The 2021 Subaru Ascent doesn't really stand above and beyond the crowded field of three-row family crossovers. There are those that make a bolder statement outside, that are more luxurious inside and that are better to drive. Some are even more spacious or versatile. Frankly, it's hard not to point you towards a Kia Telluride, Hyundai Palisade or Toyota Highlander instead.
However, the Ascent really isn't for the general three-row crossover-buying population. It's for Subaru's fiercely loyal customers, and specifically the great many who outgrow their Foresters and Outbacks. Previously, if they needed more space and/or seats, they were forced to abandon the brand that A) they were used to, and B) catered to their specific requirements that often involve outdoorsy adventures. With the Ascent, they get that extra space but it comes with the same 8.7 inches of ground clearance and beefy roof rails, an awfully familiar driving experience, and the cabin puts the same emphasis on no-nonsense, user-friendly controls. The Ascent even looks like an Outback, albeit a gigantic one. So although the Ascent isn't for everyone, it should be just right for those already onboard the good ship Subaru.
There are more standard features this year, all of which enhance safety. The standard headlights on every trim level are now steering-responsive LED units, while the standard EyeSight suite of driver assistance tech gains lane-keeping assistance and lane-centering for the adaptive cruise control system. There are also now seatbelt reminders for second- and third-row occupants. Buckle up kids!
From the driver's seat, the Ascent's packaging displays Subaru's pragmatic philosophy to car design. All the gauges are easy to see and read at a glance, knobs and buttons are easy to locate — both those of the software-based touchscreen infotainment system and the physical ones on the steering wheel and center stack. There aren't as many clever cubbies as in a Honda Pilot or Toyota Highlander, but there are a grand total of 19 cupholders spread throughout the cabin. Anticipate frequent bathrooms stops.
The base infotainment system is a 6.5-inch touchscreen, but moving up to the Premium trim bumps that up to an 8.0-inch unit. The image quality is crisp, the colors bright, and simple tasks like selecting a radio preset are made easy with big virtual buttons. Accomplishing more in-depth tasks is more cumbersome, however, as settings can be in odd places within various menus (or controlled by the odd dash-top display that's controlled with steering wheel buttons). In that way, the Ascent's infotainment offerings aren't as advanced as what you get in Subaru's Outback, which features a giant vertically oriented touchscreen that integrates everything into one place.
In general, though, you shouldn't feel shortchanged that the bigger and pricier Ascent has a "lesser" touchscreen interface than the Outback. In general, what it has is more user friendly and better looking than those of many competitors (Honda and Mazda, for instance) and indeed one of the better tech interfaces in the industry.
For those already in the Subaru family, the Ascent represents a clear step up from the brand's other crossovers. It is 5.5 inches longer than an Outback, 3 inches wider and 5.2 inches taller. It's a whopping 14.7 inches longer than a Forester, 4.5 inches narrower and 3.5 inches shorter. It also has an extra row of seats. Compared to other three-row crossovers, however, its dimensions are average apart from being taller than most. This is partly because of its class-leading 8.7 inches of ground clearance, but also just because of its tall, boxy greenhouse.
A 6-foot passenger will have plenty of room in the second row, which is adjustable for legroom and seatback angle. On upper trim levels, buyers can choose between a pair of captain's chairs or a three-passenger bench. We've found that they're basically equal in terms of comfort. Third-row passengers are treated better in the Ascent than in many competitors (Toyota Highlander, Mazda CX-9 and Ford Explorer in particular). If the middle-seat occupants are willing to slide their seats forward a bit, there's adequate legroom for a 6-footer in the way back to sit comfortably for a fair bit of time. For kids, this means even more comfort and space.
As for cargo, the Ascent offers 17.6 cubic feet of cargo space behind the third row, which is mid-pack for this segment. It’s more than the Mazda CX-9 (14.4 cubic feet), Toyota Highlander (16.0) and Honda Pilot (16.5), but less than the Hyundai Palisade (18.0), Ford Explorer (18.2) and Kia Telluride (21.0). Max cargo volume is among the class leaders at 86.5 cubic feet, which is almost certainly the result of being quite boxy – always a good thing when it comes to cargo. For anything that doesn't fit inside, the Ascent has big, extra-functional roof rails for whatever racks, carriers and other accessories you might have.
The Ascent’s sole powertrain offering is a 2.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, arranged in Subaru’s signature boxer (horizontally opposed rather than a V or inline) configuration. Power is sent to all four wheels via a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Producing 260 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque, we've found this engine can feel just as quick in relaxed around-town driving as its competitors, but know that their greater outputs do result in quicker 0-60-mph times and more robust acceleration when fully loaded.
That said, owners living at higher elevations (as many Subaru owners do) will appreciate the lasting power from the turbocharger, which keeps the Ascent from feeling breathless at heights where naturally aspirated engines start to lose power. In other words, four cylinders are not necessarily lesser than six, and it even manages the same 5,000-pound towing capacity of most rivals.
All Ascents use all-wheel drive, so the deciding factor in the difference of fuel economy comes down to wheel size and therefore trim level. With 18-inch wheels, the Ascent gets 21 mpg city, 27 mpg highway and 23 combined mpg. The 20-inch wheels found on the Limited and Touring result in a reduction of 1 mpg across the board. That’s about on par with, and in some instances better than, the competition.
The buyers of three-row crossovers are less likely to prioritize driving dynamics, but if you should, the Ascent will probably end up toward the bottom of your list. The steering is precise and accurate, but it's also quite light in effort and doesn't really engage the driver. The suspension is soft to ensure a comfortable ride over harsh pavement, and although surefooted and secure, those used to a responsive-handling car will be underwhelmed. Those used to a Subaru Outback, however, will feel right at home.
There are no sport modes to fiddle with in the Ascent, just a standard baseline setting, but the single setup feels well thought out and sorted. There's plenty of punch from Subie's turbo-four. There were a few times we caught the engine flat-footed on our drive and had to wait a second for the turbo to spin up, but we ended our drive thinking its output is sufficient. We were able to tow an Airstream trailer just shy of the Ascent's maximum of 5,000 pounds, and we found that it had no problem getting the load up to speed and back down again. The CVT mimics the feel of a traditional automatic transmission, for the most part. It works well, and doesn't get in the way of a good driving experience.
Our first impressions of the Ascent when it was new for 2019. Among more details about its design and engineering, we found it was immediately clear that Subaru had learned from its mistakes with the Tribeca.
A roundtable discussion from several Autoblog editors assessing the Ascent’s merits and shortcomings after a week of real-world driving impressions.
We drove these two likable three-row competitors back to back to more specifically compare the driving experience between the two. From our conclusion:
"Count 'em up and you'll see that the Subaru Ascent won three out of our five categories. By that measure, it's the winner of this comparison. But, as is so often the case, the reality is more nuanced than that."
Here, we look at the specifications of some of the leading three-row crossovers to compare pricing, dimensions, fuel economy, capabilities and capacities. Note that since then, the Honda Pilot only comes with a nine-speed automatic transmission.
Pricing starts at $33,345, including the $1,050 destination charge. For that price, your get the basics plus alloy wheels, raised roof rails, steering-adaptive LED headlights, the EyeSight suite of driver assistance tech (see Safety section below), tri-zone climate controls, four USB ports (two front, two second-row), a 6.5-inch touchscreen, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and satellite radio.
However, the Ascent Premium at $35,845 is probably the best place to start because of several key upgrades: blind-spot warning, rear privacy glass, an eight-way power driver seat, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, rear climate controls, the 8-inch touchscreen, in-car Wi-Fi and an All-Weather package that adds heated mirrors, heated seats and a windshield wiper de-icer. There are also a number of worthwhile options available on the Premium you can't add to the base model and that are included on the upper trim levels. Basically, this is your best bet if you want to build an Ascent with the functional equipment you want without the fancier frippery of the Limited and Touring.
Should you be interested in that fancier frippery, however, you can find a full breakdown of each Ascent's features, specs and local pricing here on Autoblog.
In addition to the usual seatbelts, airbags and traction control, the 2021 Ascent comes standard with Subaru's extensive suite of "EyeSight" driver assist technology systems. These include forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning and lane-keeping assist, along with an adaptive cruise control system that can keep you in the center of your lane in addition to maintaining speed and distance to cars ahead. Blind-spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert, high-beam assist, reverse automatic braking and a 180-degree front-view camera are also available in higher trims.
While these systems certainly to their jobs of keeping you safe, and the sheer number of them is welcome, they also have the tendency to be hyperactive. They're basically the helicopter parent of driver assistance systems, frequently beeping and flashing in instances that don't necessarily warrant it. Rival systems are less intrusive.
In government crash testing, the Ascent received top five-star ratings for overall, frontal and side crash protection. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety named it a Top Safety pick for its best-possible performance in all crash tests, for its "Superior" forward collision mitigation system and for the top "Good" rating of its now-standard steering-adaptive LED headlights.