THE PROS & CONS
- What’s Good: Thoughtfully designed with modern families in mind.
- What’s Bad: You’d better be able to live with the CVT because there’s no way around it.
Here we see the Subaru in its natural habitat, frolicking amid new-fallen snow and blending in with forested surroundings.
If there’s any brand that has a reputation for being equipped to handle rugged Canadian life, it’s this one. And now, it’s equipped for larger families, too. The new Ascent marks the arrival of the brand’s first three-row crossover ever.
When I took my first spin in it a few months ago it left a good impression, but not quite such a good one to lead me to believe that members of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada would choose it as the Best Large SUV in Canada for 2019. (I called it correctly, by the way – the Mazda CX-9 won the category.)
That brief introduction left me wanting to get to know the Ascent a little better, so I signed it out for a longer winter-weather second date. As is often the case, a few things started to grate on me a little more, while some ended up being even more endearing.
The Power Question
If you’re looking at buying an Ascent, there’s one reality you need to face right off the top: you’re getting a four-cylinder engine.
This might give you pause. However, as smaller blocks go, it’s quite a good one. With its cylinders horizontally opposed in the typical Subaru style, its 2.4-litre displacement with turbocharging puts out a respectable 260 hp and 277 lb-ft of torque from 2,000 to 4,800 rpm. This gets the Ascent’s 4,500-ish lbs. (or less than 2,100 kg), which varies by trim, around town nicely enough. I wouldn’t want to live with less, but for the way most people will drive it, it doesn’t need a whole lot more.
It also has the potential to deliver quite good fuel numbers relative to its competition: Natural Resources Canada rates it at 11.6 L/100 km city, 9.0 highway, and 10.4 combined. My actual usage over a week was a little above that at 12.4, but the weather was consistently nasty, I drove almost exclusively on city streets, and I didn’t work especially hard at it, so I’m not sure there’s another three-row SUV out there that would have done much better.
Some shoppers might be apt to be immediately distrusting since the issue of Subaru engines burning oil is well-known. The one used here is the FA24, which is entirely new and only very tenuously related to the older FB engines that had the issue.
As for the transmission, it’s a continuously variable transmission here, which is unavoidable now that Subaru is starting to drop manual transmissions (or never equip them in the first place, as is the case with this new model). Manuals don’t sell – we sob into our milk about it, but we get it. Still, some drivers may not appreciate the inability to get away from the droning sensation this CVT has. It didn’t bother me at first, but it started to grind at my ears over time. The drive feel itself is quite good, though, and the cabin is fairly quiet, so it only comes up when you’re harder on the throttle or the music is turned off – in other words, it’s more of a tolerance issue than anything.
As with all Subarus, all-wheel drive is standard, and another way that the Ascent fits in well with the Subaru brand is in its handling. The low-mounted engine gives it a lower centre of gravity and minimal body roll, a trait that becomes even more appreciated when you get into a vehicle of this size. It’s big, but it doesn’t feel quite so cumbersome to get around.
More Practical Than Pretty
Let’s face it: if you’re shopping for a Subaru, you’re not in it for high fashion, right?
That said, there’s some good stuff going on here. In its overall design and proportions, the unmistakeable Subaru look translates into three-row sizing here quite well. And there’s attention to detail in things like the subtle texturing in the plastic cladding on the doors and wheel wells.
This test car is a top-of-the-line Premier, which means it’s the priciest Ascent available at $52,174 with freight and PDI. That’s roughly on par for the top trims of its competitors, and so is the level of refinement: there’s some black plastic here and there, but there’s also some nice layering and use of colour with soft-touch materials that gives it an attractive look. (Do note, though, that the wood trim is faux plating, and that ledge across the dashboard looks like it could be quite the dust trap.)
The forward seating positions are heated as standard and are on the higher side, which many people shopping for a large SUV will appreciate, and the seats feel substantive across the board. As with many Subarus, the slightly lower shoulder that bucks current design convention makes visibility great all around. The panoramic sunroof, which is standard on every model above the entry-level, adds to its feeling of being bright and inviting.
The second-row captain’s chairs are nicely comfortable and are also heated on Limited trims and up, which is the same point at which a heated steering wheel becomes available – making this latter feature on the more expensive side. If a flat load floor is a priority, though, the captain’s chairs might not be for you. The third-row seats collapse nicely, but the seatbacks on these hold a bit of a tilt.
As for that entirely new third row, it’s a strong first effort that looks designed for actual, regular use. It’s still on the tighter side and not exceptional as far as leg room is concerned, but the seats feel padded and comfortable enough to keep kids happy for longer drives. A pair of third-row USB charging ports joins the standard two each in the front and second rows once you reach the Limited trim. There’s no rear-seat entertainment system available, but I see that less as an oversight and more as savvy decision-making: with these charging ports handy, today’s kids will prefer to use their own handheld devices anyway.
And then there’s the matter of the 19 cupholders – yes, 19! (When I told my daughter, she went on a fun scavenger hunt and found them all.) Parents will appreciate the opportunity to put water, a little juice box, and maybe even a snack cup within arm’s reach, especially on longer trips when fewer cries of “I’m hungry” can help to minimize the number of stops, and contained nibbles mitigate future clean-ups.
Subaru’s been rolling out an updated infotainment system for a few months now, and it’s a clear improvement. The screen is easier on the eyes and the type is larger and gleanable at a glance while driving, and those are two long-awaited upgrades. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard, too.
On the other hand, it’s still a little on the slow side, and the button layout on the centre stack is a touch busy (though not so much so that you wouldn’t get used to it over time). A slight change in volume takes over the entire screen for a moment, which gets kind of annoying.
One detail that I grew to enjoy a great deal is having the front camera, exclusive to the Premier grade, pop up on the smaller top screen when the car detects that you’re leaving a parking space. And from a safety standpoint, the EyeSight suite of safety packages is standard on Ascent from the base trim, which includes pre-collision brake assist and throttle management, adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, lane sway warning, lane keep assist, and lead vehicle start alert.
The price on this test car looks intimidating, but unlike in some other three-row SUVs, you’re not giving up a lot by opting for something more middle-priced like the Limited trim with captain’s chairs ($49,174 with freight and PDI, and rain-sensing wipers, ventilated front seats, and that front-view camera being the only real losses). That gives you a family-friendly, comfortable, fuel-efficient, and capable seven-seat SUV that comes in under that magical $50,000 mark. At that price, it should be considered a contender.