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2020 Subaru Ascent Test Drive Review
Consider the 2020 Subaru Ascent an appealing, family-size SUV charged with retaining existing customers and bringing new ones into the fold.
Love might be what makes a Subaru a Subaru, as the automaker’s advertising has long claimed, but it's also what has traditionally made people outgrow Subarus.
Subaru tried building a 3-row, 7-passenger SUV once before, but quirky design and a strange name flattened the B9 Tribeca’s tires before they got a decent chance to roll down the road. With the 2020 Ascent, however, Subaru has a family-size SUV for existing and would-be customers who need extra space for people, pets, and cargo. And while the Ascent is loaded with compelling details and thoughtful features, flaws might limit its appeal strictly to the Subaru faithful.
Look and Feel
Looking like a puffed-up Subaru Forester, the 2020 Ascent is appealing in the practical and utilitarian way that all the company’s SUVs are.
Gray plastic cladding provides 360-degree protection along the lower edges of the vehicle. An oversize grille and exaggerated fender flares add visual strength. Robust roof rails demonstrate clarity of purpose and intent. And appealing 20-inch aluminum wheels democratize design across three of the four trim levels.
The base Ascent, priced starting at $31,995, comes with smaller 18-inch wheels and doesn’t have dark-tinted privacy glass. Upgrade to Premium trim for $34,395 for nicer detailing, a superior infotainment system, and access to more features, including the bigger wheels. The $39,345 Limited trim installs leather seats and more. The Touring trim, which costs $45,045, equips the Ascent with premium leather in an exclusive color, a panoramic sunroof, special wood trim, and other luxury-themed enhancements.
My test vehicle had Touring trim and a set of third-row quick-charge USB ports, bringing the total price to $46,285, including a destination charge to deliver the Ascent from its Lafayette, Indiana, factory to your local dealership.
Painted Abyss Blue Pearl, its gorgeous color contrasted nicely with the machined-finish wheels and the Touring’s special Java Brown leather. Open the door, and the interior looks more stylish than any Subaru in recent memory, for the most part showing quality materials, appealing design, and thoughtful details. You definitely feel like you’re getting your money’s worth.
As nice as the Touring trim is, though, CarGurus recommends choosing the Ascent Premium and then upgrading with the Convenience and Sporty option packages. You’ll end up with an Ascent priced below $40,000, a look almost identical to the Touring, and stain-resistant cloth upholstery that’s often more comfortable than leather in both warm and cold climates.
Every Subaru Ascent has a turbocharged 2.4-liter 4-cylinder engine, a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), and all-wheel drive (AWD). With 260 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque on tap, it supplies good acceleration for a vehicle of this size. Better yet, turbocharging means the engine remains strong at elevation, resisting the power-sapping effects of altitude that make normally aspirated engines feel weak and slow.
Unfortunately, this is a thirsty powertrain. On my testing loop, it averaged 18.9 mpg, falling well short of the official EPA estimate of 22 mpg in combined driving for versions with 20-inch wheels. This is not unusual. Turbocharged 4-cylinder engines tend to perform well in EPA testing, but with normal use in the real world, they often miss fuel-economy targets. That’s the case with the Ascent, anyway, giving the SUV a driving range of fewer than 365 miles per tank.
You can’t blame hard driving on the mountainous portion of my loop for this result, either. The Ascent, despite its turbo engine, relatively low center of gravity, brake-based Active Torque Vectoring system, and origin from the same company that crafts the excellent WRX and WRX STI, does not encourage enthusiastic shenanigans.
The P245/50R20 Falken Ziex all-season tires aren’t up for having fun on pavement. And though nicely weighted, the rather slow and numb steering doesn’t inspire exploration of the Ascent’s handling capabilities. Pavement undulations easily upset the suspension, too, activating the stability control on one of the bigger whoop-de-doos on my loop. The brakes also quickly heat up and grumble about their discontent.
So then, this is not a family-size Subaru WRX. And most people won’t care. What will bother them, if my experience is any indication, is the transmission.
As CVTs go, this is a decent one in terms of its overall behavior. Thanks to eight programmed ratios intended to make it sound and feel like a traditional automatic, it rarely drones when accelerating. But it doesn’t play nice with the turbocharged 4-cylinder.
For example, in traffic, it can produce unexpected surges of power in some situations, while failing to respond to throttle input in others. Sometimes, when accelerating through the ratios, power fades too much with each simulated shift. Collectively, these traits add up to uneven power delivery and an unpredictable powertrain.
Worse, however, is the shifter. It sounds and feels cheap when used, and if the Ascent is parked on a hill, the clunking when you shift out of Park is loud and rough enough to make you wish you’d gotten the extended warranty. Plus, if you park on a hill and forget to engage the parking brake, the Ascent rolls significantly before coming to a rest, accompanied by plenty of vehicle rocking once it stops.
If the pavement where you live is in bad shape, the Ascent may feel too stiff on bumps and over potholes. And while this SUV eagerly resists excess body motion over the shallow drainage channels and speed humps that you’ll encounter at lower speeds, at higher speeds the suspension has trouble coping with undulating road surfaces. It’s like Subaru has the suspension tuning backward.
As such, the Ascent is most at home on freeways, where the road surface is smooth and unblemished, and (I presume) tackling commutes in icy and snowy conditions.
Additionally, the Ascent is adept when driven off the pavement. Equipped with an Active Torque Split AWD system, Subaru’s X-Mode off-road traction system, a Hill Descent Control system, and 8.7 inches of ground clearance, the Ascent can go places and do things most crossover SUVs can’t.
And for the people who buy one, this might be the most important driving dynamic of all.
Form and Function
Comfort is easy to come by in the Subaru Ascent, and especially in the Touring trim level. The leather is soft and supple, the front seats are heated and ventilated, and the steering wheel is heated. It has a 10-way power-adjustable driver’s seat, too, complete with a manual thigh support extension. And the armrests are densely padded, providing extra elbow happiness.
Normally, I would gripe about the lack of a front passenger seat height adjuster, but that chair sits high enough off the floor that the omission isn’t really an issue. Being able to dial in some extra thigh support would be nice, though.
Both front seats supply significant track travel, making the Ascent especially appealing to tall people. The driver and passenger face a dashboard equipped with a super-useful shelf and upscale ambient lighting. The center control panel is logically laid out, and the infotainment system includes stereo knobs and shortcut buttons, but the overall appearance of the controls is dated. Aside from the dashboard shelf, storage includes a decent-size center bin, door panel bins, bins in the armrests, and the glove compartment.
Subaru offers the Ascent with a 3-person second-row bench seat or individual captain’s chairs. You have this choice with Premium and Limited trim. Base models come with only the bench, while Touring comes with only the captain’s chairs. Every Ascent includes three-zone automatic climate control, but only Premium, Limited, and Touring offer rear controls for passengers.
My test vehicle’s captain’s chairs were fairly comfortable, sliding forward and back to maximize legroom or to offer folks in the third-row seat extra space. Heated cushions make them more comfy on cold days, side window shades cover the entire glass, dual quick-charge USB ports are ready to juice devices, and Subaru deftly integrates cupholders into the upper door panels. Another set of cupholders folds out from the bottom of the front center console, but I'd prefer it if they were replaced by a storage solution of some kind.
Third-row comfort is better than in some 3-row SUVs and tighter than in others. Thanks to huge side doors and seats that move well out of the way, getting in and out is fairly easy as long as other vehicles haven't parked right next to the Ascent. The pass-through between the captain’s chairs is useful, too. Adults will find acceptable space for shorter trips as long as the people in the second row are willing to slide forward a bit. Kids will be quite happy thanks to large side windows, the panoramic glass roof, overhead air-conditioning vents, multiple drink holders, and available USB ports.
Behind the third-row seat, the Ascent supplies 17.8 cubic feet of cargo space, including an underfloor storage compartment complete with a spot to stash the cargo cover when you don’t want to use it. Compared to many 3-row SUVs, the space behind the third-row seat is relatively useful thanks to the Ascent’s upright liftgate and rear glass.
Fold the third-row seats down, and this SUV offers a generous 47 cubic feet of cargo volume. Maximum volume behind the second-row seats measures 86 cubic feet. And if that’s not enough, Subaru offers all manner of racks and carriers for the Ascent’s standard roof rails.
All Ascents include a Starlink infotainment system with Bluetooth connectivity, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, satellite radio, HD Radio, integrated apps like Pandora, and yes, an old-school CD player. Starting with Premium trim, this SUV has a larger 8-inch touchscreen display, text-messaging capability, a 4G LTE WiFi hotspot, and Starlink Safety and Security connected services. Touring trim improves on this with a high-resolution screen and navigation.
While the screen size is relatively small by modern standards, the way the Touring’s display looks and operates is satisfying. Stereo knobs for tuning and volume are helpful, and Subaru completely separates the climate controls to successfully avoid confusion.
Subaru’s voice-control system is far behind the times. It doesn’t recognize natural commands, it takes a while to respond, and Subaru hasn’t programmed it to understand common phrases like “cancel navigation.”
During a trip from my suburb to Los Angeles during the morning rush, the navigation system kept misplacing the Ascent. Instead of realizing that I was on the 101 freeway, it instead thought I had exited onto surface streets. This happened numerous times as I crept along in the right lane of traffic and became a significant irritation.
On a positive note, pairing via Bluetooth and streaming music is easy, and the premium Harman Kardon speakers produce rich sound quality. USB ports in all three rows help to make up for the Ascent’s lack of a wireless smartphone charging pad.
To aid visibility, the Ascent Touring offers a 180-degree front camera view shown on the upper dashboard information panel as well as a 180-degree rear camera view shown through the rear-view mirror. A top-down 360-degree view camera is not available, and front parking sensors are missing in action.
Active lifestyle types will love the Ascent’s PIN Code Vehicle Access system. The idea is to let you leave the SUV’s key fob securely locked inside the vehicle while you hike, bike, run, or surf. Once you set it up, you use a touchpad button on the Ascent’s tailgate to enter a PIN code to lock the SUV, and then to unlock it when you return. It’s brilliant, and can’t be replaced by emerging smartphone-as-a-key systems because you don’t want to take your phone along for exercise or adventure, either.
Subaru builds the Ascent on its latest global platform, which is engineered to provide exceptional occupant protection in a collision. Therefore, it’s not surprising that the Ascent gets a Top Safety Pick+ rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
EyeSight is the name for Subaru’s collection of camera-based advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS). It includes adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, and lane-keeping assist systems. Premium trim adds a blind-spot-monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert, while Limited includes LED steering-responsive headlights with automatic high-beam operation and reverse automatic braking.
In use, these systems are effective, and the LED headlights perform beautifully after dark. The reverse automatic braking system is useful, too, and did not inadvertently activate while backing out of my angled driveway, which was a problem with the previous-generation Subaru Outback.
The EyeSight Assist Monitor is especially helpful. When using EyeSight, it projects a green light onto the lower part of the windshield to indicate that the adaptive cruise control is aware of traffic ahead, and orange lights to warn the driver that the Ascent is departing the intended lane of travel. This approach solves for the distraction often caused when trying to identify the source of ADAS beeps and chimes without requiring a full-on head-up display.
New for 2020, Subaru includes a rear-seat reminder system for the Ascent. It works similarly to other such systems and is designed to prevent you from leaving a child, a pet, or something else important in the backseat before you lock up and leave the vehicle.
Starlink Safety Plus connected services are free for three years and include automatic collision notification, SOS emergency calling, and quick access to roadside assistance. The Security Plus upgrade plan is free for 6 months and equips the Ascent with curfew, speed, and boundary alerts, which are helpful if you have teenage drivers in the house. Security Plus also provides remote engine start with climate control operation, which is not a safety concern but certainly does enhance comfort, whether you live in Fargo or Florida.
In terms of value, the Subaru Ascent packs a punch. In addition to attractive prices, the Ascent gives buyers wide latitude to mix and match paint colors, interior hues and materials, and features to configure an SUV that meets equipment preferences and budgetary requirements.
Unquestionably, the Ascent is a safe family vehicle. It clearly is made for people who enjoy the great outdoors, from its sturdy standard roof rails and PIN Code Access system to its generous ground clearance and baked-in AWD. And I have no doubt that it will prove a faithful friend when the weather outside turns from delightful to frightful.
Yet after a week of driving the Ascent, I’m indifferent to it.
Small individual irritations quickly add up. One morning, the SUV wouldn’t start because the steering wheel was locked in place. The voice-recognition technology falls far short of expectations. The casting flash on the lower door-panel plastic wouldn’t pass muster in a Kia Rio. The upper dashboard radio station display lags input. The wide rear doors are a serious liability in tight parking situations. The distorted and small front camera display is no substitute for proper parking sensors and a top-down 360-degree camera system. Wireless smartphone charging is unavailable. And the transmission frequently feels and sounds like it’s going to divorce itself from the vehicle when you shift out of Park.
Add the distinct lack of driving pleasure and the turbocharged engine’s thirst for fuel, and these unresolved and unrefined issues kneecap the Ascent’s inherent goodness.
Therefore, unless you’re a die-hard Subaru fan, you’re going to want to keep your options open.
Christian Wardlaw has nearly two decades of experience reviewing cars, and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, Autobytel, and J.D. Power and Associates. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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