New flagship is a solid entry in the three-row crossover segment
Subaru executives don’t like to say the “T” word. The 2006 B9 Tribeca was the first time a three-row family vehicle wore the Pleiades badge, but it was too small and missed the mark. After two generations, the automaker quietly pulled the plug in 2014. It was one of the few missteps for a brand whose recent years have been marked by seemingly unstoppable sales growth.
Lesson learned, Subaru has spent the past five years concocting a true three-row family hauler worthy of the North American market and the Subaru brand.
Getting this version right is key: Subaru owners love their cars, but when they need to trade in their Forester or Outback for a larger vehicle, they have had to leave the brand.
Into the fray comes the all-new 2019 Subaru Ascent, the largest, heaviest, most expensive Subaru to date. This new flagship, available as a seven- or eight-passenger vehicle, makes its debut in the heart of the midsize crossover segment, which includes the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, Ford Explorer, Nissan Pathfinder, Mazda CX-9, the smaller GMC Acadia, and the new Volkswagen Atlas. Stiff competition, no doubt.
If you thought the Ascent was going to to repeat the error of being on the small side, think again. At 196.8 inches in length, it is bigger than the Highlander, Pilot, and Acadia and only a few inches shorter than the rest of the pack.
Those dimensions are impressive given that the Ascent rides on the same new Subaru Global Platform that underpins the 2017 Impreza and little Crosstrek wagon. SPG was made longer, wider, and stiffer to accommodate the Ascent’s size, mass, and towing capability, said Kazuhito Ozora, Subaru’s deputy general manager of the Total Vehicle Performance Integration Department in Japan. Now you know why the Impreza and Crosstrek are so stiff; the Ascent needed a strong starting point and has been further bolstered from what was given to the smaller models.
If you thought the Ascent was going to to repeat the error of being on the small side, think again
Subaru might be a latecomer to the segment with the Ascent—a name chosen from hundreds that fit the adventurous themes the brand promotes—but it did its homework, benchmarking the Pathfinder’s size and seating, the CX-9’s dynamics, the Highlander’s packaging, and the Explorer’s appeal.
Codenamed TR8, the Ascent was developed in Japan but will be built at Subaru’s plant in Lafayette, Indiana. All 60,000 annual units are for North America; the plant can build more if needed. It will be available in base, Premium, Limited, and Touring trim levels. The pricing ladder will be announced closer to the on-sale date this spring, but we’re told the Ascent will start just above $30,000 USD.
The goal was a properly sized, well-equipped, safe family vehicle that drives well. Easier said than done. To assess how close the team came to the mark, we got an exclusive first drive of a prototype and a chance to rummage through it.
The Ascent is the first to get Subaru’s new 2.4-liter direct-injection turbocharged flat-four engine, which will show up in other future models. The horizontally opposed Subaru Boxer engine generates 260 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of torque. Subaru’s R&D test drivers recorded a 0–60-mph time of 7.3 seconds, beating their times for the CX-9 and the Explorer four-cylinder turbos.
The global platform is designed to accommodate hybrids, plug-in hybrids, and pure electric vehicles, but there are no immediate plans to electrify the Ascent, said Peter Tenn, advanced product concept manager at Subaru of America.
While driving the camouflaged CUV (a non-camouflaged model is shown here), we noticed throttle response and acceleration were strong from a stop but wished for more power for passing at cruising speed with the pedal mashed to the floor. It is the same beef we have with the 2.0-liter in the smaller Crosstrek. It’s part of the industry move toward smaller engines, and Subaru wants best-in-class fuel economy. Certified mileage figures are expected in January.
Much effort went into mitigating noise, vibration, and harshness as measured from each row. During our drive, road noise was minimal, and conversations were easily heard between the driver and those in the back. The efficacy of the damping system became evident on stretches of Michigan’s notoriously poor roadways.
The flat-four is mounted low in the structure, giving the crossover a lower center of gravity. On our brief drive, the prototype felt planted and exhibited minimal body roll on roads that had a competitor wallowing. In terms of dynamics, the benchmark was the Mazda CX-9, and the Ascent compared favorably. Steering was responsive without needing a lot of input.
The continuously variable transmission mimics gear shifts. Whether that is necessary remains debatable, but the shifting was well-placed and pleasant. Standard paddle shifters allow for mimicked downshifts to enable engine braking. The CVT also was upgraded so the bigger Ascent can tow 5,000 pounds (2,268 kg). It has trailer stability assist to mitigate sway—but there is no trailer assist for backing up, a feature emerging on pickups and large SUVs.
The Ascent has Subaru’s Symmetrical All-Wheel-Drive system, hill descent control, auto hold for parking on a hill, and X-Mode to reduce wheel slip. A smart rearview mirror gives you the option of a camera view if the vehicle is loaded to the gills.
Despite its 8.7 inches of ground clearance, it is easy to get in and out. The interior is wide and spacious, and cargo room behind the third row beats much of the competition. A bench second row makes it an eight-passenger vehicle, or switch to captain’s chairs at no charge.
All seats recline, and everyone gets a sunshade, reading light, and ventilation in the ceiling. The moonroof extends over only the first two rows. The sliding mechanism of the second-row seat is one of the smoothest and easiest we’ve tried, and it doesn’t take a feat of strength to pull the seat back up after being folded flat. As you crawl to the third row, a second half-step is required to reach the higher floor level. Adults will fit in the third row but with little room to spare. A nice touch: Grab handles on top of the second-row captain’s chairs, similar to the ones on Japan’s bullet trains, help access the third row.
There are power outlets, Wi-Fi, and eight USB ports in order to reduce the need for seat-mounted DVD screens. There are also 19 cupholders. Up front are ledges for phones, Starlink for connectivity, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and a Harman Kardon stereo (yes, with a volume knob). There is even a trip-reset button—no scrolling through menus.
The Eyesight dual-camera system can bring the vehicle to an emergency stop from any speed and provides a long list of advanced safety and driver assistance features including lane keep assist, which in the Ascent gently pushes the vehicle back between lane markers and lets you drive longer than most after warning the driver to resume steering. Subaru expects the Ascent to get top safety scores.
For a maker of small vehicles, it’s a tricky feat to upsize one’s ambitions. But Subaru has done well its second time around. The use of space is thoughtful, and it does not feel big or unwieldy on the road. It still comes across as a Subaru—though customers will have to get used to one big change: You no longer have to reach for the floor to unlock the fuel door. We think Subie fans will quickly adapt.
|2019 Subaru Ascent|
|BASE PRICE||$32,000-$42,000 (est)|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, AWD, 7- or 8-pass. 4-door SUV|
|ENGINE||2.4L/260-hp/277-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 16-valve flat-4|
|TRANSMISSION||Cont. variable auto|
|CURB WEIGHT||4,300 lb (mfr)|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||196.8 x 76.0 x 69.6 in (est)|
|0-60 MPH||7.3 sec (mfr est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||Not yet rated|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||Spring, 2018|