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How We Found the Best 3-Row SUV of 2020

2020 Subaru Ascent

As we do in any multicar comparison test, our expert judges spent a week driving and comparing vehicles in the best way anyone can evaluate competitors: back to back. Judges took each car on identical routes to uncover the differences that in many cases can determine the difference between a winner and a loser.

2020 3-Row SUV Challenge
Results | Winner | How We Tested | Mileage Drive | Cargo

Our judges’ opinions accounted for a large portion of determining a contestant’s score, but depending on the class, we also include objective scoring in the form of fuel economy, car-seat fitment, safety and driver-assist features, and sometimes measured tests of acceleration and braking. Below is how we scored SUVs in the 2020 3-Row SUV Challenge. Each vehicle was evaluated as equipped and priced; our results cannot represent model lineups as a whole.

Subjective Scoring Categories

Front Seats

Legroom, headroom and knee room were all considered when determining front-seat comfort. So was whether the cushioning was comfortable and if the seat could be adjusted appropriately. Features we looked for include heated and ventilated seats, the extent of seat and steering-column adjustments, and memory and massaging functions.

Second-Row Seats

Along with dimensions, second-row comfort was determined by cushioning, support, footwell space and whether the seat was high enough to provide comfortable knee positioning. We also considered whether the seat was easy to get in and out of. Second-row feature considerations included reclining and sliding adjustments and if the area had adjustable air vents, rear climate controls and heated or ventilated rear seats.

Third-Row Seats

Third-row comfort was determined by cushioning, support and whether the seat was high enough to provide comfortable knee positioning. We looked at how easy it was to slide and tilt the second row forward, as well as clearance for third-row access — both outboard (with the second-row seats forward) and inboard (between second-row captain’s chairs, if equipped). Features we looked for in the third row include device-charging options, cupholders and climate vents.

Vehicle User Interface

This category covered the many ways a driver controls the vehicle — beyond the steering wheel and pedals. What we once called a “multimedia” system now frequently takes on some responsibility for controlling vehicle features that have nothing to do with audio and smartphones, so we avoided categorizing the touchscreen that way. Judges considered ease of use for all controls — how logically grouped, visible and reachable they are. They also scrutinized the size and usability of touchscreens and their menus and navigation, head-up displays and virtual gauges, including display quality, responsiveness, supporting controls and how drivers configure and interact with these various systems, be it buttons on the steering wheel, dashboard or center console, or via voice control.

Media and Connectivity

In this category, we accounted for the different types of media supported, from CDs and Bluetooth to built-in streaming audio services, as well as video capabilities front and rear. We noted the presence or absence of Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Amazon Alexa and similar systems, as well as how well they’re integrated and function. We also judged based on the inclusion of Wi-Fi, near-field communication and wireless smartphone charging, and we recorded the number of USB ports and 120-volt household-style outlets.

Interior Quality

Interior quality considerations included whether the cabin seemed appropriately appointed, rating the appearance and feel of the surfaces, and overall craftsmanship. Judges noted if the materials were well-made and authentic or a cheap imitation. Another consideration was whether the quality dropped from the front to rear seats.

In-Cabin Storage

As the size of our smartphones and other mobile devices grow, it’s important to have the space to accommodate them. We evaluated those and other storage options in the cabin, including open and covered storage, and if there were enough cupholders and a sunglasses holder.

Visibility

Considerations for visibility included whether roof pillars or low roofs obstructed forward visibility, as well as if there were large blind spots to the side or rear. We looked for features that could improve visibility, such as large side mirrors, rear head restraints that flipped down, manual or remote flip-downs, a high-definition backup camera and a full-time rearview camera mirror.

Powertrain

The powertrain score reflected how well the engine and transmission worked together. Judges looked for whether there was enough acceleration from a stop or for passing, if the transmission upshifted smoothly or downshifted without too much delay, and if the engine was smooth and refined or rough and unsophisticated. In the absence of track testing, Challenge judges also gauged each contestant’s acceleration versus the others.

Braking

Though we performed no formal stopping-distance tests, judges rated how strong and confidence-inspiring the brakes felt, how much pedal pressure was required and how linear the braking force was. Vehicles with mushy pedal feel or braking that was hard to modulate were scored lower.

Ride Quality

Considerations for ride quality included how it contributed to the vehicle’s comfort level. Judges evaluated whether the ride was too firm, too soft, if it felt controlled over bumps and if it was stable on rough roads.

Handling

Judges drove the car on the same route to determine how well each car cornered, determining if it rolled (i.e., leaned) as well as whether it felt planted and confident or uneasy, requiring too much effort to drive cleanly through a corner. Vehicle dynamics and any tendencies toward understeer or oversteer, as well as steering and all-wheel-drive execution, also played a part.

Noise

Judges gauged how much wind, road, engine and external noise entered the cabin during all circumstances, including highway driving and acceleration.

As-Tested Value

Judges determined if each test vehicle was worth the retail price as equipped. Considerations apart from the categories above included warranties, free maintenance, and standard and optional features.

Objective Scoring Categories

Safety

The safety component was scored by the number and complexity of safety features equipped on the test vehicle. These included forward collision warning, forward automatic emergency braking (low- versus high-speed), rear automatic emergency braking and lane departure warning (with steering or braking assist), blind spot warning, dynamic lines for the backup camera, 360-degree camera systems, rear cross-traffic detection, parking sensors, automatic high beams and adaptive, pivoting headlights.

Driver-Assistance Tech/Autonomy

We scored the driver-assistance component by the number and complexity of driver-assistance features equipped on the test vehicle. These were hands-on lane-centering steering (low- versus high-speed), hands-free lane centering and adaptive cruise control (higher speeds only or to a complete stop).

Cargo Storage

We’ve reported how manufacturer-provided cargo specs can mislead and cargo storage is much more than a cubic footage number. When judging cargo room, we conducted our own measurements and also considered how usable the space was, how easy it was to load and retrieve objects, and if there was usable under-floor space. Two-thirds of each SUV’s cargo score came from as-measured volume behind the second and third rows — a measure of width, depth and height for each area.

We measured height from the cargo floor to the top of the rear seatbacks, excluding head restraints, with seats slid to their rearmost position and reclined as close as possible to 110 degrees with the ground. We measured depth from the base of the seatback to the plastic lip at the cargo opening at the vehicle’s center. Behind the second row, we measured width behind between the wheel wells near the cargo floor. Behind the third row, we measured width all the way to the sides of the cargo area, a reflection of the usable space behind the wheels.

The remainder of the cargo score came from our measurement of maximum cargo depth with the seats folded — measured from the liftgate opening to the rear facing of the console between the front seats — and points awarded for seat-folding controls in the cargo area, powered liftgates and hands-free access, sliding second-row seats and under-floor storage behind the third row.

Child-Safety Seats

Cars.com’s staff includes certified car seat installers who test the fitment of various child-safety seats in our test cars. You can find more information on how we install and test child-safety seats in our Car Seat Check section.

Mileage Drive

Rather than work exclusively from EPA mileage estimates, we embarked on a road-trip mileage test in which all seven contestants caravanned for some 245 miles, broken into seven legs, starting and ending at the same gas station and fuel pump. After each leg, drivers rotated to balance out differences in driving style, weight and climate-control usage. The route was a mix of city and highway driving, with windows and moonroofs shut and no usage of cruise control or efficiency- or performance-oriented driving modes. The top-rated vehicle earned 30 points to maintain consistency with the maximum score of other objective categories, and lesser results were an appropriate percentage below that number. Any closeness between point totals and mpg results is coincidental. The fuel-economy number we reported was an average between the reported trip-computer mpg and the calculated observed mileage using the SUV’s trip odometer and the gas pump’s readout of gallons filled.

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Cars.com’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with Cars.com’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of Cars.com’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.

 
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