The Subaru Ascent looks like a plumped-up version of the Outback wagon and fills the hole in the automaker’s lineup left when the unimpressive Tribeca three-row was axed after the 2014 model year. Compare the Ascent with the Tribeca.

The Ascent is Subaru’s biggest vehicle ever, designed to satisfy larger families with its seven or eight seats. It competes against the likes of the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander and Volkswagen Atlas; see them compared. Trim levels for 2018 include base, Premium, Limited and Touring.

Creature Comforts

It’s not just size that matters to families; comfort, safety and convenience features are also key. Yet kids — and dogs and the second-grade class gecko — are often filthy, so it can’t be too nice. The Ascent deftly toes that line, like a clean toddler teetering cheerfully on the edge of a muddy puddle. Its cabin is simple, unfussy and straightforward, with a plain design and utilitarian materials.

There’s a mix of padded and unpadded plastic in the Ascent Premium I drove. It’s a mid-range trim level, and its only offensive part is the trim: Tacky beige plastic, reminiscent of faux snakeskin, lines the dash and doors. On the highest Touring trim, the cabin strikes a more luxurious tone, with low-gloss wood trim and leather for the seats and other surfaces. 

In lower trims, the controls redeem the cabin materials. The standard multimedia system has a 6.5-inch touchscreen, while an 8-inch one is standard on higher trims; 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. Not most important, but maybe most surprising, the Ascent comes standard with 19 cupholders. That’s a lot of juice boxes — or in my family, sequin-, button- and pebble-collection bins. Other standard features include a conversation mirror (a wide-angle mirror above the rearview mirror that lets the driver see all seats), 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 big 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 into — and stinking up — the upholstery. None of the Ascent’s competitors offer anything like it.   

Families look for comfort in a car, but kids are often filthy, so it can’t be too nice. The Ascent deftly toes that line, like a clean toddler teetering cheerfully on the edge of a muddy puddle.

Features standard or available on higher trims include a panoramic moonroof, power liftgate, 4G Wi-Fi hot spot (with subscription), ventilated front seats and a full-time rearview camera — handy for when the driver's rear view is blocked by stuff or people.

There’s also an available entertainment system: the Entertainment Anywhere Package, which consists of 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 on a single screen, but teaching my kids how to share on a road trip is not a hill I plan to die on.

Room for Extra

The Subaru Outback has a cultlike following, and I count myself among the faithful. Like many parents, however, I can’t fit my kids’ three car seats in back, so it’s a no-go for my family. But both my kids and their friends would fit in the Ascent. It has seating for seven with second-row captain’s chairs or eight with a bench seat in the second row.

I tested a bench model and found it roomy, though the seat was harder and not as comfortable as in front. The bench slides forward and back and reclines, and it features five lower Latch anchors — a pair in each of the outboard seats and one anchor 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. The Pilot and Atlas easily accommodate three car seats in the second row; we have not yet tested a Highlander equipped with a second-row bench.

Getting to the third row is easy thanks to second-row seats that quickly spring and slide forward, opening up a big path. 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 seat cushions are even harder than the second row’s, but they’re not set too close to the floor as they are in some 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. By the numbers, the Ascent’s third row is slightly roomier than the Highlander’s but not quite as spacious as the Atlas’ or Pilot’s.

There’s 17.8 cubic feet of space behind the third row. That’s a bit more than the Pilot and much more than the Highlander, but a smidge less than the Atlas. The third-row seats fold easily in a 60/40 split to create more cargo room, and there’s also a small underfloor storage cubby for corralling littler items.

With the third row down, the Ascent again offers more room than the Pilot and Highlander but can’t quite match the Atlas. 

The Road Most Traveled

Power comes from a new turbocharged 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine. That might sound too small for a vehicle this size, but it does the job for the most part. There’s plenty of torque, and low-end power comes on strong without a hint of hesitation. Where the Ascent's engine 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.

This engine is all you can get in the Ascent — unlike the Outback, which has an optional six-cylinder engine. Though power ratings never tell the whole story, it's worth noting that the Ascent's only engine is more powerful, at 260 horsepower, than the standard four-cylinders in the Atlas and Highlander, but slightly less powerful than the Atlas' optional V-6 and the Pilot's standard one. The Highlander's optional V-6 tops them all at 295 hp.

On the road, the Ascent drives predictably, which is to say, like a three-row SUV. It’s prone to a little bit of float on the highway, but for the most part, it 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 behavior — and it’s also a touch loud in terms of wind and road noise.

Some turbo engines prefer premium gas, but Subaru says regular is just fine for the Ascent. Base models are EPA-rated at 21/27/23 mpg city/highway/combined, which slightly lags behind a base Atlas (22/26/24 mpg) and bests a Highlander (20/24/22 mpg) — both with front-wheel drive as opposed to the Ascent’s all-wheel drive. It represents gains over the old Subaru Tribeca, as well, which was EPA-rated at 16/21/18 mpg despite being smaller. The V-6-only Pilot in base front-wheel-drive trim is rated 19/27/22 mpg. 

The Road Least Traveled

Most three-row SUVs' wheels never leave the pavement. Subaru’s target audience is a little more active, and the Ascent is primed for adventure.  

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 help. X-Mode is a capable and versatile system that automatically moderates engine, transmission and braking to assist with tricky conditions. For example, after I climbed a steep, rocky berm, X-Mode’s hill descent control feature automatically moderated the brakes and throttle on the way down to assist with a smooth descent.

When equipped with an available Class III trailer hitch, the Ascent can tow up to 2,000 pounds with the base trim level and up to 5,000 pounds with the higher trims. 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.

Safety and Dollars

Value and safety are two big strengths of the Ascent — and they’re attributes parents prioritize. The Ascent starts at $32,970 (all prices cited include destination charges). That gets you an eight-seat base model with AWD and Subaru's EyeSight safety and driver assistance system, which includes forward collision warning and automatic emergency braking, lane departure warning and adaptive cruise control. Go up one trim level to the Premium and you’ll get standard blind spot warning, lane change assist and rear cross-traffic alert.

At a glance, the Ascent's entry price seems in line with those of the Pilot ($31,895), Highlander ($32,275) and Atlas ($31,675), but once you account for the safety features and AWD included in its price, the base Subaru is much more affordable.

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.

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