In the competitive and crowded market of three-row family haulers, the Toyota Highlander has long stood out as class valedictorian. Move over, Highlander, there's a new kid in town. With the Ascent, Subaru presents the largest vehicle it has ever built, complete with all the DNA one associates with America's eighth most popular brand: great engine, all-wheel-drive, comfort, reliability, and unparalleled safety—even in the base model.
Starting at $31,995, the Ascent makes standard Subaru's Symmetrical All-Wheel-drive and EyeSight driver assist technology, which includes a full range of life-saving features, such as automatic pre-collision braking, adaptive cruise control, lane departure and sway warning, pre-collision throttle management and a heads-up display of system warnings. Also standard are four USB ports, three-zone automatic climate control, automatic power door locks and power side mirrors, and 19, yes 19, cupholders.
No climbing up the model tree and clicking option boxes and adding $7,00 to $10,000 to get the good stuff for your family at Subaru. Kudos.
On the other hand, we think, The Premium, $34,195-$39,430, offers some attractive features, such as blind-spot monitoring and rear back brakes (kept us from hitting a pole) is a nice step up. Limited and Touring models, $38,995-$45,670, offer niceties such as more supportive, leather seating. All trim lines are price competitive for the niche.
If you are looking for a vehicle to carry your family to school, to soccer practices, and on lengthy vacations, you should not buy the Subaru Ascent simply because it offers modern safety gear at a reasonable price. Rather, you should buy it because it is a quiet, comfortable, flexible vehicle in which to create family memories for years to come.
By years, we mean decades. Subarus have a well-earned reputation for being bulletproof, and multiple rating services, including Kelley Blue Book and Consumer Reports, predict long and uneventful lives for the latest entry.
It starts up front
A Subaru trademark is the BOXER engine, so named because the cylinders face one another horizontally, and the Pistons go at one another like a pair of boxers. This has multiple advantages.
One is that the engine is simply better balanced. There is less vibration, though having valve trains at opposite sides of the engine tends to be a bit more noisy, according to some critics. Frankly, we love the sound of a wound-out Subie.
The design allows superior oil and coolant flow; the most important advantage, however, is that the engine lays lower in the cradle, which lowers the center of gravity and improves handling.
Subaru has been reengineering its BOXER engines the last few years and its latest motor is an all new turbocharged 260-horsepower, 2.4-liter engine is the best yet. It is strong, smooth, and clearly outperforms the base engine found in the Highlander.
On paper, running with a four-banger in a market dominated by V-6s seems a disadvantage, but it is not. The Ascent has more torque than the legendary Honda 3.5L V-6 engine found in the Pilot. Torque translates to exceptional smoothness on take-off and acceleration. Properly equipped, as Ascent can tow up to 5,000 pounds.
Like most Subarus, the Ascent is sporty at the low-end. It is quick off the line and 0 to 60 comes in less than eight seconds, which is above average and wholly irrelevant to the needs of the average family. Also like most boxer engines, this one has an engaging exhaust note, a pleasant baritone at mid-speed and a masculine tenor in the upper reaches.
The engine is paired to a high-torque CVT that nicely mimics an eight-speed transmission while keeping the engine optimized in its torque curve. That means that throttle response is excellent throughout the range while the Ascent delivers above average fuel economy: 21 city/26 highway/22 combined. In 200 miles of combined driving, the Touring model averaged 22.8 mpg. That's good for the class.
Like most Subaru models, the Ascent comes with X-Mode which incorporates hill descent control and allows the vehicle to take roads less traveled, muddier, and more daring than most family SUVs.
Climbing a road with low traction, the system uses lower gear ratios to generate extra power at the wheels that have the most grip. The transmission control unit also provides 25 percent more all-wheel-drive clutch pressure to control rotational differences between the front and rear wheels.
The Ascent isn't a hard-core off-road machine, but with 8.7 inches of ground clearance it will go where many an SUV dare not tread.
Pleasant ride and drive
Around town and out on the highway, the Ascent is well mannered. No sports car, it still feels well planted and steering is light and responsive, a feature that drivers will appreciate both on long trips and in crowded parking lots.
The suspension is tuned for comfort. Though some critics gig the Ascent's body lean, the vehicle handles well within normal parameters while delivering a ride that is as comfortable as some large luxury sedans.
On top of that, Subaru did a superb job damping noise, vibration and harshness, resulting in a cabin that is pleasantly comfortable in all seating positions.
This pleasantness is enhanced by a roomy, comfortable cabin. Fit and finish are among the most refined in the midsized SUV segment, with a superb combination of soft materials, textures and stitching. Doors are large, so access is easy. Like every other competitor in this niche, the Ascent has a third-row that is better suited to children than adults.
With seats folded flat, the Ascent offers the largest cargo holder in the segment.
Because of strong crash-test performance and advanced safety features, the Ascent earned a Top Safety Pick Plus from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the highest possible rating.
The Ascent has proven to be a hit with consumers. Since its introduction six months ago, Subaru has sold more than 40,000 Ascents, allowing the brand to grow its market share to 4.0 percent, just ahead of Hyundai and behind Jeep. Ford continues to hold the largest U.S. market share with nearly 14 percent.
Bottom line: My only knock on the Ascent is that Subaru doesn't offer an electric version. Buy this car. Failing that, steal one.