MM Test-Drive/Condensed-Review: 2019 Subaru Ascent


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Subaru has long had a cult-like following in the American market, being especially popular in harsh-winter areas such as New England, the Great Lakes Snow Belt, and the Northern Rockies. The company, not surprisingly, has also had a fair-number of fans north of the border. And this has been for a reason. The various Subaru Symmetrical AWD systems have long been known as some of the best car-based AWD systems on the market. Discounting the original AMC Eagle and Eagle SX-4 wagons of 1980-82, Subaru and Audi have arguably done more than any other companies to perfect car-based AWD. The Subaru AWD systems (there are actually several versions of of them, depending on engine and transmission) are unique in that, unlike even with Audi's Quattro systems, they are symmetrical in nature, which means evenly-balanced left/right in hardware, lighter, and simpler mechanically, requiring fewer bevel-gears and reversing-mechanisms. In addition, Subaru uses flat/boxer-engine designs, which have a lower center of gravity, are easier to attach to AWD systems, and help contribute to better handling and greater stability from that lower center of gravity. These Symmetrical AWD systems have faithfully served many Subaru owners over the years, from Boy-Racer/Rallyists in high-powered WRX/STi models, to millions of satisfied Forester/Outback owners who depend on their vehicles daily to get them through the worst that winter can throw at them, to those college students and other persons in their Imprezas and Crosstreks, who don't have huge amounts of money to spend on a new car and need a dependable AWD vehicle without breaking the bank. College-loans, if applicable, are already breaking the bank enough for them as it is.

And, of course, in the past, Subaru also attempted to compete with the popular mid-size Highlander, Pilot, Explorer, Murano, etc..... with their own Tribeca SUV, which was almost a complete sales-flop in the American market. It was every bit a Subaru under the skin, in the drivetrain department, with a flat-six engine and Symmetrical AWD system, but the skin itself (and the chassis, to some extent) left much to be desired. It was awkwardly-designed, had an overly-styled dash/console that looked weird to some people, lacked nice-looking trim inside, and, unlike many other Subaru products, drove, steered, and handled like the novocaine that my dentist uses. I test-drove one myself, some years ago, while I had my own Outback in for routine service. When I brought it back, turned in the key and dealer-plate, and the dealer-reps asked me what I thought of it, I (politely) smiled and wished them all a nice day. Most of them sat in the showroom, or out on the lot collecting dust and bird/insect droppings, until the dealers were forced to practically give them away...and that was that.

But, that was then, and this is now. Today, the Tribeca is an old memory, and Subaru has an all-new three-row mid-sized crossover SUV in its line-up...the Ascent. Subaru learned from at least some of the Tribeca's mistakes, although, based on my own evaluation of the Ascent, may (?) have also made a few other mistakes as well. Consumer Reports has gone Ga-Ga over the Ascent, and now considers it the best mid-sized car-based SUV in the business, pushing Toyota's Highlander out of the previous top spot. I don't quite agree..but will go into the reasons why later. But, don't get me is indeed a good, solid choice, and offers remarkable sound insulation on the road (conversely, Subarus used to be known for their noisy engines).

In the American market, four versions of the Ascent are offered....Base, Premium, Limited, and Touring. Prices run from $31,995 to $45,045. All versions come with the same engine (Mistake #1).....a 2.4L flat-four of 260 HP and 277 ft-lbs.of torque, and (Mistake #2)....a CVT Continuously-Variable-Transmission with step-ratio manual shift mode. I say mistakes because I have experience test-driving Subaru's former 3.6L flat-sixes and conventional automatics, and, IMO, they make a better drivetrain for a vehicle like this. I do understand, however, that, all else equal, the turbo-fours and CVTs offer greater flexibility and better performance/fuel mileage/emissions...they just, IMO, are not as pleasant to drive. The aforementioned Symmetrical AWD, of course, is also standard on all versions.......All American-market Subarus come with it standard, except the small, RWD BR-Z sport-coupe, which was jointly-developed with Toyota.

I looked at a couple of different Ascents on the static-inspection, and, for the test-drive, chose a gray Premium version, with the $1400 Convenience package, that listed for just a hair over $38K...a reasonable price, IMO.

Outside, the Ascent has more or less the same basic shape as the current Outback, except that the Ascent seems a little is more of an SUV, whereas the Outback is more of a raised-wagon. Front ends are more or less similiar, and both have the classic Subaru trapedoidal grille and slant-headlamps. The sheet metal seemed (?) a little thicker and more solid than on many other new vehicles I've recently looked at (which still isn't saying much), and the doors closed with a reasonably (by today's standards) solid thunk. The paint jobs, though adequate, were not among the best I've seen (certainly not to Lexus or Audi standards), and the exterior color choice was almost exactly the same as on the VW Atlas I recently looked at. As on many SUVs, black cladding ran all around the lower-edge and wheel-wells to protect the paint from road-debris and salt. Overall, though, I liked the general shape of the exterior, which was more or less the traditional, space efficient two-box SUV design. That not only helps out with interior space-efficiency, but also with outward visibility.

Inside, although the Ascent has good interior fit-and-finish in all of its versions, I clearly preferred the simpler, more basic design of the VW Atlas. The Atlas is somewhat over-styled, though it uses some interesting and unusual trim-materials inside that vary from an ivory-colored herringbone/carbon-fiber to an unusual ivory leather to a nice woodtone, depending on the trim version. The front seats were comfortable for my frame, but not as much so as on the Hyundai Palisade and VW Atlas....the ones on the Palisade were near-perfect. There are cupholders galore in the rear, not only built into the door-panels, but also into a small swing-down compartment built into the rear of the console. Gauges are simple and easy to read. The stereo sounded excellent to my ears, but then most do on today's vehicles. The basic control layout was not difficult, and fairly easy to use. The upper-dash and upper-door panel surfaces were soft-touch, with hard plastic underneath.

Up front, underhood, the turbo flat-four engine fits in very well, and had no annoying plastic cover to block access to engine components. There was the usual underwood insulation pad (and it works...more on that later), and a huge air-intake that flared into the bottom of the hood. The only thing I didn't like underhood was the manual prop-rod to hold up the hood.

In back, the third-row seats are about what you would expect to find for this class of SUV. That means, of course, suitable for kids and small adults, but not NBA-sized guys. The conventional-SVU roofline, though, helps with headroom, and, as with most third-row seats, they fold down for added storage space. The cargo area itself is nicely-trimmed, and the Premium trim-level gives you a nice pull-shade assembly to hide cargo from prying eyes. You also get a nice slot-assembly in the under-floor compartment to store the pull-shade assembly if or when not in use. A temporary spare tire lies under the back of the vehicle, forward off the rear aging legs, and arthritis in several other joints, allowed me only a limited view/access.

On the road, while the turbo 2.4L four is not a bad powerplant by any means (and, of course, benefits from new technology), I miss the old 3.6L normally-aspirated V6, which was a gem. The turbo four has adequate power, but it doesn't seem to flow as smoothly. I also miss the smooth Subaru conventional automatics, even though they were only limited to four or five gears. The latest CVT in the Ascent seemed a little better-refined than the previous Subaru CVTs I've sampled, but there was still some motor-boating/rubber-banding effect under significant throttle-application. As with previous Subaru CVTs, there are several manual-shift ratios built into the unit, which are controlled by durable/slick-feel paddle-shifters on the steering column.

The chassis was generally well-done, though, IMO, not quite as well-engineered as on the VW Atlas. Ride comfort was generally good. The steering response was very quick for a mid-size SUV, although I thought the steering effort was too light. I didn't see any adjustments, on the Premium-trim version, that could vary the effort or response. There was some of the usual expected body roll. The brakes are adequate, though the response and pedal-effort sometimes felt a little uneven, and the brake pedal was well-located for my big size-15 clown-shoe to go from gas to brake without snagging the edge of the brake pedal.

But it was the sound insulation on this vehicle that was, IMO, its one outstanding feature....even Buick and Cadillac, the masters of sound-insulation, could take some lessons from it on their SUVs. Gone...(and I mean GONE), at least with the Ascent, are the days when Subaru engines sounded like washing-machines, and one had to put up with road and wind noise. The Ascent I was driving was so quiet, and masked its sensation of speed so much that, several times, I had to brake to keep my speed from edging well-past the posted limits....I've never gotten a ticket while reviewing a vehicle, and don't want to start now.


Well-done, but, IMO, not quite to the level that Consumer Reports has rated it at. It's well-assembled, with good materials, though the paint job could have a little more gloss. The excellent Subaru Symmetrical AWD system speaks for itself.....I don't have to add any more comments here. Ditto for the superb sound-insulation and refinement. Overall, though, even with the tomb-like interior sound level, not quite as pleasant to drive as the VW Atlas, which uses a conventional V6 and automatic rather than the CVT. And the Atlas offers a German-engineerred chassis, which, in its case, means something. But the Atlas has the (potential) ball and chain of sub-par VW reliability attached to it.....both the Hyundai Palisade and the Ascent would be better reliability-risks. Just for the record, Subaru uses the same 5/60 and 3/36 warranties that most mainstream Japanese and American brands do. And Subaru has generally been very good about offering extended factory warranties when a pattern of defects are found, like the former head-gaskets, piston-rings/oil-consumption, and rear wheel-bearings.

As Always, Happy SUV-Shopping.🙂