Subaru’s latest model is the mid-size Ascent. Three rows, up to eight seats, and nineteen cup holders. So it can haul all but the largest families. Can it still haul…on a gravel road? Will this Subaru still Subaru? Will this latest and biggest model give me the rally car fizz of its siblings, letting rally hopeful moms and dads give their kids a glimpse of pace note life? Or will it be just another three-row crossover, plodding along to the mall with “rugged looks” that will never see anything dirtier than a dusty parking lot?
If you’re looking at a Subaru, the company’s long history with, and attachment to, rally racing probably has something to do with it. It’s hard to think about a Subaru without stickers. Not stickers for your dog or your mountain bike, though they wear lots of those too. I mean numbers on the doors. The six-star brand has been involved in the sport since the early 1980s. When factory drivers showcased the all-wheel drive and later the turbo power of the Leone, followed by the Legacy. But what really cemented the two in a bond stronger than hardened mud in a wheel well was the Impreza. Colin McRae, Richard Burns, and Petter Solberg. All, at various times, throwing every iteration of Impreza, WRX, and STi through the woods, over streams, sideways over ice, and trailing a dust cloud that could probably be seen from space.
Even if you didn’t watch the World Rally Championship, that racing has played a part in the cars we’ve gotten for the road. Without a dirty Impreza, we wouldn’t have gotten the WRX or WRX STi. We certainly never would have seen the legendary 22B (well, maybe that one’s still slightly forbidden fruit here), and there’s not much chance of the Legacy getting its own turbo versions.
While not every Subaru is a rally car, and some are farther away from that than others, the ability to have fun in the dirt and the mud shines through. From Impreza to Crosstrek to Outback, Subaru manages that feat. Every Scooby I’ve driven, big or small, has had the same suspension feel. One I’m confident I could pick out blindfolded. Not that we’d ever drive blindfolded. Seriously, don’t do that.
The ride starts out soft. Give the wheel a quick flick back and forth at moderate speed and the body rolls heavily, swaying back and forth. In that first moment, you’d be forgiven for wondering how the cars have the bad-road reputation they do. Then the car takes a stance. Suddenly the roll has stopped, and not because you’ve hit the bump stops. There’s still suspension travel there. If you need it. Add some power and the car (or SUV) starts to squat. If it’s smooth, the car starts to power out of the corner. If it’s slippery, the car starts to power out of the corner, but you can start to get things sideways. If you’ve turned off the electronic aids, that is.
It’s that unique ride that really makes Subarus great on bad or gravel roads. Especially at speed. The initial soft travel soaks up bumps, eats potholes, and, turns washboard gravel into something a lot more comfortable. It even eats up jumps with ease. So I’m told…I have no recollection of the events in question.
While the Ascent outweighs the Impreza by more than 500 kg, it has that exact same feeling from behind the wheel. On my favourite gravel road that could probably be a rally stage, the Ascent is able to make progress quickly and more smoothly than anything I’ve taken up here short of the Chevy Colorado ZR2 and its fancy Multimatic shocks. And that includes several other off-road package pickups. This isn’t a road where you’re exceeding the speed limit, it’s a road where the more capable the vehicle, the closer you can get to that limit.
Once you start to open it up on a dirt road, it’s definitely not as nimble as the WRX, or even an Outback. That weight isn’t going to magically disappear. But this is definitely fun when you’re impersonating your favourite rally driver.
On the highway, it has that same bit of softness followed by firmness. So toss it into a corner or a sharp off-ramp and it leans way over before taking that set. It definitely feels hefty, but this is one of the rare big SUVs that doesn’t throw in the towel as soon as you turn the wheel. When you’re not doing your best right three over crest, don’t cut, the soft ride eats up the monster bumps, expansion joints, and moon-surface craters that my local highways offer up as an excuse for pavement this time of year.
Like the ride, the steering starts out soft. This is one-finger parallel parking level assist. Unlike the ride, the steering stays soft. It’s not imprecise, it’s just quite light and quite numb. It’s good for making sure that you don’t get a thumb hooked if you’re plodding down a single-track path to the cottage, but some extra weight would be nice on the highway. A sport button to reduce that assist would be handy. Of course, why is it that the vehicles that could actually use the extra edge are the ones that don’t have one?
Then there’s the brakes and throttle. This is a long-travel brake pedal. Good when you’re trying to add just the right amount of rotation in the dirt, takes some getting used to when you’re coming up to a stop sign and don’t want to dump a bag of Goldfish all over the rear seats. Or miss the stop line completely. The brakes didn’t seem to fade or have any issues bringing the Ascent to a halt, they just took a lot of leg to do it.
Powering the Ascent is an all-new 2.4L turbo flat four. 260 hp and 277 lb-ft are on tap, but this big crossover feels much quicker than that on the road. There’s loads of torque, enough that even with a few passengers it felt quicker than just about anything else in the segment. Credit here goes to the CVT. No, that’s not a typo. Subaru has one of the best continuously variable transmissions around, and this one was smooth enough I needed to check the spec sheet to make sure they hadn’t gone back to a conventional box.
That power, that gearbox, and that ride all had me hopeful that this was going to be a fun trip down my favourite rally road. With sections of snow and ice in the shady segments, I was all ready for getting sideways. Bristling with sideways anticipation.
But the Ascent wasn’t willing to play. The all-wheel drive system was the big problem. It sends power to the wheels with grip a little too effectively. Ok, that’s a strange complaint, but bear with me.
On an icy curve, I want to pendulum the rear out with a Scandinavian flick, then use the power to keep the rear wheels spinning and the rear end trying to get ahead of the front. What the Ascent’s all-wheel drive system wants to do is send that power back to the front wheels and pull me out of the slide. Which is what it’s programmed to do, and the safest course of action, but it takes away the fun. Even on less slippery corners, you could feel the power transferring around and bringing the back end in line. Will it accelerate very quickly, even when I stopped it on a steep and ice-covered hill just to see what would happen? Yes. Will it let me pretend that I’m on the final stage of the Rally Finland? No.
It’s a similar situation on your favourite off-ramp. The Ascent will go around that tight corner with comfort and poise, even if it feels like you’re maybe dragging a door mirror. But it won’t let you do it with the Subaru flair that will catch the eye of your local constabulary.
With the Ascent, Subaru has done an Imprezive job of making their biggest vehicle feel like their smallest. It has the ability to travel down a horrible dirt road with an unlikely amount of speed while making sure that up to 19 juice boxes remain untoppled and cartons of milk remain unshaken. Will it let you live out your inner Colin McRae? No. Will it let you show up to seven passengers just how fun the road less travelled is? Absolutely. Call it the grown-up rally wagon.