2021 Subaru Ascent Review

Subaru’s thing used to be small, rugged cars (sedans and wagons) built to deal with bad roads and poor weather and a 4WD truck or SUV without actually being a truck or SUV.

Then trucks—big ones, especially—got popular and more like cars in terms of their on-road civilities and amenities. Also, the big SUVs and crossovers, which emulate them.

Enter the Ascent—the first big Subaru.

It can seat eight in three rows and pull 5,000 pounds.

But there’s one thing about it that’s still small.

What It Is

The Ascent is the biggest vehicle Subaru has ever made. It’s a medium-large crossover with three rows and seating for 7-8 depending on the configuration and similar to others in the class, such as the VW Atlas, Mazda CX-9, and Honda Pilot. Note that all of these brands also once specialized in small cars.

Times have changed.

More oversized vehicles have become popular because many people need a one-size-fits-several vehicle that can also carry (and pull) a load.

The Ascent is designed for such duty.

It chiefly differs from otherwise-similar models in the segment because it comes standard with all-wheel-drive (optional in the Mazda CX-9, Honda Pilot, and VW Atlas). It also comes with a small-for-its-size 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, which is about the same size as the engines Subaru puts in much smaller cars, like the Impreza and Outback.

It is, however, a much more powerful engine than Subaru puts in most of its smaller cars and nearly as powerful as the engine Subaru puts in its famous high-performance small car, the WRX.

Prices start at $32,995 for the base trim, which is less than the price of all of its main rivals when those rivals are equipped with their optional AWD systems. It’s also less than some of them, regardless.

For instance, the FWD Mazda CX-9 starts at $34,160 ($36,060 with AWD).

A top-of-the-line Ascent Touring stickers for $45,445. This one comes with captain’s chair seating for seven rather than a second row/three-across bench and seating for eight, a 14-speaker Harman Kardon audio system, panorama sunroof, heated steering wheel, and seats for the first and second rows with perforated leather seats.

What’s New

The previously optional turns-with-the-steering-wheel LED headlights are now standard in all trims. Also, the optional EyeSight suite of electronic “assists” includes adaptive cruise control.

What’s Good

  • One of the best deals going in the class, especially if you want an AWD-equipped large crossover.
  • Standard small four makes almost as much power as some of the bigger (and usually, optional) V6s in rival crossovers.
  • Strong standard tow rating (5,000 lbs.).

What’s Not So Good

  • Gas mileage of the small four is about the same as the mileage of bigger V6s in the class.
  • Glass touchscreen is touchy.
  • The seatbelt buzzer is obnoxiously loud and gets louder if you don’t buckle up in time.

Under The Hood

Unlike most of its rivals, the Ascent comes with the same engine and what’s bolted to it irrespective of trim and cost.

It’s also a unique engine vs. the engines available in rivals.

It’s a four but flat, with its cylinders laid out in pairs, facing each other across the crankshaft. This is the boxer layout, also used by Porsche and (once upon a time) VW, in the classic Beetle. The layout has packaging advantages over the more common inline (and upright) four because it is half the length of an inline four and because it is flat, which leaves more room above.

It also distributes the engine’s weight more evenly, one side of it on each side of the vehicle’s centerline and closer to the ground, which is helpful in terms of balance and handling.

The four is small relative to the Ascent’s size (and weight)—just 2.4-liters. But like other small engines that are placed into large vehicles, it is turbo-boosted to make the power on demand of a larger engine.

In this case, the engine has 260 horsepower, which is more potent than the even smaller (2.0-liter) turbocharged four standard in the Ascent-sized VW Atlas, which makes just 235 hp. It also has nearly as much power as the Atlas’ optional and much larger—3.6-liter V6, which manages just 276 hp.

It also has enough power for the Ascent to pull a 5,000 lb. trailer instead of the 2,000 lbs. the four-cylinder Atlas is rated to pull (and the 3,500 lbs. maximum the four-cylinder-only Mazda CX-9 is rated to pull).

Only the Honda Pilot comes with more engine and more power—a standard of its main rivals. That one has a 3.5-liter, 280 hp V6 regardless of trim and can also pull the same 5,000 lbs. as the Ascent.

However, the Pilot does not come standard with AWD. So equipped, its price increases to $34,250, a difference of $1,255.

Another difference (an interesting one) is the small difference in gas mileage between the turbo four-powered Ascent and the V6-powered Pilot. The former touts 20 city, 26 highway, the latter 19 city, 26 highway.

It’s interesting because the main thing driving the small-engines-in-big-vehicles thing is the putative decrease in appetite that results from having fewer cylinders to feed. But that doesn’t happen when the cylinders remaining have to work harder to make up for the lack of cylinders, which is what turbos (in this application type) do.

When the driver needs more power, the turbo boosts the small engine to provide it. The theory is that when the driver doesn’t need the power, the smaller engine will have a smaller appetite, which it would, if not because without the boost, there is often insufficient power.

Hence boost is often being applied, and hence not much difference.

On The Road

The Ascent would be a pleasant, easy-to-drive large crossover were it not for all the racket made by the safety mechanisms. These include a genuinely obnoxious buckle-up chime that chimes insistently louder if you don’t immediately put the damned thing on, even if it’s only to drive down the driveway to the mailbox.

There is also the Ding! Ding! Ding! of the Lane Keep Assist, which I couldn’t figure out how to turn off. There may or may not be a “switch” in the apps. I could not find it. So every time a tire touched one of the painted lines on the road—Ding! Ding! Ding!

I didn’t need the “assistance.” The painted lines don’t always correspond precisely with the track of the road, and I found the Ding! Ding! Dinging! to be both unnecessary and annoying.

It’s arguably distracting, too.

The whole “safety” thing has gotten entirely out of hand. Incompetence is presumed, and competent drivers are hassled by the electronic equivalent of a backseat driver except you can’t kick it to the curb. New cars generally beep, chime, hit the brakes, and jerk the steering wheel so much it makes you almost not want to drive, which may well be what is wanted, ultimately.

This is too bad, too, because new vehicles such as this Ascent have many good points, including that potent little engine under the hood. It feels much more robust than its size would indicate, and, indeed, it is as strong as 5-liter V8s in performance cars like the Ford Mustang were as recently as the mid-1990s.

Granted, that’s not as recently as it once was, but it’s still a valid point of reference.

Also, Subaru has done an excellent job of programming the Ascent’s CVT automatic transmission to emulate the feel/shift characteristics of a conventional automatic in every way except the shift shock. Of course, there are no shifts from one fixed gear to the next up (or down) within the guts of a CVT.

The transitions go smoothly from range to range, which varies continuously.

Many people do not like CVTs and avoid them—not because they are smooth, of course — but rather because they are noisy. They tend to keep the engine at higher RPM as the vehicle accelerates, rather than shifting up to the next-highest gear, as a conventional automatic would, with the engine RPM decreasing as it does and with it, the engine noise.

This engine sounds and even feels like a regular automatic, with the upside that your coffee won’t splash all over the place, even when you floor it.

There is also a “safety” feature that adds to the pleasantness of driving the Ascent. It is the Preston Tucker-inspired swiveling headlights that turn with the steering wheel in the curves, illuminating where you’re actually going. These are now standard, and the only downside to them is that they probably cost a lot to replace when they fail. But if they help you see that deer before you hit it and avoid hitting it, that’s arguably a cost well worth the expense.

At The Curb

As large as the Ascent is for a Subaru, it is not that large for a modern vehicle.

It is 196.8 inches long overall. For some sense of scale, that is about the same overall footprint as a current mid-sized car, such as Subaru’s very own Legacy, which is only about six inches longer (190.6 inches).

But the Ascent is much taller—71.6 inches vs. 59.1 for the Legacy. It’s also much broader —76 inches vs. 72.4. That is the secret of its much larger feel as well as its look. Functionally, in terms of how much space it occupies, curbside and within a garage is about the same as a mid-sized car like the Legacy.

Yet it can fit up to eight people within itself, which is three more than fit inside an almost-the-same footprint sedan like the Legacy. This is the appeal and the genius of these crossovers vs. approximately the same-size sedans, which aren’t selling well for precisely that reason.

The Ascent hasn’t got quite as much space for cargo behind its third row (17.8 cubic feet) or with its rows folded (86.5 cubic feet) as rivals like the VW Atlas (20.6 and 96.8 cubic feet, respectively) or the Honda Pilot (83.8 total cubic feet of capacity). Still, it does have more than the Mazda CX-9 (14.4 cubic feet and 71.2 cubic feet, respectively) and vastly more than an almost-the-same-footprint sedan like the Legacy, which has no more than 15.1 cubic feet with a trunk not expandable.

This practicality is why crossovers can get away with looking pretty much the same.

The Rest

The Ascent has a toney-looking LCD touchscreen that has the downside of being very touch-sensitive. It’s easy to touch the wrong icon inadvertently; this is an issue that besets all such interfaces, and it is a strong argument for buttons and switches that have physicality, i.e., that can be precisely touched and which don’t activate (or deactivate) the function they control unless you actually do touch them.

The upside is Subaru’s counterbalancing with redundant knobs/switches for many of the necessary and regularly used functions, such as adjusting the genuinely excellent 14-speaker Harman Kardon audio rig volume. It also has a CD slot—something getting very hard to find in new vehicles.

Something else it has (though you wouldn’t know it to look at it) is a functional hood scoop. You need to open the hood to see. It is on the underside of the hood, running an extremely low profile. But it’s just as much a cold-air scoop as the scoop you can see on the topside of, say, the Subaru WRX.

Something else you’ll need to pop the hood to see but which you’ll be glad to see is the oil filter, which is mounted right there, on the top of the engine. You can remove/install it by hand—a grateful thing for oil change time.

The Bottom Line

The Ascent’s biggest sell vs. its rivals isn’t noticeably better fuel efficiency or noticeably more space; it is a noticeably lower price and noticeably more power for the price than others in this class.

Eric Peters lives in Virginia and enjoys driving cars and motorcycles. In the past, Eric worked as a car journalist for many prominent mainstream media outlets. Currently, he focuses his time writing auto history books, reviewing cars, and blogging about cars+ for his website EricPetersAutos.com.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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