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Though Subaru’s sales game has been unstoppable in recent years, even as it keeps making fun and good things for us to drive, there’s one lucrative segment it has yet to conquer—the big three-row crossover one. The 2019 Subaru Ascent aims to change that, and unlike the black sheep Tribeca it actually looks and feels like a Subaru.

And I’m happy to report it handles far better than anything made to haul seven or eight people really should.

[Full disclosure: Subaru wanted us to drive the new Ascent so badly that they flew me out to Oregon, housed me and fed me for the weekend. They scored me DayQuil after I got stuck sitting in front of Europe’s Sickest Dude on the trip there. I even got to put a bird on Portland, as one does.]

Photo: Subaru

What Is It?

The 2019 Subaru Ascent is a three-row crossover that was designed to satiate America’s undying demand for such cars. Subaru wants a piece of that action, except this time, they wanted to make one that was undeniably a Subaru. This is the biggest, most expensive Subaru ever made, and it will no doubt print more money than the Federal Reserve.

Years ago Subaru tried to keep growing families in its own family with the Tribeca, but that one never quite hit the mark. Early ones were a bit too awkwardly snouted, and later ones just looked blobby and bland. Worst of all, neither design looked like a Subaru. The boxer-powered guts were there, but the chunky, rugged styling we’ve all come to associate with the Official Car Of Vermont wasn’t, and it was a major sales flop for the company.

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The second and third rows in seven-passenger form, with one captain’s chair folded over.
Photo: Subaru

Perhaps it was too early, as everyone now keeps releasing three-row crossovers and SUVs for families who think they’re too cool to just buy a minivan. Yet the Ascent hopes to be more than just a road-bound soccer shuttle. It comes with all-wheel-drive standard, a workable 8.7 inches of ground clearance, 5,000 pounds of towing capacity and the ability to mount a tent on the roof if need be.

It’s a car that screams, “Look at me! I can outdoors!” Fortunately, it’s okay at that.

A 180-degree front-view camera appears on that little screen above the nav unit in the Touring trim I tested.
Photo: Subaru

Some thought has been given to mild off-pavement use with the inclusion of all-wheel drive and “X-Mode,” a setting that directs torque to the wheels with the most traction to make the car as easy to control and automatically allows the car to descend hills at speeds under 15 mph and well within control in low-traction settings like dirt or ice.

There’s ample space for cargo both inside and on the standard roof rails of the car, and relatively comfortable space for everyone.

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Photo: Subaru

Most famously, there are 19 cupholders in this thing in addition to numerous other small bins and cubbies. They aren’t just after Subaru people—they’re after every America that bleeds red, white, blue and Big Gulp.

On the outside, it looks a bit like someone blew up an Outback in a copier. Since people who’ve outgrown cars like the Outback are the main customers Subaru hopes to keep in a Subaru with the Ascent, this is probably for the best.

Photo: Subaru

Specs That Matter

The Ascent comes with all-wheel-drive and a 2.4-liter turbocharged dual overhead cam boxer four-cylinder engine on every trim. That turbo four pumps out a claimed 260 horsepower and 270 lb-ft of torque, which it sends to an all-new continuously variable transmission designed for the Ascent.

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Cargo space with the third row up.
Photo: Subaru
Cargo space with the second and third rows down in a seven-passenger Ascent.
Photo: Subaru

Various Subaru representatives defended going with this one engine option vigorously during the weekend, contending that the boxer four allowed them to keep the center of gravity low, and that they tuned it for decent low-range torque. While tighter regulations regarding emissions and fuel economy influenced that decision a little, the Ascent’s engine really didn’t need to be defended. The Ascent did not feel underpowered—even before boost kicked in, and even while towing a trailer.

A 19.3 gallon gas tank allows the Ascent to get around 500 miles per fill-up on regular gas, per a Subaru representative. The lighter, less optioned base and Premium trims is rated for 21 miles per gallon city and 27 miles per gallon highway, with the heavier Limited and Touring trims getting 20 MPG city and 26 MPG highway. We saw between 24 and 25 MPG on our drive in a Touring, which wasn’t bad considering that we were blasting down curvy coastal Oregon roads.

The Ascent was made with road trips in mind, not only offering 4G LTE wifi as an option, 5,000 pounds of towing capacity (on every model except the base Ascent, which notably only tows 2,000 pounds), Apple CarPlay and Android Auto standard, 19 cupholders and three-zone climate control (driver, passenger and rear two rows), but with decent roof rack capacity as well.

Photo: Subaru

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Should all of your RV-mates decide that Aunt Peggy’s Three-Alarm Bean Stew was a good idea, you can mount your own tent on that roof rack, as it’s designed to hold up to 700 pounds while parked. In motion, you can haul 176 pounds of extra stuff up there.

You can order the Ascent in seven- or eight-seat configuration. The second row has two captains’ chairs in the middle in seven-passenger form, which makes getting to the rear seats easy even if they don’t fold down. In eight-passenger form, the second row is a bench that easily folds forward to load the third row up. There’s 86.5 cubic feet of cargo area with all the seats down behind the first row, 47.5 cubic feet of space with only the third row down, and 17.6 cubic feet of space behind the third row. Subaru even whipped out a large dog carrier to show that it could ride in the rearmost cargo area without having to fold down seats.

Photo: Stef Schrader

Safety is always a big deal for family-oriented vehicles, so Subaru made its EyeSight suite of driver assistance technologies—which includes both pre-collision features like automatic braking and throttle management as well as driver assistance items like automatic high beams, blind spot monitoring and lane-keeping assistance—standard. There’s a heads-up display for EyeSight that will flash right in your line of vision if you get something wrong, which is useful. Don’t worry if you’re not a fan of these things, either—most can be turned off with the push of a button.

There are four trims starting at $31,995 for the base model: base, Premium, Limited and Touring. We spent the most time in the highest Touring trim, however, which starts at $44,695 and rang up as $45,670 after destination and delivery fees.

Photo: Subaru

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What’s Great

The biggest problem with three-row crossovers is that you often feel is if you’re driving a bus. I was reminded of the Ascent’s size when I got in and couldn’t see entirely over the hood, but driving it was another story. Once I figured out how to turn the too-paranoid lane-keeping assists off, it was surprisingly nimble for a big three-row crossover. You feel the weight and height as it leans into a corner, but otherwise, it’s not bad.

Steering feels light but direct, with better feedback than you’d expect from a crossover. The brakes do a solid job of slowing the biggest Subaru ever down relatively fast despite its weight and size. The boxer engine gives the Ascent more than enough power, despite lacking the displacement of the six-cylinder engines that are often offered in rival three-row crossovers. Get on the boost, and you’ll easily forget that you’re hucking around 4,430 pounds or more of vehicle.

Photo: Subaru

Part of our test drive involved a brief course to test towing a 3,200-pound camping trailer with the Ascent. While you could feel the weight of the trailer trailer pull back a little when you set off and push you a little as you braked, that’s par for the course with smaller, non-half-ton-pickup tow vehicles and that push and pull were really faint here.

Trailer Stability Assist was on for this demonstration, which seamlessly measures the yaw of the vehicle and trailer to determine how much the trailer is swaying and brakes individual wheels if need be to keep a trailer in line. I wasn’t shy about going through Subaru’s little slalom course with the gusto of a person not towing their own race car, and this little trick tech worked imperceptibly in the background.

I would be curious to test it out with a heavier trailer, though, to see if it works as well closer to the car’s 5,000 pound limit.

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Photo: Stef Schrader

There was also a brief off-road demo to feature X-Mode. X-Mode only works under 25 mph, and for those of us used to the joy of selecting the right gear on a trail or determining how much of the skinny pedal to use on an obstacle, it may seem a bit dull to just let the car figure it out.

However, for a family that encounters a bumpier path than usual thanks to a washed-out chunk of road somewhere, the Ascent will trample over mild obstacles without much drama so long as you don’t exceed the limits of its ride height or (thankfully short) overhangs.

Photo: Subaru

Back on the road, the Ascent’s adaptive cruise control worked extremely smoothly, keeping the requested distance from the car in front of us without slamming on the brakes or doing anything else abruptly. It’s a solid way to avoid getting red mist about the slower car in front of you (and thus, from having a chat with the local police). Likewise, a lead vehicle alert also lets you know when the car in front of you moves—just in case you get distracted while stopped.

The Touring model we spent the most time in had a couple cool cameras worth noting. A trick rear-view camera in the mirror on the higher trims allows you to look out the rear window even if other things are in the way. The image quality on that little mirror camera is surprisingly crisp and almost a better view than the mirror itself. A 180-degree front-view camera viewable on the dashboard also gave you the full view of what’s up ahead.

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Photo: Subaru
Rear HVAC controls. On the Touring trim I tested, that block-off plate housed a 120V electrical outlet.
Photo: Subaru

Riding to your destination in the Ascent is also pretty comfortable, especially in the front and captain’s chairs. Every seat except the middle ones had cupholders to one side, at arm’s level. Ample bins are everywhere in addition to the cupholders, and the seat belts even tuck neatly into special clips when they’re not in use. The rear two rows have their own HVAC system, which worked competently even in the third row. Six USB ports (with an option to add two more) are sprinkled around every row in convenient places, plus there’s a 120-volt wall-style plug available to add onto the back of the center console.

Photo: Subaru

The middle seats are also on sliders that easily allow them to move up if need be to allow the rear passengers more room. Three rows of tall people might feel a squeeze on leg room, but one or two tall folks should be able to find somewhere to ride just fine.

Best of all, it’s pretty quiet inside. A person sitting in the third row won’t have to yell just to be heard by the driver.

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Even the rear hatchback is big, wide and squared off.
Photo: Subaru

What’s Weak

There were a few minor nuisances worth bringing up with the Ascent, however. For one, Subaru programs in steps to its CVT to mimic the behavior of a regular automatic transmission. Personally, I find this harder to control after getting used to an un-stepped CVT, as pedal position corresponds less to the rev counter.

I was able to confuse the Ascent’s CVT a couple times, where it stayed in a higher fake “gear” than I really wanted it to be, although I have to admit that I was pushing the car harder than most will. Usually it was pretty smooth, and at least the paddle shifters were fairly instantaneous, although it’s hard to say how many people are going to use those on a big kid-hauler.

Lane keep assist is so aggressive that I thought the Ascent had Mazdaspeed3-style torque-steer until I turned it off.
Photo: Subaru
Push that button on the far right bottom of the wheel and you’re back in business with no lane keeping-related interruptions.
Photo: Subaru

What will certainly get used are the EyeSight safety features. Most of these are pretty helpful and unobtrusive, like the blind spot warning that flashes on the rear-view mirrors when a car is beside you, or the adaptive cruise control. But its lane keep assist was tuned to be too paranoid on Oregon’s twisty roads, and would actively turn the car for you mid-turn. Fortunately, you can disable this with a convenient button on the wheel.

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Another feature that can fall short at times is the wireless internet. Because it’s based on AT&T’s network, you only have wifi when AT&T has service. Years of being unreachable in vast swaths of the rural southwest have proved to me that this could be a problem, depending on where you live. In larger towns closer to I-5, we were fine. Closer to the coast, the internet (and my phone) just didn’t work.

There’s also one place where the cupholders aren’t so great: the middle of the second row, should you get the bench seat there. The captains’ chairs add the middle two cupholders on the rear of the center console, under the HVAC controls. However, these two cupholders are moved into a flip-down center armrest that you can only use if you’re not carrying an eighth passenger in that space. Why they didn’t keep it below beats me.

Third row with the headrests down, where they will poke your back in an uncomfortable way.
Photo: Subaru

That isn’t to say the third row is where it’s at. The headrests are bizarrely tall and hard when they’re up. Otherwise, they pushed forward on the upper part of my back in a weird way. I get that they want them to tuck out of place, but it’s an awkward design.

There’s also a reason why I’d recommend putting a tent on the roof over snoozing in the rear hatch: the second row of seats don’t fold completely flat. You still have a lot of room for stuff back there, and the second row bench folds flatter than the captains’ chairs, but it didn’t look super inviting to snooze on.

Photo: Subaru

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Early Verdict

This could be a practical vehicle for more than just families. Like the Volkswagen Atlas, it tows a respectable amount for those of us whose “children” ride on a trailer instead of inside the car: 5,000 pounds. Yet the Ascent was more fun to drive, easier to use and comes with a lot more standard features than the others.

The only other mass-market three-row SUV I’ve tested that drives this well is the Mazda CX-9, whose graceful roofline caused me to hit my head one too many times getting in and out of the vehicle and tow capacity peaked at just 3,500 pounds. It was a vastly less practical car than the Subie.

Photo: Subaru

However, all-wheel-drive is an extra cost add-on on both of these cars that makes a similarly optioned CX-9 or Atlas more expensive than the equivalent Ascent.

Even though the Atlas came with a six-cylinder engine over the Subaru’s turbo four, it wasn’t as enjoyable to drive. That’s the real cost of the Atlas’ extra 10.8 cubic feet of rear cargo space with the second and third rows down: it feels bigger and slower to drive.

Compared to the best driving and the most comfortable mass-market three-row SUVs I’ve driven to date, the Ascent hits a sweet spot in the middle. It does just a little bit of everything well for most of its intended uses. Unless you’re hauling three rows of your large adult sons everywhere, it might also be the perfect compromise for you.

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Photo: Subaru
Photo: Subaru
Optional second-row 60/40-split bench seat.
Photo: Subaru
Photo: Subaru
Photo: Subaru

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Photo: Subaru
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Photo: Subaru
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Photo: Subaru