Full disclosure: I don’t have any kids, so it may seem a bit strange that I recently reviewed the eight-passenger Subaru Ascent. In order to properly analyze Soob’s all-new people-mover, I enlisted the help of some young nephews, as well as my father, who himself drove around six of his own kids for many years.
What I’m trying to say to you, dear readers, is that I got other people to do my work for me, and all it cost was some lollipops for my nephews. My dad, on the other hand, got completely shafted. Sorry, pops! My Son of the Year award eludes me once again.
Impressions as a Daily Driver
Although I did get input from the young and not-so-young, I had plenty of time driving solo in the Ascent, and I say this without exaggeration – every time I sat in the driver’s seat, I became more enamoured with this SUV. Whether I was commuting to and from work in heavy traffic, visiting the grocery store around the corner, or hitting the highway for a visit to a family member, the Ascent was an absolute pleasure to drive.
I’ll speak about how fun this car is in a moment, but it’s important to note that Subaru hasn’t forgotten that the focus of this vehicle is hauling people and stuff. There are eight seats available in my test vehicle, and they allow for all sorts of configurations.
It’s a cinch folding seats down or moving them back into position regardless of where you’re situated, as proven by my 10-year-old nephew who used the illustrations on the seats to figure out in about a half a second how to get him and his brothers in and out of the Ascent with ease. In fact, he showed me a thing or two – no foolin’!
Whether you’re at the back of the vehicle or standing by one of the passenger doors, I was never bothered with doing laps to get to what I wanted to do.
I’ll also never take for granted how easy it is to make a flat load surface in the Ascent, without the need to actually remove the seats the way we had to with our Dodge Caravans back in the ’80’s and ’90’s. Those were dark days indeed, and my father and I still shudder at the process of taking those things out or putting them back in. With the Ascent, it’s all just a tab pull or cord yank away.
Keep in mind, this is the base model, so it’s missing certain features that some buyers may be expecting. You won’t be able to kick your foot under the vehicle to automatically activate the liftgate when your hands are full of grocery bags and/or screaming children. In fact, the liftgate is very much a manually-operated endeavor, so you’ll want to keep that in mind, and perhaps spring for a loaded model.
There is an abundance of storage, with a deep console between the driver and front passenger as well as a covered rear under-floor compartment. You’ll never be left wanting for extra cupholders, and I love the small touches, such as hooks at the rear that are placed in a spot where I wasn’t left awkwardly reaching to hook or unhook grocery bags.
Beyond the Pavement
The Ascent is a smooth operator, but when the going gets tough, this is still a Subaru, so it’s up to the task of light off-roading. It employs Subaru’s symmetrical all-wheel drive system, and while at this point that may just sound like a fancy marketing term, I’ve experienced what it can do in some really tough conditions, and it legitimately is wonderful.
The vehicle also comes standard with X-Mode, which makes the Ascent a more capable offroader. X-Mode can be activated with the push of a button and will do things like automatically control speed and braking when travelling down steep declines or improve stability and traction on slippery surfaces. As is often the case with these vehicles, methinks this mode won’t be used often by owners, but it sure is a nice-to-have if you ever do find yourself face-to-face (or bumper-to-rut) with a challenging driving situation.
My dad speaks highly of the way his front-wheel drive Caravans of years past never once faltered in snowy conditions during our Canadian winters, but I still believe peace-of-mind is a powerful thing, and I know few Canadians who would outright refuse all-wheel drive if given the option.
A Two Hour Tour
Back when I was a young lad, road trips weren’t really an option for my large family. You all piled into the van and hoped you weren’t stuck in one of the middle seats. We wiled away the time in numerous ways, but the best way was by playing my dad’s famous (to us at least) Money Game – feel free to email me if you want the details.
The Ascent is far roomier, and the middle seats aren’t the purgatory they were in the Caravan. While my tester doesn’t have things like a Blu-Ray player or numerous outlets for video games, my nephews were quite happy just being able to climb around to different seats (while the car was parked, of course), and seemed impressed by things like the rear vents, which I can turn on or off at will depending on if there are actually people occupying the rear benches.
The front seats look like they belong in something much smaller and sportier, and they hold up well over longer distances. The interior, meanwhile, stays quiet even at highway speed, with barely any wind or road noise creeping in. Even if it did, I’m confident my nephews could easily take on the challenge of drowning it all out.
The sound system in the base Ascent leaves something to be desired. It features six speakers (not a lot for a vehicle of this size), and it simply doesn’t wow me in any way.
It certainly doesn’t sound bad by any stretch, but it just doesn’t present music with any crispness or clarity. All the instruments tend to meld together, making my in-car concerts perfectly forgettable. Keep in mind that higher trims do offer a vastly upgraded 14-speaker Harman Kardon system. If you’re an audiophile, it may be something worth investigating before purchasing.
You often hear claims from manufacturers about how fun their family haulers are, and they’re just that – claims. I can say with certainty that Subaru has done something special with the Ascent. You probably won’t be booking any track time with it, but it melds comfort and drivability with a healthy dose of excitement.
The main reason for that is the 2.4-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine – it’s an engine I cannot stop marveling over. To place such a small power plant – turbocharged or not – in such a large vehicle seems crazy, but turns out, it’s not. This thing has no business working so well in an SUV of this size, but somehow it does.
I’m never – not once – wanting for power when it’s time to pass a vehicle or get to speed while merging onto a highway. It makes 260-horsepower, along with 277 lb-ft of torque that peaks at a mere 2,000 RPM, so you’re never waiting long for that boost of power.
Not only that, the manual mode offered, which allows the driver to shift through eight “gears” (they’re not technically gears since this is a continuously variable transmission) is awesome.
In a full-size SUV like the Ascent I normally ignore this sort of feature, but after trying it in earnest on my first day, I’ve become addicted to using the paddle shifters (yes – paddle shifters!).
And while this is a big, bulky sport utility vehicle, it often feels like something much smaller. It doesn’t feel like you’re piloting a king-size mattress through turns, and there’s actually some sense of connection to the driver while behind the wheel, which is a rarity in this class.
Where’s the Beef? Qualms and Quibbles
I’ve already gone over some of the concessions presented by the Ascent, which all come down to this being the base model, meaning it’s missing some luxury features that are becoming more and more expected in the 21st century (but which my parents never dreamed of having decades ago).
Beyond that, my biggest complaint revolves around the lack of soft-touch surfaces in the Ascent. It offers an attractive two-tone interior with slick graphics on the centre console display (a glaring issue with Subarus of years past), but over time I couldn’t ignore all the hard plastic. Even the soft-touch material on things like the centre console lid didn’t offer much comfort, and I wish Subaru added some more pleasing material on places where my legs often made contact.
Complaining about cupholders is the very definition of a “quibble,” but it’s a quibble nonetheless, and I wish the two centre console cupholders were deeper. Every time I placed my water bottle in one and saw the bottle shake and circle around precariously, I always became nervous, thinking it would fly out and land directly under the brake pedal. Call me paranoid, but I simply ended up not using them at all.
That being said, when your complaints about a vehicle come down to the cupholders, you’re probably doing something right.
Once again, the Ascent surprises here in a good way. My average fuel economy comes in at 13.1 L/100 km, which I’m quite happy with, especially considering I’m not trying to drive particularly efficiently.
As a bonus, you can fill up this SUV with regular fuel, so trips to the pump, despite the 73 litre fuel tank, aren’t nearly as painful as you might think.
Cost & Availability
There are concessions with my Ascent test vehicle, but they’re easier to swallow when you consider the sub-$37,000 CAD price tag for Canadian buyers (pricing starts at $31,995 USD in the U.S. market). There are several trims on offer, and this SUV can land at just over $50,000, but considering everything – features, fun, all-wheel drive, and more – this is a fairly-priced vehicle.
You shouldn’t have a difficult time finding the Ascent. It’s brand-new for the 2020 model year, but with the popularity of SUVs and crossovers, this isn’t some sort of limited-edition halo car only reserved for the super-rich.
In case you couldn’t tell by now, I really am quite smitten with this vehicle, which is something I certainly wasn’t expecting when I first sat in the driver’s seat.
I could go on for several more paragraphs, but I think it makes more sense to once again just get my nephews to do the work for me. I asked each of them to describe the Ascent in just one word, and here are the responses I got:
Hayden, 10: “Awesome”
Edwin, 8: “Cool”
Charlie, 6: “Amazing”
It doesn’t get more accurate and succinct than that, folks.
[Photo credit: Daniel Barron]