 avatar
      Pete Zaitcev

      I know a guy who bought Atlas, then turned it in in less than a month in order to replace it with a Highlander. I asked him what he was thinking, he said mistakes were made. The Volkswagon’s assembly quality and sleek showmanship swayed his wife and him. He claims that he only lost $3,000 on this transaction.

  • avatar
    theBrandler

    I don’t really understand these vehicles. I have 4 kids, and a minivan is really the only thing that works. Have you tried getting into the back of a crossover? It’s not easy. Add carseats into the mix and it’s damn near impossible unless your a contortionist.

    All that is to say, what is the point of these things having 3 rows if the back row is nearly useless? You can’t put adults back there, and getting kids back there is hard, and if you have little kids it’s nearly impossible. So why do people want 3 row SUVs?

    • 0 avatar
      gtem

      I think most people are buying 3 row crossovers because they offer that third row in a pinch- for the few times the inlaws are over and its’ easier to take one car to dinner, but most of the time that rear row is folded and you end up with a vehicle with an appreciable amount more cargo room (and power and refinement) than the compact CUV class, and something not quite “mini”-van sized in terms of length and general appearance which is off-putting to many.

      We very briefly considered test driving an Ascent for our first family vehicle just because my wife really likes the Outback, but very quickly decided that there was a lot more utility and bang-for-the-buck in a minivan. I’ve honed in on 2nd gen Siennas as hitting all the right notes in a cheaper used van, or a Pacifica if we decide to splurge on something newer.

      • 0 avatar
        Johnster

        Actually, lots of people are buying 3 row crossovers in spite of the third row seat. They’re buying them because of the size of the vehicle and they never use the third row seat. If the the third row seat were an option, they would probably buy the vehicle without the third row seat.

        Supposedly, Chevy recently made the third row seat optional in the Tahoe as a way to keep the price down. It will be interesting to see how that works out.

    • 0 avatar
      PrincipalDan

      1. Momma won’t drive a minivan.
      2. You don’t feel right without the security of an “occasional use third-row” – example see the business case for adding a 3rd row to the Lexus RX.

      It would be interesting to me to see the stats of what percentage of owners of 3 row CUVs use the third row on a regular basis (as opposed to SUVs like the Expedition, Tahoe, Suburban etc or the owners of honest to goodness minivans).

      I own my first 3 row CUV and plan on going away from that feature in my next purchase. The only thing it has ever gotten me is volunteered to drive in carpooling type situations.

    • 0 avatar
      DenverMike

      Pull out the rear seats and it’s a 2+2+Cargo. It’s no different than 2nd row “seats” on extended cab, midsize pickups. Some of them offer a rear seat “delete” option.

    • 0 avatar
      Sigivald

      People who need occasional seating in the back want mid-size or compact[ish] 3-row SUVs.

      People who want to pile adults or teens in the back want full-size 3-row SUVs.

      People with four children in child seats are not the target market.

    • 0 avatar
      CoastieLenn

      While recently purchasing a new vehicle for my wife, we were looking at the Pacifica, Sienna, Ascent, Atlas, and Explorer.

      We ended up REALLY liking the minivans but we decided to rule them out because of their overall lack of all weather capability. Yes, you can get a Sienna AWD, but they’re really rare on the used market. The Pacifica is only FWD.

      As soon as we drove the Ascent for more than 10 minutes, we turned around back to the dealer. That small engine paired with a CVT in that heavy vehicle (by Subaru standards) it felt extremely underpowered and unrefined. In the end, we went with the Explorer (2017 MY) because it felt more refined on the highway than the Atlas. The interior bits felt better to the touch on the Atlas, but where it mattered- ride quality, the Explorer was the hands down winner. The fact that the CPO Explorer came with a 7/120k bumper to bumper warranty for nearly no extra charge (< $1000), we went that route.

    • 0 avatar
      Pete Zaitcev

      Last time I had 3-row SUV, I only had 1 child with me. I never used the 3rd row, and never planned to use it. I suspect people buy them mostly for the cargo capacity. You just can’t buy a big enough volume without the overhead of the 3rd row these days, unless you buy a full size truck and put a cargo cap on it.

    • 0 avatar
      Kyree S. Williams

      Quite frankly, I bet that many people with 3+ children and carseats are doing what you’re doing. Buying a minivan or something truly large, like a Suburban. It seems a lot of people with three-row crossovers don’t actually use the third row daily, because they have one or two children, but appreciate that it’s there if they do want to use it.

      • 0 avatar
        TwoBelugas

        My wife specifically said no to a three row crossover or a minivan because she doesn’t want to be roped into driving other kids on field trips or car pools. You know who gets asked to carry other people’s kids? Minivan and 3 row cross over owning house wives or work at home parents with flexible schedules.

        Are we terrible people? Maybe. But we also don’t have to carry other people’s germ bags. So we sleep fine at night.

      • 0 avatar
        TwoBelugas

        Kyree

        I live in a somewhat well-to-do-suburb where almost every household has two 4 year degree holders and at least one of them is a graduate degree holder. Almost no one has more than two kids, and 3 row crossovers and minivans are EVERYWHERE.

        I suspect it’s a weird checking-the-box-but-I’m-smart thing, along the lines of “I have a 7/8 seats CUV and my life is kinda in a rut, but at least I’m not one of them Suburban driving bimbos” kind of thinking.

        • 0 avatar
          gtem

          “I suspect it’s a weird checking-the-box-but-I’m-smart thing, along the lines of “I have a 7/8 seats CUV and my life is kinda in a rut, but at least I’m not one of them Suburban driving bimbos””

          Could it be that they just don’t want to drop $65k on a kid hauler? Heck I’m balking at $20k right now, tempted by cloth-seat 2nd gen Sedonas in the sub $10k range.

          • 0 avatar
            TwoBelugas

            Suburbans start at far under 65k transaction price,unless you want it pimped out with every option on the list, and many, many people buy them via 2nd hand ex-rentals.

            Meanwhile the 3-row CUVs are steadily creeping up in transaction prices, it’s easy to blow 45k on one well equipped, at which point you can add a few k and get a base but still well equipped new Suburban.

          • 0 avatar
            Syke

            gtem, you’ll probably be happy with it. We’ve had our ’08 for four years now, and it’s performed very well. Reliable, comfortable on 600+ mile days, hauls well (the second row went into the storage barn the day it came home, probably won’t come back out until trade-in day), and all repairs have been in the usual, maintenance category. Swapped out the stereo for aftermarket (SiriusXM and Pandora are necessities on long trips), 128k on it now, figuring on going another two years before I start looking for a replacement.

            Biggest disappointment is that the third generation has the non-removable seats. A pity, because we’ve had two, used, definitely not pristine when we bought them, Kia’s and they’ve both been excellent. Hate to leave the brand.

          • 0 avatar
            gtem

            ex rentals are in the $40-$45k range with 30-45k on the clock. No, I’d say most of the ones I see around with the proverbial “bimbo” behind the wheel in our northern ‘burbs are most certainly bought new, and not in some kind of bare bones trim either. They are a legit status symbol in the Midwest. The less-flashy “I’m smarter” sorts of folks in those same suburbs buy the mid-high trim Odysseys/Siennas, Highlanders/Pilots. The more middle class suburbs have the older GM fullsizers, pickup trucks, Grand Caravans, more used Odysseys/Siennas/Sedonas/etc.

          • 0 avatar
            gtem

            Syke yours and SCE AUX’s experiences with 2nd gen Sedonas (and some folks over at CC) are what have me looking at them seriously. I haven’t heard any horror stories, they seem to hold up quite well (arguably better than the Odysseys with their VCM and resulting motor mount issues). My brother only had positive things to say. My understanding of the 2nd gens is that they have very strong and smooth powertrains, but are a bit thirstier than said Odysseys with their cylinder shutoff trickery.

          • 0 avatar
            Syke

            I may seriously be looking for a ’14 (I believe that’s the last year of the generation) when it come time to let the ’08 go. Mine’s got the 5-speed automatic, I think later ones went 6-speed? Has a wonderfully down and dirty first gear that gets you off the line at a traffic light fast. Am actually considering risking a small trailer to haul the wife and my Super Glide to Daytona next March. Gas mileage? 22 on a good day, 20 on a bad, entirely acceptable for my expectations. If I don’t go Kia for the next one, definitely going back to FCA.

        • 0 avatar
          quaquaqua

          People keep bringing up minivans, but this Ascent is *still* 6 inches shorter than an Odyssey and 3 inches narrower. That makes a big difference in a parking lot.

      • 0 avatar
        slavuta

        Kyree,
        people don’t buy minivan because they have 3 children. I have not less than 3 friends who has 1-2 children and bought a minivan. I had a minivan and I didn’t have 3+ children. You know who has 3+ children in America? (US birth rate 1.8) – welfare recipients but they don’t have money to buy a minivan.

        • 0 avatar
          SPPPP

          Once your children become “semi-autonomous”, that is, able to use a simple booster seat and buckle themselves in, the third row can become viable. Of course, the kiddies do have to actually climb back there, but hey, being small has its advantages. Now if you have kids in high school and preschool at the same time, you may have a problem.

          Honestly, unless off-road capability or major hauling are really necessary, a minivan is probably a better decision. IE, most suburbanites and urbanites should not buy this class of vehicle. But for some people, it’s a good fit.

  • avatar
    87 Morgan

    This should not come as a surprise to anyone as here on this site this result was basically predicted. Subaru built a product to keep Subaru buyer from leaving for the Pilot or Highlander, because you know, Love.

    I don’t think any of us here were under the impression that Honda or Toyota volume was going to decrease due to the arrival of the Ascent as neither the Pilot or Highlander have displayed any signs of slowing demand. I think lastly, this will take time to gain more traction in the market as non Subaru/ nonColoradans muster up the courage to enter into a Subaru store to have a look see. When I am in the mid west the Subaru stores seem to be around the corner or in back of the flagship Toyota, Honda, Chevy what have you store. Were as here in CO the Subaru store is a stand alone behemoth where the owners jettisoned the other franchises that were sharing space to another building, around the corner or in back…

    • 0 avatar
      Pete Zaitcev

      I dunno, in my town the Subaru store is in the strip with everyone else. It has Mazda on one side, Mercedes on the other side. Also, they half of their place is taken up by Volvo under the same ownership, who are waiting for their own location to get constructed.

      I took out a Crosstrek for a test drive, it was very impressive. I just wish the 6th gear was taller. The engine was spinning 3000 rpm at 75 mph. We have freeways with speed limit 80 mph, so that put Crosstrek at a disadvantage. Not that it was too noisy, but I had concerns for its longevity.

      • 0 avatar
        TwoBelugas

        3000rpm sounds right for a small 2 liter NA motor pulling a 3200 lb vehicle. Any lower you will risk lugging the motor on a regular basis.

      • 0 avatar
        slavuta

        you should worry about its longevity. Impreza constantly declared as bad long term purchase by CR. And I understand why

        • 0 avatar
          TwoBelugas

          If it was a well built motor I don’t see why not. My 2.2 liter inline 4 from Toyota runs at close to 3000 rpm at 75 and I fully expect it to get to 250k(currently at 175k) without any major work.

          Oh wait, this is a Subaru boxer. Hm….

          • 0 avatar
            slavuta

            Most revving motor I had was 1.8L in ’98 Protege. It used to rev to 3750 @ 75mph. It liked some oil later in life but never I had an engine issue, sold @195K

    • 0 avatar
      b534202

      Yep. My local Autonation just closed their Alfa/Fiat store and moved Subaru into it. Their Subaru store used to share space with Mazda. Now both are standalone.

    • 0 avatar
      gtem

      The Subaru store on the northside here in Indy is a very modern operation that “gets it.” The experience is closer to Lexus or something else premium than the other mainstream brands, both in terms of how nice the inside of the dealership is, and the people that works there. Knowledgeable and non-pushy salespeople, non of the typical BS I’ve seen at Hyundai and Nissan stores.

  • avatar
    tomLU86

    3 rows of seats allow 2 kids to each have their own row in the back.

  • avatar
    SixspeedSi

    Not too surprising to me as well. The Ascent is doing its job of converting prior Outback, Crosstrek, etc owners to stay within the brand when it’s time for a larger vehicle.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the Ascent does pick up more sales from competitors soon. For one, dealers are just beginning to get more configurations available. Also, we know a majority of shoppers like to shop deals and with these things going for sticker, it’s no surprise some folks will head over to the Chevy dealer to get that sweet sweet 15% off savings!

  • avatar
    gtem

    I would love to see the metrics on how many previous Subaru people graduated to Pilots and Highlanders in the past. The Ascent was very needed. I do wonder if perhaps the current supply-constraint on Ascents is keeping prices high and some people are going to the more available/discounted options from Toyota and Ford/etc

  • avatar
    Dan

    Of course it’s eating Outback sales. But A, it isn’t just eating Outback sales. And B, equally importantly, it’s a much more expensive product than those Outbacks that it’s poaching.

    Honda making their Civic more appealing than their Accord, or GM making the Colorado at all, should be taking notes.

  • avatar
    sportyaccordy

    I think a key point here is that the transaction prices for the Ascent have to be higher than the Outback/Forester. If I’m gonna cannibalize my own sales, I’d love to do it with a more expensive model.

  • avatar
    Garrett

    I can’t think of a single vehicle that Subaru makes that doesn’t need 30-50hp more, and to get rid of that awful CVT.

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    Well, I could say a couple of things:

    1. It doesn’t *look* like Subaru has done all that much marketing on the Ascent, yet, and

    2. Weren’t they having capacity problems, as a result of demand exceeding supply? Would they even have the capability to match competitors’ sales on a production basis?

    • 0 avatar
      stuntmonkey

      >1. It doesn’t *look* like Subaru has done all that much marketing on the Ascent,

      I think they did just enough to match sell-thru, but not much more. Heck, even Regular Car Reviews got a shot at the Ascent at launch, so it wasn’t for a lack of effort on finding marketing avenues.

  • avatar
    matthewjoneill

    We just bought one, the touring model. 3 young kids, all in carseats.. This lets us put two in the very back, and leaves one captains chair open for an adult passenger.

    Our other vehicle is a suburban. We cross shopped this with the volvo xc90.. I’m not going to say this is as good as an xc90, but for 20k less? It’s got all the tech we wanted in it, super safe, and awd. Hopefully the engine and transmission hold up over time.

    Yes yes, we should have gotten a minivan but the wife wasn’t going to have it.

    Apparently they’re still pretty hard to get, we had to wait almost 2 months for ours. Not much inventory just sitting on the lot.

  • avatar
    jfk-usaf

    CVTs are still terrible… sorry. Needs more power and a little more work on the appearance so it looks like something other than a tall Outback. Not just a grill or a design language, this thing looks like a tall Outback clone from end to end. I had to look twice at pic 1 and pic 3 in the article.

    Atlas is a good SUV with the wrong engine. I get it VW, you lost your TDI and had to make due. Its been long enough and your sister divisions have plenty of options that you should be able to adopt…

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    Subaru has always had trouble with larger cars (Tribeca) It seems that people love them for what they do best, which is their current line-up minus the Ascent, but when they try to do something outside their niche no one’s interested.

    I think it’s too early to really know where the Ascent is going, we’ll see

  • avatar
    Rich Clark

    Forester sales were down in the third quarter because it was an outgoing model, with the 2019s not beginning to arrive on dealer lots until mid-September.

    Ascent cannibalizing Forester sales is a fact not yet in evidence, and I doubt it ever will be. Nobody will buy a Forester because they’d rather have a too-small vehicle for their needs than to buy outside the brand. Forester, Outback, and Crosstrek compete with each other far more than any of them compete with Ascent.

    Ascent buyers will cross-shop Highlander and Pilot just as all the motojournalists suggest, and Ascent sales will eat into those nameplates, not Subaru’s smaller SUVs. Ascent is a big win for the brand, because it does everything right in the segment while retaining the Subaru identity, whose buyers know who they are even if the TTAC B&B don’t.

  • avatar
    bd2

    Wouldn’t include the Sorento in the list of competitors outselling the Ascent as its a half-size segment smaller (the upcoming Telluride will be Kia’s entry into the segment).

    Still too early to come to any firm conclusion about the Ascent; sales have been climbing the past few months (greater supply) where now the Ascent has passed the Atlas in monthly sales (granted, not exactly a huge feat).

  • avatar
    backtees

    Shopped hard for three row suv few years ago. Key was second row capt chairs so rug rats could pile in. Acadia was wife’s choice. Great workhorse but man has the CPO warranty gotten a work out. Water pump, AC, daytime lights, struts, some brake module etc.

    Longer than a Tahoe with more room behind third row, it’s fine for the job. Strong engine and tranny but mpg hovers around 15 with small tank….can’t get 400 miles filled to brim. If Pilot had capt chairs it would have been no brainer.

    • 0 avatar
      slavuta

      Highlander had captain chairs. .. I drove Buick of this GM variety. hmmm. Man, the steering feel alone was worth of leaving dealer. Ah, yes, I didn’t go to the dealer. It was my friend’s. And I didn’t like seating on second bench either.

    • 0 avatar
      gtem

      Yes the Lamdas have earned a bit of a reputation in terms of a litany of issues, from timing chains and flex plates on the early cars, body sealing issues, and electrical glitches that carried through right through the final years of that body. My brother has had a few fairly new ones with truly bizarre and difficult to diagnose electrical faults. Too bad, they are very roomy and comfortable, and ironically enough have one of the highest rates of domestic sourced part content (82% iirc).

    • 0 avatar
      johnds

      The United States Pilot has captains chairs, unless you’re talking about the 3rd row. I looked on Honda’s website and it shows multiple photos of 2nd row captain’s chairs.

  • avatar
    kurtamaxxguy

    Both Forester and Outback are at or near end of their product cycles and their sales always drop at those times. Forester is just beginning 2019 model deliveries, Outback revision arrives next year. Revisiting this topic in 6 months will tell whether or not Ascent will continue “cannibalization”.

  • avatar
    backtees

    Yes. Highlander did have an actual removable middle section to create a pass through to the third row but the overall interior size including trunk was not in same class.

    When dealing with my various GM products over the years I’m reminded of one of my favorite Car Talk moments. Many years ago a Lady called and asked if she should buy the extended warranty for her new Astro van. “No, buy two………one for each side! Hahahaha”


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