Subaru has sprung back into the three-row SUV battlefield with a fully competitive model that offers a good engine and comfortable ride, but its merely average third row and lackluster handling hold it back.

The Ascent’s package is successful because it takes a simple, function-focused approach that merges convenience and practicality, especially for families.

The automaker has been conspicuously absent from the segment for years, ever since it retired its quirky Tribeca in 2014, and there hadn’t been a step-up option for customers who had outgrown the Forester SUV and Outback wagon. It faces established, popular models such as the Ford ExplorerHonda Pilot, and Toyota Highlander.

We rented two SUVs from Subaru to sample this all-new vehicle before purchasing our own for testing.

What we rented: The 2019 Subaru Ascent Premium and 2019 Subaru Ascent Touring
Drivetrain: 260-hp, 2.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder with a continuously variable transmission
MSRP: $34,195 (Premium), $44,695 (Touring)
Options (on Premium): Keyless access with push-button start, auto-dimming rearview mirror with HomeLink programmable garage door opener, reverse automatic braking, and power rear liftgate
Options cost: $1,460
Destination fee: $975
Total cost: $36,630 (Premium), $45,670 (Touring) 

2019 Subaru Ascent Premium driving
2019 Subaru Ascent Premium

How It Drives

The Ascent has a turbocharged four-cylinder engine in a segment where V6s dominate, but it’s not like it brings a knife to a gunfight. This engine may trail its chief rivals in cylinders and horsepower, but it works well in the real world.

The engine has good power for everyday driving, aided by a continuously variable transmission that mimics the gear changes in a regular transmission better than most CVTs that try to pull off that trick. And this four-cylinder is quieter than a typical Subaru engine.

The Ascent Base and Premium are Environmental Protection Agency-rated at 23 mpg overall, and the more lavishly equipped, heavier Limited and Touring are rated at 22 mpg overall.

The Base model can tow 2,000 pounds, and the other trim levels can pull up to 5,000 pounds.

The Ascent is offered only in all-wheel-drive configuration, typical for Subaru. Drivers can take minor off-road excursions with its 8.7 inches of ground clearance, X-Mode to bolster traction, and hill-descent mode to help tackle steep slopes.

We came away quite impressed with the ride comfort in both versions. Even with its large 20-inch wheels (rather than 18-inch) and shorter tire sidewalls (which can limit the absorption of impacts), the Touring ride cushions road imperfections without feeling floaty.

The handling, however, was less impressive. The Ascent feels large and tends to lumber a bit in corners. It definitely lacks the sporty demeanor of a Mazda CX-9. Still, our drivers felt confident in the Ascent’s ability to retain its grip when making sharp turns.

2019 Subaru Ascent interior
2019 Subaru Ascent Premium

Inside

Getting in the Ascent cabin is easy, thanks to its large doors and relatively low step-in height. The seat comfort is good as long as one opts for one of the two top trims (Limited and Touring), which have leather and a two-way lumbar adjustment. Lower trims don’t offer enough lower-back support.

The controls are easy to see, reach, and use. The infotainment touch-screen display is clear and responds quickly to commands. Interacting with the trip information and flipping through the different information bits can be confusing because they’re displayed on a different screen.

More expensive trim versions offer Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility. A WiFi hotspot can support up to eight devices to entertain connected families.

The Ascent can receive over-the-air software updates, potentially providing fixes and improvements quicker than waiting on routine service needs to take the Ascent back to the dealer. Subaru will force the implementation of safety-related updates, without waiting for owners to approve them; updates that the automaker considers to be optional must be approved by the owner before they’re implemented.

The USB and auxiliary inputs are conveniently located below the climate controls, and there is a handy shelf to store your phone or iPod.

SUV ROAD TESTS

The Ascent’s soft surfaces and contrasting interior accents add an upscale flair, though there is a surplus of seams, creating a distracting number of lines. That said, the Touring’s premium ambience befits its price.

The simple head-up display used for forward-collision warning and lane-keeping alerts is a standout feature. It’s nothing fancy—just simple colored lights that appear on the lower windshield, minimizing the distance the driver’s eyes must travel from the road to interpret the message.

The Ascent Base comes with a second-row bench seat, but all other trims offer a no-cost choice of bench or captain’s chairs. There’s plenty of legroom. There are convenient controls for adjusting rear climate settings, USB ports for plugging in chargers, and even a 110-volt outlet. A panoramic moonroof is available on the Premium and Limited, and it comes standard on the Touring.

The foldaway third row is slightly elevated, creating theater-style seating. Third-row space is limited (common to the segment), but it can be useful for tweens and teens in a pinch. Passengers will find that the grab handles mounted on top of the second-row captain’s chairs make getting out of the third row easier.

With all seats upright, there is enough space in the wayback to stow bags or small luggage. When the seats are folded down, the second and third rows don’t quite flatten. 

Safety and Driver-Assist Systems

Standard equipment includes Subaru’s EyeSight Driver Assist Technology, a suite that includes forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane-keep assist, and adaptive cruise control. Head-up display, blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert, and rear automatic braking are available.

2019 Subaru Ascent Touring rear
2019 Subaru Ascent Touring

Bottom Line

The largest Subaru in the automaker’s history, at 196.8 inches, is bigger than a Toyota Highlander and comes equipped to compete with the established midsized three-row SUV leaders. The Indiana-built Ascent strikes us as the right vehicle for many suburban families. The easy-to-live-with cabin, smooth ride, and all-around versatility will have the Ascent appealing to a much wider audience than just those who outgrew the Forester.

Learn more about the Subaru Ascent on its model page