By Eric Peters
Subaru’s thing used to be small, rugged cars — sedans and wagons — that were built to deal with bad roads and poor weather as well as a four-wheel-drive truck or SUV … without actually being a truck or SUV.
Then trucks — big ones, especially — got popular. And more like cars, in terms of their on-road civilities and amenities. So did the big SUVs and crossovers, which emulate them.
Enter the Ascent: the first big Subaru.
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It can seat eight in three rows and pull 5,000 pounds.
But there’s one thing about it that’s still small.
What It Is
The Ascent is the biggest vehicle Subaru has ever made. It’s a medium-large crossover with three rows and seating for seven to eight, depending on the configuration, and it’s similar to others in the class such as the VW Atlas, Mazda CX-9 and Honda Pilot.
Where it chiefly differs from otherwise-similar models in the segment is that it comes standard with all-wheel drive (optional in the Mazda CX-9, Honda Pilot and VW Atlas).
Prices start at $32,295 for the base trim.
A top-of-the-line Ascent Touring stickers for $45,445. This one comes with captain’s chair seating for seven, a 14-speaker Harman Kardon audio system, a panoramic moonroof, a heated steering wheel and seats for the first and second rows and perforated leather seats.
The previously optional turn-with-the-steering-wheel LED headlights are now standard in all trims.
It’s one of the best deals going in the class, especially if you want an all-wheel-drive-equipped large crossover.
The standard small four makes almost as much power as some of the bigger (and usually optional) V-6s in rival crossovers.
It has a strong standard tow rating (5,000 pounds).
What’s Not So Good
The gas mileage of the small four is about the same as the mileage of bigger V-6s in the class.
The glass touchscreen is … touchy.
The seatbelt buzzer is obnoxiously loud — and gets louder.
Under the Hood
Unlike most of its rivals, the Ascent comes with the same engine — and what’s bolted to it — irrespective of trim.
It’s also a unique engine, compared with the engines available in rivals.
It’s a four — but flat, with its cylinders laid out in pairs, facing each other across the crankshaft. This is the “boxer” layout, also used by Porsche and (once upon a time) VW, in the classic Beetle. The layout has packaging advantages over the more common inline (and upright) four, because it is half the length of an inline four and because it is … flat.
Which leaves more room above.
It also distributes the weight of the engine more evenly — one side of it on each side of the vehicle’s centerline as well as closer to the ground — which is helpful in terms of balance and handling.
The four is little relative to the size (and weight) of the Ascent — just 2.4 liters. But like other small engines that are being put into large vehicles, it is turbo-boosted to make the power of a larger engine on demand.
In this case, 260 horsepower.
It is also enough power for the Ascent to pull a 5,000-pound trailer.
On the Road
Small things sometimes come in big packages!
But this little engine feels much stronger than its size would indicate.
Also, Subaru has done a superlative job of programming the Ascent’s CVT automatic transmission to emulate the feel and shift characteristics of a conventional automatic in every way except the shift shock. Because of course, there are no shifts — from one fixed gear to the next up (or down) — within the guts of a CVT.
At the Curb
As large as the Ascent is for a Subaru, it is not huge for a modern vehicle.
It is 196.8 inches long . For some sense of scale, that is about the same overall footprint as a current midsize car, such as Subaru’s very own Legacy, which is only about six inches shorter (190.6 inches).
But the Ascent is much taller — 71.6 inches versus 59.1 for the Legacy — and much wider — 76 inches versus 72.4. That is the secret of its much larger feel as well as its look. But functionally, in terms of how much space it occupies curbside and within a garage, it’s about the same as a midsize car such as the Legacy.
Yet it can fit up to eight people, which is three more than fit inside a sedan with a similar footprint, such as the Legacy.
The Ascent has a toney-looking LCD touchscreen that has the downside of being very touch sensitive. It’s easy to inadvertently touch the wrong icon; this is an issue that besets all such interfaces, and it is a strong argument for buttons and switches that have physicality — i.e., ones that can be precisely touched and don’t activate or deactivate the function they control unless you actually touch them.
The upside is Soobie’s counterbalancing of that with redundant knobs and switches for many of the necessary and regularly used functions, such as adjusting the volume of the truly excellent 14-speaker Harman Kardon audio rig. Which also has a CD slot — something getting very hard to find in new vehicles.
The Bottom Line
The Ascent’s biggest sell compared with its rivals isn’t noticeably better fuel efficiency or noticeably more space; it is a noticeably lower price — and noticeably more power for the price — than others in this class.
Eric’s latest book, “Don’t Get Taken for a Ride!” is available now. To find out more about Eric and read his past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.
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