MCMINNVILLE, Oregon — Much to Subaru’s regret, mid-size three-row family sport/utilities all look pretty much the same. Subaru, the automaker that has successfully grown its business as a quirky brand full of SUVs for people who don’t like SUVs, tried unsuccessfully to buck convention with its 2005-14 Tribeca. Subaru needs a seven- to eight-passenger model for its very enthusiastic fans, so what is it supposed to do?
The idea of a stretched, three-row Subaru Outback Grande did come up, planning manager Peter Tenn admitted to me at the Ascent’s first-drive program. The automaker nearly lost its way with a Toyota Highlander-based Tribeca replacement it began planning after Japan’s number-one automaker bought a minority stake in Subaru. While Toyota got a boxer engine-powered sports car shared with the BRZ under that deal, Subaru wisely stepped away from a program that would have netted the marque an SUV with an inline four and maybe a V-6. The 2019 Subaru Ascent’s new, 2.4-liter turbo H-4 sits low in the engine bay, and lends this conservative looking family hauler the distinction of being among the best vehicles over 70 inches tall (71.6 inches, with its standard roof rack) in terms of ride and handling.
Based on the new Subaru Global Platform, the Ascent is the third model on this architecture after the Impreza and Crosstrek. The next Forester becomes the fourth such model later this year. Even with a widened and lengthened version of SGP, the Ascent design has not been “protected” to accommodate an H-6 engine—just the H-4, in this case a 2.4-liter turbo one rated at 260 horsepower and 277 pound-feet, and of course hooked up to a Lineartronic CVT with Hill Descent Control and selectable eight-speed manual shift mode (with paddle shifters) feeding the standard Symmetrical All-Wheel-Drive.
That means that when the next-generation Subaru Legacy and Outback premier in time for the 2020 model year, they will almost certainly be four-cylinder only. The marque will also introduce a plug-in hybrid later this year. It’s expected to be a Crosstrek, AWD of course, based on the Prius Prime technology from partner/16.4-percent shareholder Toyota, which should turn out to be a much better deal for Subaru than the rejected plan to base the Ascent on the Highlander.
The 2019 Subaru Ascent feels nicely planted, handling the curvy roads near Coastal Oregon, some 50 miles south of Portland—where Outbacks are as common as Ford F-150s elsewhere in the country—without giving up comfort over uneven road surfaces. The chassis is fairly firm over bumps, like any 4,500-pound SUV with 18- or 20-inch wheels, but overall, the ride-handling balance compares closest to the smaller Mazda CX-5, and that’s a big compliment.
Its steering precision and feel is exceptional. Subaru concentrated on steering that doesn’t require the sort of minute corrections that can fatigue the driver, Tenn says, and the engineers succeeded. Tall SUVs typically are better with steering that’s not so quick it becomes twitchy at higher speeds, and that usually results in the need for minor steering corrections through long, sweeping turns. The Ascent’s combo of a relatively low center of gravity, and the well-tuned steering makes that unnecessary.
There’s also a distinct lack of head toss over bumps and pavement dips, which can help reduce fatigue among the kids and dogs on those long family vacations.
The new 2.4-liter turbo is all the engine the big SUV needs, with aggressive throttle tip-in and a wide torque band that nicely covers the midrange. There is no turbo lag in a straight line, though there’s some minor stumble coming out of tight corners. Try the CVT’s paddle shifters, which I did only after my drive partner prompted me, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by crisp, torque converter-like upshifts and downshifts, though the CVT upshifts itself as you approach redline.
Its tow capacity of 5,000 pounds, most-ever for a Subaru, was demonstrated with a sleek Airstream trailer hooked up, on a piece of parking lot at the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, home of Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose. The Ascent’s tow control made pulling the Airstream smooth and easy, at least in this limited space. Subaru says it recorded a 14.7-second 0-60 mph time with the Ascent pulling a 5,000-pound test sled.
Like most Subarus, the Ascent is designed to attract the REI crowd, which means, potentially, a bit of light off-roading. The Subaru Ascent is no Jeep, though, at least not in its all-season tires. The standard X-Mode variable transfer clutch lock control changes the AWD mapping and throttle control, and kicks in the Hill Descent Control, but the tires required me to use some momentum to traverse some Pacific coast sand to the lunch spot. Symmetric AWD and the HDC will get you up and down a steep gravel quarry, but not without some slippage with these tires.
Speaking of which, the tire/wheel size make a difference on the EPA test cycle. This is unusual, because most car and SUV models (though not trucks, with their multiple variations) are usually counted as in one test-weight category. But the Subaru Ascent base and Premium trim models, with 18-inch wheels, are rated 21/27-mpg city/highway, with 23 combined, while the Limited and Touring models, with 20-inch wheels, are rated 20/26-mpg city/highway and 22 combined. With its 19.3-gallon tank, the Ascent boasts a 500-plus mile range.
All trim models, from the $32,970 base model on-up comes with Subaru’s EyeSight automated driver assist technology, including pre-collision braking, adaptive cruise control, lane departure and sway warning with lane keep assist, pre-collision throttle management and the new EyeSight Assist Monitor, which flashes alerts on the windshield via head-up display.
Base, Premium, and Limited Ascents come with a second-row bench seat for eight-passenger seating, while the Ascent Touring comes standard with comfy captains chairs in the second row—and every factory option plus exclusive Java brown leather interior trim standard—for $45,670 all-in. You can order the captains chairs for the second row of the Ascent Limited and Premium, and these chairs come with a nice little feature: grab handles for the third row passengers on the outer tops of the seats, inspired by the grab handles on Japan’s Shinkansen bullet train.
The interiors are rather warm and inviting, premium enough for a commodity brand. Imitation wood accents, when used, looks fairly convincing, and the Ascent Premium has heated cloth seats and imitation carbon-fiber interior accents, the latter in an odd (quirky?) cream color. The third row is advertised as a full third row seat, with 60/40 split and three cupholders on each side so the kids or dogs can stow their toys, as well as drinks and mobile phones. Comfort for adults back there depends on how far forward the second row seats are slid, which of course can affect comfort in that second row, but even without filling all seven or eight seats, I’m pretty confident in saying the Ascent is one of the more comfortable big-family SUVs available for under $50,000.
There’s also a large compartment under the rear load floor, useful for stowing a bag of dog food for long family trips. Cargo capacity ranges from 17.8 cubic feet with the second and third row raised, to 86.5 cubic feet with them lowered, or 86.0-flat if you order the panoramic moonroof. And there are the much-discussed 19 cupholders scattered around the interior.
Quirky, for sure, but the 2019 Subaru Ascent maintains its marque’s flavor most by delivering maximum family usefulness combined with the inherent ride/handling advantages of its low-CG boxer engine.
2019 Subaru Ascent Specifications
|ENGINE||2.4L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve H-4/260 hp @ 5,600 rpm, 277 lb-ft @ 2,000-4,800 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 7/8-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV|
|EPA MILEAGE||20-21/26-27 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||196.8 x 76.0 x 71.6 in|
|0-60 MPH||7.4 sec|