The Subaru Outback has a cult-like following — and I count myself among the faithful — but like many parents, I can't fit my kids' three car seats in back, so it's a no-go for my family.
Enter the 2019 Subaru Ascent. The new-three row SUV fills a hole in the automaker's lineup left when the unimpressive Tribeca three-row was axed after the 2014 model year. The Ascent is Subaru's biggest vehicle ever, designed to satisfy larger families with seven or eight seats. But it's not just size that matters to families; comfort, safety and convenience features are key, too. Oh, and kids — and dogs, and the second-grade class gecko — are often filthy, so it can't be too nice.
I drove the Ascent at a media preview event in rural Oregon (per our ethics policy, Cars.com pays for its own airfare and lodging at such automaker-hosted events) to gauge if this new Subaru has what it takes to keep up with larger families' everyday adventures.
The Road Most Traveled
Power comes from a new turbocharged 2.4-liter four-cylinder; that might sound like it's not enough for a vehicle of this size, but for the most part, it is. There's plenty of torque and low-end power comes on strong without a hint of hesitation. It's all you'll have, too — unlike the Outback, a six-cylinder engine is not optional.
Where it starts to feel underpowered is on the highway. During passing and merging or on hill climbs, it can struggle — and this is where the continuously variable automatic transmission's unpleasant mannerisms got on my nerves. Combined with the four-cylinder, its drone is loud, coarse and unrefined, and it takes its time gathering steam for more power. An eight-speed electronic "manual mode" with steering-wheel paddle shifters is a small (and gimmicky) consolation.
On the road, the Ascent drives predictably like a three-row SUV. It's prone to a little bit of float on the highway but for the most part stays controlled and composed in corners. It doesn't feel as agile and engaging as the Volkswagen Atlas, but its ride quality is good with bumps well-damped. Its steering feels nicely weighted, direct and natural. Overall, the Ascent would be long-drive comfortable if not for the CVT's joyless dynamics; it's also a touch loud in terms of wind and road noise.
The Road Least Traveled
Most three-row SUVs spend their downtime in a garage, wheels never leaving the asphalt. Subaru's target audience is a little more active, and the Ascent is primed for adventure.
All-wheel drive is standard, and it's a capable and versatile system. I drove the Ascent on sand, rocks and dirt, and it remained sure-footed. A robust 8.7 inches of ground clearance and the standard X-Mode AWD system helps; it automatically moderates engine, transmission and braking to assist with tricky conditions. For example, I climbed a steep, rocky berm, and on the way down, X-Mode's hill descent control feature automatically moderated the brakes and throttle to assist with a smooth descent.
The Ascent can tow up to 5,000 pounds, and a system that reduces trailer sway is standard. Those in the extra-adventurous camp will be happy to know that Subaru engineered the Ascent's standard roof rails to handle the weight of a roof tent (I'm looking at you, millennials). Sadly, I didn't get to test this claim, either.
My parenting style is to take the path of least resistance in keeping my kids happy and alive — simple, unfussy and straightforward. The new Ascent's cabin feels me. Its design is clean and materials utilitarian.
There's a mix of padded and unpadded plastic in the mid-level Premium trim level I drove, and the only offensive part is the trim: A tacky faux-snakeskin-like beige plastic lines the dash and doors. On uplevel Touring models, the cabin strikes a more luxurious tone, however, with low-gloss wood paneling and leather for the seats and other surfaces.
The controls redeem the cabin materials, however. The standard multimedia system has a 6.5-inch touchscreen, an 8-inch one is standard on higher trims and Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard on both. The system's placement square on the dash makes it easy to read, and the clear menu structure and tuning and volume knobs make it easy to use.
In terms of other features, there are plenty — both standard and optional. Perhaps not most important, but among the most surprising, the Ascent comes standard with 19 cupholders; that's a lot of juice boxes — or for my family, sequins, buttons and pebble collection bins. Other standards include a conversation mirror, tri-zone climate control, four USB ports (up to eight are available depending on trim) and spill-resistant seats.
Anyone who's ever carted around a living creature knows that spills — and other accidents — happen. They're less of a deal with Subaru's new standard stain-resistant cloth seats. I spilled some liquid to test them out and it beaded instantly so I could wipe it up without it soaking — and stinking — into the upholstery.
Options and features standard on higher trims include a panoramic moonroof, power liftgate, 4G Wi-Fi hot spot capability (with subscription), ventilated front seats and a full-time camera-based rearview mirror handy for when the driver's rearward view is blocked by stuff or people.
What's missing is a rear entertainment system. Subaru has its own version of that with the Entertainment Anywhere Package: two Subaru-configured iPads and a pair of headphones for individual streaming and gaming. Yes, I know there's something to be said about all the kids coming together to watch a movie, but teaching my kids how to share on a road trip is not a hill I plan to die on.
Room for Extra
The Ascent has seating for seven on second-row captain's chairs or eight with a bench seat. I tested a bench model and found it roomy, though the seats were harder and not as comfortable as in front. The bench slides forward and back, reclines and features five lower Latch anchors — two in the outboard seats and one in the center — making the Ascent extra-flexible when it comes to child-safety seat installation. Subaru says the Ascent's bench will fit three car seats across, but I was unable to test that.
Getting to the third row is easy thanks to second-row seats that quickly spring and slide forward, opening up a big path. The step-in height is relatively low and the doors open wide, so getting back there doesn't require much in the way of acrobatics.
The third-row seats are even harder, but they're not set too close to the floor as in some other third rows, so comfort is decent. They also recline, which helps. There's room for three people back there, but each spot is narrow and best suited for kids. The third row has one set of lower Latch anchors and three top-tether anchors, though a lack of legroom would prevent a rear-facing car seat from being installed in back.
Behind the third row, there's 17.8 cubic feet of space, a bit more than the Honda Pilot but a bit less than the Volkswagen Atlas. The third-row seats fold easily in a 60/40 split for more room, and there's also a small underfloor storage cubby for corralling littler items.
Safety and Dollars
Value and safety are two big Ascent strengths, and ones parents prioritize. The Ascent starts at $32,970 (all prices cited include destination charges). That gets you an eight-seat base model, AWD and Subaru's EyeSight safety and driver assistance system with forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning and adaptive cruise control. Upgrade one trim to the Premium to get standard blind spot warning, lane change assist and rear cross-traffic alert.
Its entry price compares with other base three-row SUVs like the Pilot ($31,895) and the Atlas ($31,675), but if you add the Ascent's safety features and AWD, both rivals cost much more.
The Ascent is not the fanciest, quietest or most refined three-row SUV, but it's good where it counts. It's practical, affordable, capable and has enough goodies to keep a family's precious cargo happy and safe. There's no way to predict if it will garner quite the popularity of its smaller Outback sibling, but consider me a follower.
Stay tuned for my full review, including fuel economy and more comparative information.
Editor's note: This story was updated May 21, 2018, to clarify that the Outback does not offer a V-6 engine.
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