Payne: Big Subaru Ascent wants your family — and cups

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Correction: The Subaru Ascent’s cruise control can be adjusted in 1- and 5-mph increments. A previous version of this story incorrectly reported its functions.

The last time Subaru tried a family SUV it was going through an awkward phase with the three-row Tribeca wallflower and its geeky triangular grille, pricey sticker, and ... Mrs. Payne and I walked right past it on the way to the handsome, 2006 Pacifica crossover on the Chrysler lot.

Well, two’s the charm.

A lot has changed for a new generation of ‘Ru families. For one, Subaru went out and got a proper stylist, and its family of handsome Imprezas and Crosstreks aren’t turning away customers with their homely looks. Take my wife — who is on her second Impreza hatchback after downsizing from her three-row Pacifica.

The 4,500-pound, 2019 Subaru Ascent is the biggest Subie yet with standard AWD, three-rows, oodles of standard features and room for seven.

Young Subie owners who bought into the brand with a tidy Impreza or Crosstrek, on the other hand, finally have a proper, full-size family ute to, well, ascend into. Of course, they may have to swallow their tree-hugging ideals over the breakfast newspaper. “The World Is Embracing S.U.V.s. That’s Bad News for the Climate,” lectured a New York Times headline this year. Well, there’s always Fox News.

The faithful might be reassured that Subaru keeps the continuously-variable transmission and flat four-cylinder engine tech for which its famous in its smaller, granola crunchers. But in truth that requires real-world compromise, too, as the four-banger gets turbocharged to motivate its porky-for-the-class 4,583 pounds. That means the ‘Ru gets an EPA fuel rating of 22 mpg — no better than comparably-priced V-6s like the Kia Sorento looker I recently tested.

Indeed, in Car and Driver’s real-world test against another turbo-4, the alluring Mazda CX-9, the Ascent’s fuel economy descended to 17 mpg, 2 mpg shy of the Mazda hottie.

The new Ascent won’t win any beauty pageants over the CX-9 but it’s not unpleasant — it’s even charming with its signature long front end and thick, rugged roof rails. But just to make sure no one walks away before taking a closer look, the Ascent has ...


That oughta get your attention. And after counting every single one, you realize that they’ve stuffed a lot of other stuff in there, too, for a very affordable price.

What Ascent lacks in curb appeal to the Sorento and CX-9 it makes up for in size, features and affordability.

Parked next to the Sorento in my driveway, the Ascent looks a class larger. Part of that is a face with a lantern jaw bigger than Schwarzenegger, but open the doors and the interior is roomier. Check out that boot. With 18 cubic feet of cargo room behind the third row, the Subie beats the Kia by 50 percent and the Mazda by almost 30.

Only the Chevy Traverse beats it in size with a palatial 23 cubic feet (GM’s ute also is a class leader in third-row seat room, making life comfortable even for your giraffe-legged reviewer). For the same $45K price, however, the Ascent is a Shoney’s buffet of features.

Standard all-wheel-drive, adaptive cruise control, auto brake assist, and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto — then panoramic sunroof, blind-spot assist, auto high beams, auto windshield wipers, power front seats, rear climate control, rear bucket seats, and a washer and dryer (just kidding about the last two).

Japanese companies like Subaru, Honda, Toyota and Mazda increasingly emphasize the electronic gizmos which drivers are increasingly coming to expect. Like a camera on your phone. The Chevy does not have adaptive cruise and auto high beams at $45K, and they are sorely missed.

Speaking of essentials, blind-spot assist is a must on big barges like Ascent, and Subaru obliged by putting the indicator — not waaaaay out on the starboard mirror edge where it’s often lost in sun glare — but on the inside mirror stem where you can see it all the time.

Subie may have supersized but it hasn’t forgotten its adventurous roots. Ascent gets ox-like, 5,000-pound towing ability. And the forward camera that (Tesla -like) allows you to see out the front of the vehicle. And the nearly nine-inch ground clearance, and hill descent control.

Touches like that endear folks to Subaru who will still be tempted to camp off-road in their three-row ute.

Subaru is not immune from oddities. The adaptive cruise control only goes up in 5-mph increments (what?!), which was awkward — until some helpful owners explained to me that it will go up in 1 mph increments with a long hold of the steering wheel-mounted switch. That is, opposite of most cars on the road.

My wife has to do the same on her Impreza. You get used to it.

Happily, unlike the Traverse and Sorento with their cost-cutting, access-the-third-row-only-on-the-curbside-of-the-vehicle, the Ascent allows you to get into the back on either side of the car with a simple, one-pull seat lever. The Honda Pilot is still the master of this with its single-push button magic.

It makes for a good, overall second-and-third row vibe. It seems Subaru cares about its coach-class passengers as much as first-class drivers.

There’s climate control for the second row, heated seats, that yuuuuge sunroof providing sunlight — and, of course, enough cupholders for the kids to have both a pop and milkshake with their fast-food burgers.

Still, when I pressed the starter button and pulled the shift lever into DRIVE, I feared the worst.

Despite the major improvement to my wife’s CVT tranny in the latest-gen Impreza, the ghost of droning CVTs past — attached-to-four cylinders — still haunts me. How could the combo possibly work in a two-ton ute?

Make that two tons and a half, and you feel every pound given the Subie’s higher, off-road ride height. After a week of driving a Corvette ZR1 at the Dream Cruise this summer — sweating every parking lot entrance with its low, carbon-fiber splitter (scraaape) — I admit the Ascent’s ride height was blessedly stress free.

But it also means it has no athletic pretensions like a Mazda. The turbo-4 and CVT, on the other hand, are surprisingly spry. The CVT is no droner — but shifts smoothly under duress thanks to electronic programming that makes it feel like a high-ratio automatic.

The 260-horsepower turbo-4 is a bull.

Subaru has left its awkward, geeky, Tribeca phase behind and produced a big, competitive, roomy three-row ute. Just in time for your growing family — awkward, geeky teens and all.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at or Twitter @HenryEPayne. Catch “Car Radio with Henry Payne” from noon-2 p.m. Saturdays on 910 AM Superstation.

2019 Subaru Ascent

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, seven-passenger SUV

Price: $32,970 base, includes $975 destination fee ($45,670 Ascent Touring as tested)

Powerplant: 2.4-liter turbo, "Boxer" inline 4-cylinder

Power: 260 horsepower, 277 pound-feet torque

Transmission: Continuously-variable automatic 

Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.9 seconds (Car and Driver); towing: 5,000 pounds

Weight: 4,583 pounds 

EPA fuel economy: 20 city/26 highway/22 combined 

Report card

Highs: Turbo-4 rows the big ship; lotsa standard features

Lows: Turbo-4 gets thirsty; cruise control takes getting used to

Overall: 3 stars