Expert Reviews

2023 Subaru Ascent First Drive Review

When the Subaru Ascent debuted in 2018, it was the brand’s first entry into the important three-row SUV segment. It was the largest Subaru ever made and catered exclusively to the North American market. With tons of interior space, standard all-wheel drive confidence, and easy-to-digest pricing, it felt like the Ascent was sure to be a rising star. The competitive nature of this segment, however, meant that the Ascent didn’t make as big an impact as the brand was hoping. The 2023 Subaru Ascent makes a few significant changes to help reach its potential.

Updates Inside and Out

The SUV gets a revised look, with a new design to the front end that emphasizes the reshaped grille, headlights, and fog lights on higher trim level models. The tailgate and taillights have mild changes that are only discernible after a back-to-back comparison with the older model. Subaru also offers a few new designs for its 20-inch wheels.

Inside, the changes are more noticeable. An 11.6-inch vertically oriented infotainment touchscreen dominates the dashboard. This layout looks more modern and improves forward visibility, as it removes the old information display pod mounted on top of the dash. The infotainment system now supports wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, and those features take advantage of the large screen.

A few new interior goodies are offered, including Cabin Connect, a new one-way PA system to broadcast the driver’s or front passenger’s voice to the rear speakers to prevent needless yelling. The infotainment system also supports what3words, a navigation feature that helps users locate off-the-grid points of interest that can be trickier to find using traditional navigation systems.

The cabin is also touched up, featuring new LED lighting and USB-C ports. Higher trim models feature spiffy Napa leather upholstery, and drivers get more lumbar adjustments for a comfier driving position. Shoppers can opt between seven or eight-seat configurations, helping the Ascent accommodate more families, and the vehicle is pretty spacious in terms of passenger space.

Subaru also goes out of its way to note that the car offers 19 cupholders. Pseudo-scientists say the ideal cupholder-to-passenger ratio for family vehicles is around 2.5, a benchmark that the seven-seater model easily clears. Subaru is mum on what its engineers are concocting next in cupholder-related innovations, but we hope to see integrated koozies soon.

With so much hydration potential, it’s handy that the Ascent offers plenty of cargo space, with 458 litres behind the third row and a maximum of 2,140 litres when you fold down both rows of seats. Just imagine all the coolers you can pack with that much free space!

Where the Ascent sees its most significant updates is with its safety equipment. Even though the 2022 model was awarded a Top Safety Pick Plus rating by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the automaker is pushing its safety technology even further. The EyeSight driver assistance and safety technology are upgraded with new cameras with a wider view of the road ahead. This improves the functionality of features like pre-collision braking, lane-keeping assistance, adaptive cruise control, and an automatic emergency steering function that is supposed to manoeuvre the vehicle and mitigate a collision or reduce the impact.

The 2023 Subaru Ascent also offers the DriverFocus monitoring system that ensures the driver is keeping their eyes on the road ahead and not the potential spillage of the drinks in those 19 cupholders or other outside factors. Finally, the Ascent is available with a surround-view camera with multiple angles that help when parking or hooking up a trailer.

Driving Feel and Powertrain

At its core, the Ascent remains familiar, sporting a turbocharged 2.4-litre four-cylinder boxer engine with 260 hp and 277 lb-ft of torque, mated to a full-time all-wheel drive system and a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Those planning on hauling with the Ascent should know that base Convenience trim models can only tow a maximum of 908 kg, while every other model gets additional cooling so it can tow up to a maximum of 2,270 kg.

On the road, the new Ascent feels similar to the last one. It’s responsive off the line, leaping forward upon initial throttle inputs. The motor feels confident doing highway speeds with plenty of mid-range torque. However, as with any CVT, asking for more acceleration can be met with plenty of mechanical buzz.

When driving around town at lower speeds, the SUV can feel sluggish, requiring a steady push of the gas pedal to get a more accommodating gear ratio. My least favourite element of driving the Ascent is its steering, which can feel too light and numb. The light steering means that the Ascent requires plenty of little corrections and inputs when driving, which diminishes confidence and feels tedious.

Fortunately, the ride is soft and cushy and features 220 mm of ground clearance, which, when paired with the vehicle’s X-Mode off-road mode, helps it feel capable in the inclement road conditions one might face on the way to remote settings like cottages or campsites.


On paper, all these updates feel like minor refinements from the original Ascent formula, but in reality, it makes the large Ascent feel more like a flagship product. Unlike previous models, this year’s entry offers all the best tech, features, safety equipment, and amenities that Subaru can offer. That’s important, as the car is about $3,000 more expensive at the base level than the outgoing model, and shoppers need to see some value for their money.

The vehicle starts at $43,369 for the Convenience model including freight and PDI fees, which puts the Ascent closer to its rivals than before. It’s still more affordable than other options in its class, but the gap is narrowing. The Touring model is $47,869 and allows a free-of-charge swap to second-row captain’s seats. The Onyx model features a $49,669 asking price and blacked-out exterior trim. The Limited model has a $53,269 price tag and seems like the best combination of features and affordability, while the range-topping Premier model costs $56,369 and includes Napa leather seating.

Final Thoughts

It feels as though the Ascent should have been more successful over the past five years because it’s a large and affordable crossover with confidence-inspiring AWD. But it couldn’t make a dent against always-popular models like the Toyota Highlander and Ford Explorer. Then, Subaru was upstaged by more impressive rivals from Korea, with the Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade stealing the critics’ attention with their premium design and features.

The updated 2023 Subaru Ascent is still relevant but doesn’t move the needle significantly from those rivals. Those on a budget will appreciate its size, affordability, capability, and safety features, but shoppers seeking anything more upscale will be happier with the alternatives.