McMINNVILLE, OR – Subaru, arguably the fastest-growing vehicle brand in America, has made few product missteps over the past nine consecutive years of sales growth, but the Tribeca utility vehicle was one of them.
Yes, it offered three-row seating (sort of), but in addition to being too small it was underpowered, suffered from forgettable styling and leaked oil.
In its second year on sale in the U.S., the Tribeca logged its best sales year (18,614 units), then deliveries promptly fell off a cliff before finding exile in 2014 while the CUV craze was in full swing. Opportunity lost.
Subaru is determined to scrub any memory of the Tribeca, and its best hope rests in the all-new ’19 Ascent CUV, arriving now in showrooms with a starting price of $31,995, a top-notch interior, excellent infotainment system and a 260-hp turbocharged 4-cyl. that can capably tow a spacious 4,200-lb. (1,905-kg) Airstream trailer.
Like many three-row CUVs, the Ascent is not dramatically styled on the outside, which is fine because Subaru didn’t rely on good looks to more than triple its U.S. sales volume in the past decade.
No, it’s the dog-friendly, all-wheel-drive, go-anywhere, snow-conquering, drive-it-into-the-ground brand attributes that made Subaru so much more than a quirky niche filler that uniquely straddles the line between luxury and mainstream vehicles.
And all those things that keep Subaru customers coming back are found in the new Ascent. Ask any Subie dealer and they’ll tell you how many disappointed customers had to leave the brand for three-row utility as their families grew.
Finally, Subaru has a three-row CUV that can compete with the best in the market.
The most positive first impression of the Ascent comes when opening the driver’s door, revealing sleek form-fitting seats, the right amount of metallic accents, lots of premium soft surfaces and a user-friendly information display in the center stack that will be familiar to those who recently purchased an Impreza or Crosstrek.
We’ve ripped on automakers for cramming two display screens in the center stack or above it, but the secondary screen atop the instrument panel in the Ascent is small, easily reconfigured and limited in purpose to the point that it’s useful but won’t leave drivers or front passengers feeling overwhelmed or frustrated.
Every model has at least four USB ports (and up to eight), as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as part of Subaru’s excellent StarLink suite of connected services. One oversight for now is the lack of wireless phone charging. Subaru sources say the feature is coming but aren’t saying when.
The Ascent is the biggest vehicle Subaru has ever built, and the designers made the most of the interior space by baking in everything that makes big utility vehicles attractive: second-row seats that slide for easier third-row access, available USB charging ports in the third row, a large panoramic sunroof, waterfall head restraints for better rearward visibility and, a rest-stop-essential 19 standard cupholders. The Ascent is the first Subaru to offer cooled seats.
And then there are brilliant features, such as the privacy screen that stows neatly under the rear cargo floor (see photo below) and the simple Velcro strap to hold up the cargo floor when access is needed. The privacy screen has spring-loaded arms allowing it to extend to cover the width of the vehicle, anchoring behind the second row. The fabric screen can then be pulled and latched from the back of the vehicle, hiding loads of cargo.
Overall, the Ascent scores well in the categories we rate in the Wards 10 Best Interiors competition: fit-and-finish, comfort, ergonomics, materials, driver information and aesthetics. Loyal Subaru customers will love this interior.
Driver-assistance systems are plentiful. Standard on all four trim levels is EyeSight collision avoidance, which includes adaptive cruise control, lane-departure and sway warning and automatic pre-collision braking and throttle management.
Also available are a head-up display, blindspot detection with lane-change assist and rear cross-traffic alert, as well as reverse automatic braking if an obstacle is detected while backing up.
Mechanically, the Ascent is sound, featuring a new 2.4L turbocharged boxer 4-cyl. that runs on regular unleaded and provides plenty of motivation, as well as 277 lb.-ft. (376 Nm) of torque, all of it channeled through Subaru’s popular Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive. Brake-based torque vectoring improves handling by ensuring the outside wheels have more thrust in corners.
There’s only one transmission, the new Lineartronic CVT featuring 8-speed manual mode and X-Mode Hill Descent Control – handy for the serious off-roaders, who will appreciate the 8.7 ins. (221 mm) of ground clearance.
Like many CVTs, the Ascent’s transmission creates drone at low engine speeds, but overall the engine is a great match for this vehicle, providing more than enough passing power and even sounding like a V-6 when pressed. Above 5,500 rpm, this engine still pulls hard.
Built at Subaru’s plant in Lafayette, IN, the Ascent springs from an extended version of the Subaru Global Platform.
Besides the base model, the Ascent is available in Premium, Limited and Touring trim levels, and Subaru expects Limited to be the most popular trim. With a $975 destination charge, a fully loaded Ascent Touring will run $45,670.
A bench seat is available, except in the Touring models, which come only with second-row captain’s chairs. Some 70% of Ascents are expected to sell with captain’s chairs.
The bench seat allows Subaru to call the Ascent an eight-passenger vehicle, but the third row would be more comfortable if it were designed to accommodate only two people.
So how will the Ascent impact the Large CUV segment as defined by Wards Intelligence?
The brand expects to sell 60,000 units in its first full year in the market, which puts it on pace, based on 2018 monthly tallies, to outsell the Buick Enclave and Mazda CX-9, while matching VW Atlas sales. Only the Chevy Traverse, Nissan Pathfinder and potentially the GMC Acadia should outsell the new Ascent.
At 60,000 units, the Ascent would be outsold within the Subaru stable by the Crosstrek, Impreza, Forester and Outback.
Still, the Ascent is exactly what Subaru needs to fill out the portfolio and keep customers in the family.