Right before the 2020 Subaru Ascent came in for review, my wife and I had decided to add another Irish Wolfhound to our household. Our first one, Drogon, is about 18 months old, and he’s gotten to the point where he needs a buddy.
We need to replace my wife’s 2015 Ford Edge because my wife has had difficulty lifting Drogon’s back end up into the vehicle with her MS. So, we had to ask ourselves: Could the Ascent be the right vehicle for two Wolfhounds?
What we are looking for is something that will have enough room for two giant breed dogs and be easier to load them into than her current vehicle.
I specifically asked for the Ascent to review because I haven’t had much time in it previously. Then, there is the whole Subaru-and-dog marketing campaign, which makes it a natural consideration. Plus, as a three-row crossover, it shouldhave enough cargo room to fit two large dogs.
So, how’d it do?
First, the Ascent is physically larger than you think it is. Without bringing out a tape measure and breaking them down millimeter by millimeter, both outside and inside, the Ascent and the Highlander are very close dimensionally.
Jumping from the driver’s seat of the Highlander to the Ascent, I discovered the Subaru has a lower hip point and feels more “car-like” than “crossover-like” This lead me to have high hopes for the cargo area.
One of the issues I had with the Highlander was the relatively high load floor — especially when compared to where the bumper height was.
I was disappointed to discover the load floor of the Ascent was within an inch or so of the Highlander. For most people, this is not an issue or concern, but again, we are looking for low load heights so the dogs can get in by themselves.
The overall styling of the Ascent is pleasant, and it looks like a Subaru. The interior of this Touring trim was also nice, and in many ways, it’s nicer than that of the Platinum trim Highlander.
With the large grille and swept-back headlights, the Ascent has a purposeful almost wide-eyed aggressive look it. The profile view, however, is more sedate and “standard” crossover. The side windows have the appearance of being right in between those of the Outback the Forester.
The Outback’s not being as tall, and the Forester’s being taller. A high beltline makes for a lot of metal below the glass, though Subaru tries to hide that mass with dark-colored trim at the bottom of the sill.
If there is one area that gives away the size of the Ascent, however, it’s the back. The rear wheel arches are flared out, and even though they taper back as they approach the rear hatch area, that wide hip look doesn’t go away. Again, we see more metal than glass in the rear, and that too gives a real sense of size and mass.
The Ascent was the first Subaru to rethink the quality of materials used for its interiors. Design-wise Subaru interiors were never bad. They were just, well, utilitarian in their material choices. Given that Subaru likes to emphasize its outdoor image, that seems mostly logical. However, given the price Subaru charges for its top trim levels, the materials were lacking.
While the Ascent’s interior materials don’t look – or, in areas, feel — a class up like the Kia Telluride, they do look and feel exactly like what you’d expect when spending $35k – $47k on a three-row crossover.
That is a major step up for Subaru, and we are seeing that trickle down through the product line now.
The driver’s seat was immediately comfortable. The lower hip point where you sit down ever so slightly into the seat is a welcome change. In most crossovers, you slide in or step slightly up into them.
I understand from the manufactures standpoint that customers want to sit higher because it gives them the — and this is the key word here — illusion of better control because they sit higher. However, I say give me a lower seat height and lower center of gravity for the reality of better physics and control every time in a car or crossover.
The doors for the second row are large — very large in fact. Plus, they open wide, which makes it easy to get in the second and third rows. There’s a miss here, though: No proximity locks for the second-row doors. To unlock them you either have to use the fob and click twice or open the front door and then use the switch. Second-row proximity locks are pretty standard for this class.
Then you have the captain’s chairs. I do not like them. This is a personal item for me — mostly because when you fold them flat, you have a large hole between them. When you have a dog, the last thing you want is a large area without support below it.
Second-row legroom is generous. Even with the driver’s seat adjusted for me at 5 feet 10 inches I could stretch out when sitting behind myself. To give some context, the second row has about 3.5 inches less legroom than the front seats. This, however, does lead to compromises with the third row.
If you are taller than 5 feet 5 inches, you will not want to sit back there. The knees above your hips aren’t so bad, but the lack of legroom is. I was fairly jammed up when I tried to sit back there. The actual dimension for the third-row legroom is 31.7 inches — a full 7 inches less than the second row.
Also worth noting: While it’s easy to get into the third row, the seat is far less fiddly than the Highlander’s. Third-row access in the Highlander is a two-step process to move the seat whereas the Ascent is a one-step operation.
Let’s revisit that load height I mentioned at the top. Actual dimensional height is 32 inches, according to Subaru. While 2.5 feet might not seem like much, when you are lifting the tail end of a 130-pound dog, it’s more than you think. The other side of this is: As they age, you really don’t want them to jump down to get out.
With the third row up, there are 20 inches of depth to the cargo area. You can turn a grocery bag sideways, and it will fill up most of that. Buy a case of soda or beer, same thing. Once you fold the third row down, however, things open up quite a bit. Now you have almost 4 feet of depth to your cargo area. Given the higher ceiling, you can get quite a bit of stuff in here.
With the second row folded, you’ll have 6 feet 10 inches of length.
One other noticeable item about the cargo area: While the volume does open up once you are past the rear hatch, that actual opening is much smaller because of the structure. My dog had to duck to get into the back of the Ascent. Once inside, however, he could almost stand.
Additionally, if you want to really haul things, the Ascent is rated to tow 5,000 pounds. So, you should have no problem pulling a small camper, boat or side-by-side to your favorite spots.
On the road
Refined is not always the first word that comes to mind when you’re talking about Subaru Boxer engines. However, after a week with the Highlander Hybrid, this felt Jaguar V-12 smooth. The engine is rated at 260 horsepower at 5,600 rpm and 277 pound-feet of torque. Because this is a turbo engine, Subaru has been able to tune the torque curve to have its peak number be available from 2,000 through 4,800 rpm. That flat curve makes a huge difference in how the Subaru accelerates and drives compared to the Highlander Hybrid.
Unfortunately, Subaru has crippled this Ascent with a CVT gearbox. In my opinion, there is no such thing as a good CVT gearbox. Some are just more tolerable than others.
That said, in the 10 years of driving continuously variable transmissions, the one universal truth I have found is: An abundance of torque is the key to making a CVT tolerable. With the large flat torque curve from this turbo boxer engine, it was
This Touring trim model has a listed curb weight of 4,609 pounds. Toss in a full load of fuel, two adults and a little gear, and you’re talking 5,000 pounds. The fact acceleration feels as effortless as it does pays strong compliments to what Subaru has done with this drivetrain combination.
The ride was unremarkable in the best way. It was perfectly competent. It handled the endless construction and potholes of Metro Detroit as well as a few dirt roads in the area. There was no sharpness transmitted into the cabin over potholes, nor did it become unsettled or rough on the washboard dirt road.
The cabin was calm and quiet, even when rolling down the freeway at above-posted limits. In fact, the Ascent feels as comfortable at 90 mph as it does at 50.
Two areas that stood out to me as caveats were the tech and the fuel economy. The tech will take a few minutes to get through, so let’s tackle fuel economy first.
The EPA rates this Ascent at 20 mpg in the city, 26 on the highway and 22 mpg in combined driving. I saw 18 mpg city and 24 mpg highway in almost 300 miles of use. If I looked at the built-in computer-generated fuel economy numbers, around town it was reading 14-16 mph frequently. I filled up and checked the actual economy numbers as I was really shocked at what the computer was showing me.
After a week with the Highlander Hybrid, which was 32 mph across the board, that was a large drop. It really made the point between the two. When pushing 5,000 pounds down the road, do you want fuel economy, or do you want power?
Now, on to the technological caveat. The Ascent doesn’t have the large tablet infotainment screen like the new Outback. Rather, it has a more standard 8-inch display, with a second “eyebrow” display on top of the dash. The system seems underpowered. By underpowered I mean it takes a significant amount of time for the system to boot up and give you the actual display rather than the bootup screen. Fifteen to 20 seconds was fairly common.
Once booted up, response is good, and the screen resolution is fine. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are available but not standard. The sound from the 14-speaker Harmon Kardon system was just OK. For 99% of the people buying the Ascent, it will be plenty good. For streaming music or podcasts, it will be fine. It’s only when you play well-recorded or high-resolution music that the shortcomings pop up.
While the Ascent does have front proximity sensors and a front-view camera, the camera did not automatically come on when pulling into a parking space with objects in front of you. Given the long hood and high cowl, some close distances can be difficult to judge. You can trigger the front camera, which shows up on the eyebrow display, but again, you had to choose to trigger it.
The radar cruise control in this vehicle was also annoying. It made unnecessary noises all the time. When you came upon traffic, it would beep at you. Move over a lane on the highway, and it would beep at you. Then, it seemed to beep at other times for reasons I could not discern.
However, it did do a better job than some systems of not putting significant distances between you and the vehicle in front – you know, the kind of distance that encourages four, five or six cars to cut you off. Once the object is no longer in front of you, though, it takes more than a few moments for the system to decide to accelerate back to the selected speed.
One other oddity is when you turn on cruise control, the eyebrow display only shows “EyeSight.” Any other information on that display is no longer available. This is several steps too far in hashtag branding — even for a safety system.
There are also a variety of other system alerts triggered for various reasons I couldn’t figure out. Similarly, when I drove an Outback earlier this year, I would get random alerts when going through an intersection. I spent some time RTFM’ing to turn off as much of that garbage as I could, but sometimes you really can’t fight City Hall!
The bottom line on the Subaru Ascent
Overall in the category of three-row crossovers, the Subaru Ascent ends up among the best. Telluride is the undisputed champion. Full stop. Though the Hyundai Palisade is Telluride’s sibling, I haven’t had enough time in it to rate it here. So, for second place, it’s between the Highlander and Ascent, with Mazda CX-9 right on their heels.
The Subaru has a better interior and power, but the Highlander can be had as a hybrid for outstanding fuel economy. Determining your priorities will help you decide which one is best for you.
In the end, while I really liked and enjoyed the Ascent, it will not be the vehicle for us. Lift height, fuel economy and too many noisy safety nannies are all deal breakers. You might say a minivan would be the best choice, but the problem is there is no such thing as a minivan these days. They are all large vehicles — too large unless you are always hauling people, gear or, in our case, dogs.
If you are shopping in this category and you have not driven the Subaru Ascent, you really do owe it to yourself to do so. It is a great overall package that will suit the vast majority of those who need to haul people or gear. At an as-tested price of $46,055 it is a reasonable value for your money in today’s world – and that’s harder and harder to say when it comes to new vehicles.