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2021 Ford Explorer vs. 2021 Subaru Ascent: Which Is Better?

Three-row, medium-sized SUVs are today’s family cars of choice. Two of the leading contenders are the 2021 Subaru Ascent and the 2021 Ford Explorer. Which is better?

Quick Facts

  • The Ford Explorer is in its sixth generation. This is the second year of this generation.
  • The Subaru Ascent is the brand’s first three-row entry since the Tribeca.

2021 Ford Explorer

2021 Ford Explorer

Base Price: $33,470/ Read our 2021 Ford Explorer Review

What we like: Plenty of drivetrains to choose from; User-friendly infotainment; Sporty options

What we would change: The third row is not for adults; the interior materials leave a lot to be desired

Overview: The 2021 Ford Explorer is the most recent of Ford’s popular three-row SUVs to wear the Explorer badge. Ford has brought rear-wheel drive back to the mid-size SUV while retaining towing ability and space with this generation. It is smooth driving with a ton of safety and driver-assist features, connectivity, and it gets a comfortable cabin. It gets more legroom throughout since this generation is slightly longer than its predecessor, with the exception of the third row. That area should be reserved for small children or cargo only.

What’s new for 2021: One step up from the base model, the XLT trim receives heated front seats as standard. It also offers a heated steering wheel and a Sport Appearance package as options. What used to be a 10-way power-adjustable front passenger seat in the top three trims now has an 8-way power adjustment. The mid-level Limited trim also loses some standard features and makes them optional. A cargo management system becomes standard in the top Platinum trim, optional in the rest of the 2021 Explorer range. There are also a few minor changes to exterior colors too including, Silver Spruce goes out, Carbonized Gray comes in.

Features and technology: The 2021 Ford Explorer comes in six versions. They include the standard Explorer, XLT, Limited, Limited Hybrid, ST, and Platinum trims.

All-wheel drive is standard in the ST and Platinum trims and a $2,000 option elsewhere. The base Explorer comes with LED headlights/daytime running lights/taillights, powered liftgate, remote start/lock/unlock, tri-zone automatic climate control, cloth upholstery, 8-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, Ford Co-Pilot360 (forward collision mitigation with automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert, lane-keeping assistance, automatic high beams), eight airbags, 8-inch infotainment touchscreen, Bluetooth, two USB ports (one Type-A, one Type-C), AM/FM/Satellite radio, Wi-Fi (for up to 10 devices), Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone integration, and 6-speaker audio system all as standard.

Step up to the XLT for a 6.5-inch color LCD driver information cluster, heated front seats, and the enhanced Co-Pilot360 Assist+ package (with evasive steering assistance, post-impact braking, Active Cruise Control with stop/go, lane centering, speed limit sign recognition, voice-activated/touchscreen navigation, and Sirius XM Traffic/Travel Link).

Limited trims get LED fog lights, rain-sensing wipers, 360-degree camera system, self-dimming rearview mirror with universal garage-door opener, ambient cabin lighting, leather seating surfaces, 8-way power-adjustable front passenger seat, heated second-row seats, second-row shades, dual chrome exhaust tips, Co-Pilot360 Assist+ driver aids, wireless charging, and a 12-speaker Bang & Olufsen audio system.  The Limited Hybrid has all the features in the regular Limited trim but swaps in the hybrid drivetrain.

The ST model is the most exciting Explorer you can get with a turbocharged V6, all-wheel drive with hill descent control and the Terrain Management System, sport-tuned suspension, paddle shifters, heated sport steering wheel, 2.3-inch configurable driver information display, trim-specific interior accents, Active Park Assist 2.0 (self-parking for parallel and perpendicular spaces), automatic emergency reverse braking, and four chromed exhaust tips. ST trim is also available with upgraded brakes, red-painted brake calipers, and 21-inch alloy wheels.

In the top of the line Explorer, you can get adaptive headlights, diamond-stitched/perforated-leather upholstery, leather-covered dashboard/door tops/central armrest, run-flat tires, illuminated front scuff plates, and various trim-specific exterior accents.

What does the future hold: The Explorer will continue to get trim updates going forward. See 2021 Ford Explorer models for sale near you

2021 Subaru Ascent

2021 Subaru Ascent

Base Price: $33,345 / Read our 2021 Subaru Ascent Review

What we like: Great outward visibility; standard AWD; lots of driver aids included; IIHS Top Safety Pick+

What we would change: Make the accident-avoidance tech less annoying; smooth out the throttle response

Overview: The Subaru Ascent features many of the brand’s traditional elements, including standard AWD, boxer engines, good visibility, and strong value, in a larger form. Compared to the Outback, the Ascent is 5.5 inches longer in wheelbase and overall, allowing space for a standard third-row seat. In all three rows, the passenger room is good, and luggage space is, too, although the 17.6 cubic feet aft of the third row is merely average. Big windows provide a good view for the driver and keep passengers from feeling claustrophobic. The Ascent only gets one engine, a turbocharged 2.4-liter boxer four that provides gutsy acceleration and good fuel economy. Sadly, it’s paired with a CVT, and accelerator response can be non-linear. The AWD system includes X-Mode with hill-descent control, which combines with an impressive 8.7 inches of ground clearance to let the Ascent wander far off-pavement.

What’s new for 2021: For 2021, Subaru adds steering-responsive LED headlights with automatic high-beams to all trims. A standard rear-seat reminder function is also new.

Features and technology: The 2021 Subaru Ascent is offered in base, Premium, Limited, and Touring trim levels. All models include forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, and adaptive cruise control with lane centering. That’s a strong list, but their excessive bleating might tempt some drivers to switch them off. The base car also includes Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, four USB ports, roof rails, and a bench second-row seat. The Premium adds blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert. It also upgrades the infotainment system from a 6.5-inch touchscreen to an 8-inch unit. Second-row captain’s chairs can be had here, and further options include a panoramic sunroof, a power liftgate, and navigation. The Limited’s niceties include leather, a heated steering wheel, heating for the front and rear seats, and a memory function for the power driver’s seat. The Touring exclusives include a rear camera mirror and a front-view camera, plus unique exterior trim.

What does the future hold: The Ascent is only in its third model year, but we could see Subaru porting over the extra-large 11.6-inch portrait-oriented touchscreen from the Legacy/Outback at some point. See 2021 Subaru Ascent models for sale near you

Explorer vs. Ascent: Strengths comparison

Ford Explorer Benefits: Sport and Hybrid options, easy to use infotainment system

Subaru Ascent Benefits: Long list of standard active-safety features, good fuel economy, standard AWD, IIHS Top Safety Pick+ rating

2021 Ford Explorer vs. 2021 Subaru Ascent: Which is better?

If you really need seating for eight, your best bet is the Subaru Ascent. If you’re a bit more flexible and want something that comes in a hybrid or sportier option, your best bet is the Ford Explorer. Find a Subaru Ascent for sale or Find a Ford Explorer for sale

Popular Powertrains 2021 Ford Explorer 2021 Subaru Ascent
Engine 2.3-liter turbo I4 2.4-liter turbo flat-4
Horsepower 300 hp @ 5,500 rpm 260 hp @ 5,600 rpm
Torque 310 lb-ft @ 3,500 rpm 277 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm
Transmission 10-spd automatic Continuously variable
Fuel Economy 24 mpg (21 city/28 highway) 23 mpg (21 city/27 highway)
Also Available 3.0-liter turbo V6; 3.3-liter V6 hybrid; AWD
Warranty 3 years/36,000 miles 3 years/36,000 miles
Powertrain warranty 5 years/60,000 miles 5 years/60,000 miles
NHTSA Overall Safety 5 stars 5 stars
Max Seating Capacity 7 8
Wheelbase 119.1 inches 113.8 inches
Overall Length 198.8 inches 196.8 inches
Width 78.9 inches 76.0 inches
Height 69.9 inches 71.6 inches
Turning Diameter n/a 38.0 feet
Headroom, Front 40.7 inches 41.3 inches
Headroom, 2nd row 40.5 inches 40.0 inches
Headroom, 3rd row 38.9 inches 36.3 inches
Legroom, Front 43.0 inches 42.2 inches
Legroom, 2nd row 39.0 inches 38.6 inches
Legroom, 3rd row 32.2 inches 31.7 inches
Shoulder Room, Front 61.8 inches 61.1 inches
Shoulder Room, 2nd row 61.9 inches 60.3 inches
Shoulder Room, 3rd row 54.6 inches 57.2 inches
EPA Passenger Volume 152.7 cubic feet 153.5cubic feet
EPA Cargo Volume 87.8 cubic feet 86.5 cubic feet

Abigail Bassett
Abigail Bassett
Abigail Bassett is a freelance journalist based in L.A. and she's covered automotive topics for a variety of well-known outlets including Fortune, Forbes, CNN and Motor Trend. She's also a television and video host and regularly covers breaking news, social justice, technology, health and wellness, and science in addition to her car coverage. When she's not working on her next project she's... Read More about Abigail Bassett

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