Subaru's Ascent into the three row SUV market an interesting entry
By Jim Bray
Subaru's largest vehicle, the Ascent, has received some tweaks and upgrades for the 2023 model year, undoubtedly to help it compete better with such vehicles as Mazda's terrific CX-9, the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, VW Atlas, etc. with which it goes head-to-head.
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The Ascent's three rows of seats can accommodate up to eight people, seven if you opt for the optional Captain's chairs for the second row (I'd opt for those, since their comfort beats the pants off a bench seat, while also making it easier to get back into Steerage), and it's roomy and comfortable enough to compete happily in this niche.
It even offers some advantages, such as Subaru's famous "symmetrical all-wheel drive" that kind of emulate what Audi has done traditionally with its famous quattro: instead of the vehicle being front-drive biased that sends torque rearward when called for (like nearly every other one this niche), it defaults to all-wheel drive, though it can still direct extra torque to where it's needed.
I like this system – I've enjoyed the Audi version for more than a decade now and am firmly in the "real" all-wheel drive camp. When you can find it…
This configuration should also make the Ascent more efficient in off-road situations, not that I'd advise climbing a roadless mountainside with it. But for more "pedestrian" off-road uses, it should excel, handling the "ascent" with aplomb.
Enhancing the AWD system is the X-MODE system, which Subaru says is meant "for when the going gets really tough," i.e. snow, ice, really crummy roads. Apparently, it adjusts the engine's torque output and where it's sent, depending on where it's needed.
Power for the Ascent, regardless of trim level (from Touring to Premier) comes from a 260 horsepower, 2.4-litre direct injection turbocharged four cylinder "boxer" engine. A boxer engine, as opposed to an "inline" or a "V" engine, sees the cylinders mounted facing each other, the cylinder motion looking kind of like boxers punching at each other. Subaru has used this "lower centre of gravity" configuration for years and, as with their awd emulating Audi, the boxer configuration is reminiscent of Porsche.
Hey, if you're going to rip off the Germans, you could do worse!
The power is fine, but the turbo takes a moment to make its effects known, and I noticed I had to plan some of my moves into traffic because of it. What's with that kind of turbo lag in 2023?
What isn't fine is the CVT (continuously variable transmission). It's funny, too, because while I couldn't quite bring myself to hate the last Subaru CVT I drove – because it tried really hard to seem like a "real" (conventional) automatic, even to pretending to shift when it should – this one makes no such pretension. So, it's annoying and loud and sucks a lot of the joy out of driving the Ascent.
Now, if you're not particularly interested in a compelling ride, preferring simply something that'll get you from A to B and carry your stuff comfortably and in style, this probably won't matter to you, and that's fine.
The vehicle handles well, though the independent suspension is more than a tad soft for my taste, preferring as it does a more "wafting" feel than anything approaching cat-like performance. The feel of the pedals is fine, though, and the four-wheel disc brakes (with the usual aides) were just fine. We had both snow and clear roads and the Ascent inspired confidence on both types of surface; it just doesn't inspire fun.
That said, there's a lot to like about the Ascent, including a comfortable and attractive interior that's designed and built mostly logically, as well as coming with most of the more mainstream tech features found on new vehicles these days – stuff like Bluetooth, power this and that, you name it.
Even the base Ascent ($35,995 CAD) comes equipped well, including three zone automatic climate control, a good infotainment screen that includes both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, a powered driver's seat and heating for both front seats.
Subaru Canada's sample, which wore the top line "Premier" trim level, adds to an already pretty decent mix an exclusive high gloss black grille, chrome door handles, and satin chrome power-folding exterior mirrors with integrated turn signals. Inside, you get woodgrain-pattern (which I believe means it isn't wood) matte finish accent trim and perforated leather-trimmed upholstery. There's also a three-mode ventilated driver and front passenger seat.
The Premier also comes standard with Surround View Monitor System, Smart Rear-View Mirror, and 180-degree front-view camera. Between that and a generous greenhouse, and you should have lots of robotic help whether you're on the road or just trying to park and not embarrass yourself.
The instrument panel is easy to read and you can adjust various vehicle settings, at least a bit. Where it falls down – it, and the huge, slow to respond LCD on the centre stack – is when you go under an overpass, at which point it goes into night mode, dimming nearly to the point of illegibility (if you're wearing sunglasses, at least), and stays there far, far too long after you've emerged back into the daylight.
The Toyota Highlander I drove shortly before the Ascent did this, too, but the Subaru stayed dark appreciably longer. Why?
The Ascent is a decent enough vehicle, but I can't let a Subaru review leave my word processor without complaining about the overweening nannies Subaru is now inflicting upon their customers.
Now, to be fair, all cars have annoying "aids" these days – Honda drove me nuts with theirs until the past year or so (I'd love to take credit for their change, but I doubt they listened to little ole me) – and now Subaru seems determined to make vehicles that treat their owners like little kids who need Mommie to wipe their, er, noses. It's really quite insulting to one's intelligence.
The best thing about most of the nannies is that you can shut them off. This varies from manufacturer to manufacturer, but they do seem to be moving in that direction. And with Subaru, you can actually turn off most of these abominations that in no way encourage people to excel at the art and skill of driving.
But the worst of them is a system that actually monitors where your head is facing. I assume it's to cut down on texting, but what business of Subaru is it what their owners do? Crash because you're texting and it isn't the car's fault, it's clearly yours. And then I'm sure Subaru would be more than happy to sell you another one…
Anyway, if you turn your head toward the centre stack for longer than the Subaru thinks you should, you get a warning on the instrument panel (and a "bong" noise) to look back at the road. This is despite the fact that the centre stack LCD itself has far too much stuff on it and you have to mess with it too much to get it to do what you want. And on top of that, it's slow to respond.
So, you could say the car complains at you for spending too much time on an interface that should be quicker and simpler so you don't have to spend as much time looking at it.
The good news is that you can turn this off. The bad news is that you have to go through about six separate clicks on the screen to get there – and then it turns itself back on again every time you fire the car up. It drove me (more) nuts, and I can't imagine anyone spending tens of thousands of dollars on a vehicle only to be nagged at.
Maybe it's just me. But everyone I spoke to about the feature (granted, their views may have been coloured by my own opinion), agreed with me that it's egregious and stupid.
To me, if you need all this stuff, you should just Uber or take public transit.
Ascents start at about $40,995 for the "Convenience" trim level and rise to a starting price of $53,995 for the "Premier". Both are competitive in the marketplace, but it seems like a lot of money just to be treated like an idiot.
Copyright 2023 Jim Bray