CARS.COM — “Go big or go home” appears to have been Subaru’s motto for climbing back into the rough three-row SUV competition with its new 2019 Ascent, introduced at an event ahead of the 2017 Los Angeles Auto Show.
The new Ascent is the biggest vehicle Subaru has ever made — intended to fill a big hole in the Subaru lineup. The company says its famously loyal customers were leaving the brand in their child-raising years.
Subaru had nothing in the showroom for families with needs that outgrew its smaller, five-passenger SUVs. Nothing since the departure of the Tribeca in 2014, and the smallish Tribeca hardly counted as an efficient 3-row SUV given its cramped, optional third row and limited cargo space if the third row was in use.
As of next summer when it goes on sale, growing families now will have the option of staying in the Subaru family with the Ascent. It’s aimed specifically at the U.S. market, which Subaru says accounts for about 60 percent of its total sales. And the new 3-row SUV, which offers seating for seven or eight passengers and Subaru’s standard all-wheel-drive system, seems to check all the necessary boxes to bring in some new customers to the brand, as well.
The first of those boxes is size. By design, the all-new Subaru Ascent fits squarely in the heart of mid-size SUV territory at a couple inches longer than Honda’s Pilot but a couple shorter than the also all-new Volkswagen Atlas, which was the top finisher in Cars.com’s 2017 Three-Row SUV Challenge. And it’s about 7 inches longer than Subaru’s current five-passenger Outback.
Importantly, the third row has room to fit adults, with a seat cushion about a foot off the floor and adequate headroom. A 6-foot-tall adult can reach a compromise on legroom with an adult in the second row that leaves legroom for both.
Access is very good, with wide-opening doors, an easy-sliding second row that kids can operate and a built-in step in the floor. And it’s not the cheap seats back there. The top-trim Touring model displayed at the L.A. reveal gave the back row six cupholders, four USB charging outlets and two reading lights.
Features, Fit ‘n’ Finish
Mid-size SUVs also are about family-friendly features for busy families who live on the go. The Subaru Ascent is loaded with features that rival the Pilot for being as close to a minivan as you can get without sliding doors. They include more cup and bottleholders (19) and more total USB ports (eight) than any Subaru. There is Wi-Fi for up to eight devices, up to an 8-inch touchscreen that still includes traditional knobs and storage, with a large console bin and clever trays built into the dashboard.
The look follows closely on the Ascent concept unveiled last spring at the 2017 New York International Auto Show, but with a more traditional Subaru interior. Materials and finish are good, and don’t fall off in the second row, although there is plenty of hard plastic in row three. And buyers from the second-level trim (of four) on up will be able to choose popular second-row captain’s chairs for two or a bench seat for three, even with the cheaper cloth upholstery, unusual among these SUVs.
Safety, a Subaru selling point, is not optional — all trim levels will be equipped with Subaru’s EyeSight suite of driver assistance technology, including a front collision system with automatic braking. Higher trims add even more safety tech, such as a blind spot monitor and wide-angle front camera. A video rearview mirror for an unobstructed view also is optional.
Moreover, towing capacity will meet the class leaders at 5,000 pounds.
Bar Set for Ascent
All this should be more than enough to attract Subaru fans; it may even be enough to interest car shoppers from other brands. Whether it can sell those shoppers will depend on price, which Subaru has not set, but says will start competitively in the “low 30s” with standard all-wheel drive.
Ascent appeal will also hinge on whether the noise levels and ride — not always a Subaru strength — can meet the rising bar for these SUVs. Subaru says it has worked on that with the new SUV, which rides a stretched version of the new, more rigid Subaru global platform used first in the redesigned 2017 Impreza. And we’ll report back here as soon as we get to drive one on the performance of the Ascent’s new 260-horsepower, turbocharged 2.4-liter four-cylinder. Only the Mazda CX-9 among three-row SUVs offers solely four-cylinder power.
But on the basis of what we saw, it appears Subaru is in the 3-row SUV battle in a big way.
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