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2019 Subaru Ascent: First Drive Review

  • The 2019 Subaru Ascent is built in the U.S.
  • New 260-horsepower flat-4 engine
  • Three rows of seating
  • Cloth seats are more comfortable than the leather

As a group, I’m guessing Subaru owners and shoppers are fairly no-nonsense-type people, so I’ll get right to the punchline with the new Ascent: It’s a very good 3-row SUV. It’s easily on par with other midsize, 3-row SUVs from Honda, Nissan and Toyota but retains that "certain something" every Subaru seems to have.

Getting It Right

I was skeptical about the Ascent as soon as it saw it at an auto show. The two things they have to get just right are the size/interior packaging and the driving dynamics; otherwise, it’s not going to feel like a real Subaru. Subaru is at a bit of a disadvantage in the driving dynamics department. Most of their cars have a kind of sporty edge — certainly, the Impreza isn’t going to rival the BMW M3, but the WRX STI does. I think the accessibility and economy car roots of the WRX have led people to expect every Subaru to have a little WRX in it — some more than others. Here’s why that’s a disadvantage; no one expects that kind of thing from Toyota or Ford even though both sell a wide variety of cars and trucks. If the Toyota Highlander is just comfortable, reliable and not ugly, that’s kind of OK. The Subaru Ascent has to have an extra "certain something." Thankfully, it does.

The VW Atlas is a good contrast. The Atlas is good, no obvious flaws. Only, it doesn’t have that "certain something" like the Ascent. The Atlas feels like a bigger version of the Passat, a thing VW already does. The Atlas is uninspiring.

Here are a few details that give the Ascent that extra bit of Subaru-ness:

  • The two rear doors open wider than usual to allow easy access to the third row of seats.
  • The roof is strong enough to accommodate car-top tents.
  • EyeSight driver assist is standard.
  • It has a 5,000-lb towing capacity.

Also, there’s an available Smart Mirror that can use a video image instead of the actual mirror image. The camera for that Smart Mirror is placed just inside the rear window, allowing the rear wiper to clean the glass that the camera sees through.

On the Road

In addition to all that, the new Ascent is actually fun to drive. The 2.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine provides adequate power, although sometimes it can feel a little jumpy, like it’s too eager to accelerate. There’s no 6-cylinder engine offered, which I think is kind of a bummer. It’s merely a personal preference — it’s not really about power — I just like the weight of a big engine and the sound of a 6-cylinder under the hood. Buyers won’t notice any sort of lacking.

The Ascent’s ride and handling are a good combination of comfort and sharpness. In this way, the Subaru Ascent is just like the Mazda CX-9. In fact, those two SUVs are very similar. The Subaru can tow more, and I’d likely want its all-wheel-drive system when venturing off-road but the CX-9 Signature is a little nicer inside than the top-level Ascent.

Subaru has finally ironed out their in-car tech, and that goes for all Subarus, not just the Ascent. Subaru calls its in-car system Starlink — a 6.5-inch touchscreen is standard, but if you use features like Android Auto, Apple CarPlay or any specific app, get the 8-in screen (available either by option or standard on Limited versions). This is part of an upgraded system that costs extra. This package includes an upgraded Harman Kardon Audio System with 14 speakers. The Touring version of the Ascent includes all this and more as standard equipment. In-car Wi-Fi is also available.

Cargo space is another Ascent strength. With 86.5 cu ft. and 47.5 behind the second row of seating, it has more usable space than many of its rivals. In terms of overall packaging, space and comfort, the Ascent feels most like the Honda Pilot but with a bit of an edge. That edge comes in the form of interesting carpet patterns, dash trim and the slicker, more modern feel of the dash.

Ascent Versions

There are four distinct flavors of 3-row Subaru SUV. The price starts at around $32,000 plus shipping. That $32,000 gets you the base Ascent with a decent list of standard features. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto with a 6.5-in touchscreen are included as are 3-zone climate control, 18-in wheels, roof rails, EyeSight, seating for eight and the increasingly popular Auto Hold feature, which lets you keep the car in gear but take your foot off the brake — it’s kinda like the "hill-holder" feature pioneered by Studebaker then reintroduced to the mainstream by Subaru 20 years later. The main difference: The "auto hold" feature doesn’t self-release until you step on the accelerator.

Other trims include Premium, Limited and Touring. Touring is the top version of the Ascent and includes 20-in wheels, LED fog lights, up to eight USB ports, the Harman stereo, a larger touch screen, a huge sunroof and heated and cooled front seats (with three levels). Limited and Touring models get automatic reverse braking, push-button start and a power rear lift gate with programmable height.

Something to keep in mind: It’s nice to have leather seats, but I actually think the cloth seats are more comfortable in the Ascent.

Here’s the bottom line: The 2019 Subaru Ascent is very good and it will give current Subaru owners exactly what they’re looking for in a larger-than-the-Forester package. It’s just as good as the Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota Highlander, not as quick as the best-selling Ford Explorer with EcoBoost and feels more deluxe than the VW Atlas even in the base trim. In spirit, the Ascent is most like the Mazda CX-9. Both offer athletic handling, have a classy but affordable top trim level and have a decent appetite for exploring off-road destinations. If that last thing is important to you, you’re likely already leaning toward the Subaru.

The Subaru Ascent is built in the U.S.

To gain access to this information, Autotrader attended an event sponsored by the vehicle’s manufacturer.

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