2019 Subaru Ascent New Dad Review: A Secret Minivan for Parents Who Can't Admit They're Not Cool
Don't let the lack of sliding doors fool you: Subaru's new three-row crossover is really just a great version of the ho-hum family hauler.
I finally did it: I'm a dad. The funny thing is, I've always owned dad cars, even before I needed to. Owning anything with less than four doors never made much sense, which is how I ended up with a stable of souped-up grandpa cars from the Sixties and Seventies. Now that I'm a father, the '74 Oldsmobile sedan I brought my wife and son home from the hospital in seems a bit dated. And that, my friends, is how I found myself on this quest to find the perfect new dad car. The latest contender: The 2019 Subaru Ascent.
The 2019 Subaru Ascent, By the Numbers
- Base Price (Price as Tested): $31,995 ($45,670)
- Powertrain: 2.4-liter turbocharged flat-four, 260 horsepower, 277 lb.-ft. torque; continuously-variable transmission; all-wheel drive
- EPA Fuel Economy: 20 mpg city, 26 mpg highway
- 0-60 MPH: 6.9 seconds (Car and Driver testing)
- Random fact: The smallest actual minivan on the market in North America—the Honda Odyssey—has only about seven cubic feet more passenger space than a Subaru Ascent.
Subaru has finally done it: The carmaker went and introduced a minivan-sized crossover into its production mix. Knowing what we do about John Q. Carbuyer, the new 2019 Ascent—the largest Subaru has ever built, the company says—is just what the sales doctor ordered.
When Subaru introduced its redesigned Outback "wagon" for the 2010 model year, Subaru purists everywhere uttered a collective sob. (Figuratively, not literally.) Gone was the sleek Euro-look wagon that had been Subaru's flagship vehicle since Paul Hogan began shilling for the Japanese automaker when there were no longer any Crocodile Dundee films to make. In its place was a vehicle that looked more like a minivan than an outdoor-sporty wagon. As a Subaru-obsessed friend of mine observed, "If it's bigger than the 2005-2009 wagons and you still can't fit a four-by-eight sheet of plywood inside, it's a step backward."
Good point. Formalists aside, though, Subaru knew what it wanted, and that was stronger sales. The Outback certainly achieved that, with its winning combination of restrained utilitarian styling, capable all-wheel drive, decent fuel economy, effective marketing (to convince people that they even needed all-wheel drive mini-minivans), and tons of cupholders. In little more than a decade, Subaru has grown from a fringe purveyor of quirky cars into a household name, all on the strength of its jacked-up wagons.
It stands to reason, then, that the newest Subaru is simply a larger version of the successful Outback. Seriously, the Outback and the Ascent are practically clones of one another, albeit on different scales—like how the new house at the end of The Jerk is just a bigger version of the same old shack). The last time Subaru tried selling a three-row vehicle, the resulting B9 Tribeca was a flop. Awkward-looking when it was introduced in 2005 and cramped compared with other vehicles in its class, it sold poorly, and sputtered out of production after the 2014 model year. The Ascent, on the other hand, starts off on the right foot. I think it will sell well, mostly by appealing to that peculiar brand of American suburbanite who has deluded himself (or herself) into believing that he (or she) is still cool, despite the brood of children that will, inevitably, never want to be seen in public with him (or her) after a certain age. Especially not in some old minivan.
The trick is, the Ascent is a minivan. The only difference is that it doesn't have sliding doors.
Everything else is there, though—up to 153 cubic feet of passenger volume, along with wide rear doors that make loading car seats and children and all of their stuff easy. With the third row seats up, it has nearly 20 cubes of cargo space. Not a ton, but enough for a stroller and a few groceries, or a stroller, a diaper bag and some toys. Total seating ranges from seven to eight passengers, depending upon whether or not you opt for the unnecessary and space-wasting second-row captains chairs. With the third row folded down, cargo capacity jumps up to more than 44 cubic feet, and with all the back seats stowed, almost 73 cubes are up for grabs. So while you may not be able to lay a full sheet of plywood in the back, there's plenty of room for a massive Costco run.
Having been the owner for many years of a 1987 Subaru GL 4WD wagon, I can say with authority that the extra traction of all-wheel-drive is helpful during long, snowy winters in the Northeast. It was a feature that—along with the marque's wonderfully idiosyncratic cars—kept a core group of buyers coming back for more again and again. That tin-can uniqueness may have gone away along with the spare tire mounted atop the flat-four engine, but Subaru's AWD system has improved greatly over the years. As has safety: The Ascent, along with most of the other cars in Subaru's lineup, has a five-star federal crash safety rating and a Top Safety Pick+ designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. And that's what I predict buyers will be into: utility + predictability + safety = sales. Go, Subaru.
The Ascent is surprisingly fun to drive for something so large. Quick electrically-boosted steering and snappy acceleration give it a nimbleness that seem out of character, considering its rather bulbous proportions. Fuel economy is also good, although slightly better in base trim than in the heavier top-of-the-line Touring model I tested. Alongside slightly larger minivans like the all-wheel-drive Toyota Sienna and the front-wheel-drive Chrysler Pacifica, the Ascent boasts the best average fuel economy, though even the non-hybrid version of the Pacifica bests it in terms of highway efficiency.
But I forget myself. The Ascent isn't a minivan (*cough, cough*), and shouldn't be compared with them. But it does also get better fuel economy than the Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander, which can be considered comparable all-wheel drive three-row crossovers. And the Ascent can also tow up to 5,000 pounds, which isn't something you would ever think a Subaru capable of.
There's little doubt in my mind that the Ascent would be even better for new dad duty if Subaru dropped the "I'm not a minivan" ruse and slapped on a pair of sliding doors. But along with that certainty comes the fact that many potential buyers—filled with social anxiety and unaware that minivan-level lameness has already infiltrated their lives—would shy away from it. So the rear doors must be car doors, and we must all continue to pretend the Ascent, like many other crossovers, isn't really a lifted-up minivan. But regardless of its secret identity, it's a strong, practical contender in a very competitive segment.