2019 Subaru Ascent First Drive Review: We Are Americans, Give Us All the Cupholders

Subaru's second shot at the three-row crossover pretty much hits the nail on the head. 

 All the all-new 2019 Subaru Ascent has to do in order to sell like hotcakes is...be

Just be a crossover, be a Subaru, and the American masses—ever-ravenous for fresh SUV blood—are sure to snap it up as quickly as the company's Lafayette, Indiana factory can crank out these family-friendly three-row two-boxes. After all, the Pleiades-branded Japanese carmaker has been killing it here in the States in recent years; as of May, Subaru of America had scored a rather ridiculous 77 straight months of sales growth, including 50-plus consecutive months in which more than 10,000 examples of the Outback and Forester each found new homes. And that was while saddled with the burden of having no vehicle seating more than five people—a problem that, the company says, led to a loss of customers during consumers' peak child-rearing years.  While empty nesters and youthful hipsters have been flocking to Subaru in droves, the carmaker has watched would-be buyers slip away when the time comes to add a few new members to the population. 

This isn't Subaru's first crack at a three-row crossover—not that you'd know it from almost any of the presentation materials the company rolled out for the assembled journalists the carmaker flew to McMinnville, Oregon, to drive the 2019 Ascent. The company's reps only mentioned the B9 Tribeca once, in passing, in saying that Subaru had "learned a lot" from the old vehicle that sat on dealer lots from 2005 to 2014. Still, considering the old Tribeca's creaky sales and horrifying visage—the former quite possibly a result of the latter—it's no surprise the company chose to, shall we say, minimize the mentions of that bulbous all-roader.

The all-new Ascent suffers no such problems with appearances. It's a handsome creature, whose worst stylistic flaw may be it resembles the vehicles one or two sizes down the model ladder a little too much; from certain angles both front and rear, it resembles an overinflated Forester, and the front fascia bears an awful resemblance to the current Outback's face. But it's unmistakably a Subaru, damnit, and that's the important thing. It's also unmistakably the largest Subaru; the 113.8-inch wheelbase is 8.7 inches longer than the new-and-elongated 2019 Forester's, and at 196.8 inches from tip to tail, it's 21 inches longer than the Impreza hatchback-slash-Crosstrek. Yet in spite of its size, the Ascent still rides on the same new common platform as those other recently-hatched Subies—albeit a version that's received an extra dose of Viagra in the form of additional high-strength steel and structural adhesive. 

Will Sabel Courtney

Buyers aren't likely to find their loins a-girded by the Ascent's sole powertrain choice, but the new 2.4-liter turbocharged boxer four-cylinder's 260 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque turned out to be more than potent enough for family-car duty during a day of driving around the tree-lined two-lanes of western Oregon. That power heads, naturally, to all four wheels; however, as with all automatic gearbox-equipped Subies save the BRZ, that power is handed from engine to driveshaft by way of a continuously-variable transmission. The Ascent's CVT is better than most, with less of the rubber-band sensation that plagues too many of the type; however, it's at its best when it's pretending to be—wait for it—a traditional geared 'box, simulating eight fixed cogs not just when in manual mode, but also automatically when you hammer the throttle in "D." But it's still better to use the shift paddles on the back of the steering wheel for open-road passing maneuvers, where it's handy to be able to spin up the engine by "downshifting" rather than flooring the throttle and waiting for the car to sort things out on its own. The claimed 45-to-65 mile-per-hour time of 9.8 seconds is satisfactory, but counting to 10 Mississippi seems awfully long when you're trying to pass an aging Winnebago on a two-lane where the Silverado barreling towards you seems to be closing the gap awfully quickly. 

Will Sabel Courtney

Likewise, "satisfactory" is a fine enough descriptor for the Ascent's handling. Oddly, the route Subaru chose to send us along would have been perfect for the likes of a WRX, but the tight twists and turns unsettled the comfort-tuned suspension enough to leave your generally-iron-stomached author reaching for the window switch for some fresh air to combat the onset of the inner ear-induced dizzies. Still, the fact that this eight-person, 4,500-pound crossover felt planted enough to even consider pitching it into those turns like it weighed half a ton less speaks to the strength of its chassis and the center of gravity, which sits comparatively low in spite of the Ascent's tallest-in-class height (when the standard roof rack is included in the calculations).

Subaru of America

Any modern crossover, however, must live or die by its interior—more specifically, how well it handles the everyday chores and challenges of messy family life. Thankfully for Subaru—or rather, thanks to what had to have been an utterly mind-boggling amount of market research and thought—it's there that the Ascent shines brightest. Buyers can choose between a seven-seat configuration featuring second-row captain's chairs and an eight-passenger layout with a middle-row bench for the same price, depending on how desperately they want to keep their kids from being able to harass each other. (Fun fact: The grab handles that help occupants scramble between rows were inspired by the ones on Japan's shinkansen trains; they also double as utility hooks.)

Fold both rows flat, and there's a mighty 86.5 cubic feet of space; leave the second row up and the third row down, and there's 47.5 cubic feet of space; fill all three rows with passengers, and they'll have to battle over the remaining 17.8 cubes behind that third row. There is a hidden spot for the retractable cargo cover in the floor back there should you feel the need to fill that sucker up to the brim; that's best left to the top-tier Touring model, though, which hasa Cadillac-like system that turns the rear view mirror into a tiny screen showing the feed from a rear window-mounted camera for those times rear visibility is impeded. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay handily come standard, along with the latest version of Subaru's Starlink infotainment and a quartet of USB ports; a 14-speaker, 792-watt Harmon Kardon stereo is optional, as is in-car wi-fi. Those seeking the maximum number of places to charge up devices to hop on will want the Touring, which offers as many as eight USB ports and a 120-volt outlet; lesser models make do with four or six (though any parent worth his or her PTA membership will presumably have a handful of brightly-colored USB cigarette lighter adaptors floating around). 

Then, of course, there are the cupholders. Subaru will tell you there are no fewer than 19 of them, strewn across all three rows like Easter eggs. Not entirely able to wrap my head around this, I set out to check the company's work firsthand to see if it was trying to pass off any half-hearted hooks or pop-out pieces of plastic as actual beverage holsters...only to find that Subaru is actually lowballing that number. Include the smaller tertiary slots—too small for 12-ounce cans or full-sized soda bottles, but still able to hold a Horizon Organic milk half-pint or a can of Red Bull—located at the rear of each door's low-mounted cupholder array, and the Ascent's cupholder count tallies up to 23. That works out to 3.28 drinks per occupant with seven people aboard. (Due to two cupholders' placement in the flip-down center arm rest of versions equipped with the second-row bench, you can't use every holder with eight people aboard.)

Will Sabel Courtney

Subaru Ascent packs 8.7 inches of ground clearance

Subaru gave us a brief chance to flex the Ascent's off-road chops in an empty quarry. As in, the course took 45 seconds to complete. 

Will Sabel Courtney

The hill descent control and power-locking X-Mode worked just fine. Still...45 seconds isn't a whole lot of time to pass judgement

And while those of us who grew up with cheap-o Subies of days of yore like the rusty Justy might blanch at the pricetags, the Ascent's range of MSRPs—ranging from a base price of $32,970 to $45,670 for the throw-everything-on-there-damnit Touring—seem poised to strike right at the heart of the midsized SUV market, where vehicles like the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, and Ford Explorer have frolicked for years. Equipped with the Convenience package that adds a power hatch, reverse automatic braking, keyless push-button start, and an auto-dimming rear view mirror, the mid-level Ascent Premium—which seems likely to be the most popular version—costs $36,630, almost exactly in line with the average new car price in America circa spring 2018. Considering this crossover checks almost all the boxes the average U.S. new car buyer presumably has on their want list and throws in some handy unexpected delights for flavor, that seems pretty smart—indeed, almost as though Subaru planned it that way. Hey, you don't set new sales records every month for more than six years straight by being stupid. 

The 2019 Subaru Ascent, By the Numbers:

Base Price (Price as Tested): $32,970 ($42,920)

Powertrain: 2.4-liter turbocharged flat-four, 260 horsepower, 277 pound-feet of torque; continuously-variable automatic; all-wheel-drive

0-60 MPH: 7.4 seconds (manufacturer claim)

Towing Capacity: 5,000 pounds (2,000 pounds on base model)

Fuel Economy: 21 city, 27 highway (18-inch wheels); 20 city, 26 highway (20-inch wheels)

Total Driving Range per Tank: Up to 500 miles, though good luck making it that far if your occupants have beverages in all those cupholders