The generic three-row SUV
THE GOOD
  • Spacious and comfortable interior
  • Capable all-wheel-drive system
  • Decent value
THE BAD
  • Anonymous styling
  • Steering lacks feel
  • Low on horsepower

We all know the type. Maybe it’s a co-worker who has near-perfect attendance. Or maybe it was a kid in your class with solid-but-not-spectacular grades, and showed up for some intramural sports but never made varsity. They’re charming enough once you get to know them, but most people won’t have the pleasure since they’re always overshadowed by the valedictorians and sports stars.

In the world of three-row SUVs, the 2021 Subaru Ascent is the very same. It’s a really good machine, but there’s remarkably little that makes it stand out against the vast number of alternatives that are bigger, sportier, or more luxurious.

Practicality: 8.5/10

Practicality is where the Ascent shines brightest. For shoppers too proud to buy a minivan, the next best option is a three-row SUV. And Subaru’s minibus wannabe provides a spacious interior that can be configured for eight passengers, or seven, as seen here.

Front-seat passengers have ample room to stretch out for long trips, and it’s the same for the pair of occupants in the two second-row captain’s chairs. Third-row passengers aren’t given third-rate space since the Ascent actually has a usable rear bench for a trio of humans, and accessing it is easy.

Cubbies are numerous, too, and the cargo space behind the third row is a respectable 498 L. With the back row folded flat, and the captain’s chairs folded nearly flat, there’s a whopping 2,435 L of capacity. Folding all those seats is also a snap thanks to long pull straps on the back of the split rear bench, and levers on the middle buckets. For folks who have more to haul around, the Ascent is rated to tow as much as 2,270 kg (5,000 lb).

All this makes for a truly capable and practical vehicle, and yet, when compared to its most obvious competitors – the Honda Pilot, Hyundai Palisade, or Ford Explorer, to name a few – there isn’t a single interior dimension that stands out, the Ascent being neither the largest nor the smallest by any measurement. The Subaru is simply mid-pack in every way.

Features: 7.5/10

Our Ascent tester was provided in Limited trim, which is more luxurious than the Convenience and Touring models, but not as fancy as the Premier. The seats are trimmed in leather, but they’re not cooled as some of the competitors offer at this price point. The steering wheel, however, is heated. There’s plenty of glass to help all the passengers enjoy the view outside, including the one overhead thanks to a massive panoramic sunroof.

There are USB plug points and cupholders all over the place, so nobody needs to fight for inputs, and the second-row folks even get their own climate controls and seat heaters, along with pull-up window shades. Meanwhile, the upgraded stereo pipes music through 14-speakers and sounds quite good. Simply put, at this trim level, the Ascent is competitively equipped but breaks no new ground in the segment.

Comfort: 8/10

The interior space and stuff that’s offered equates to comfort for passengers. With four people aboard, the amount of room and features would make the Ascent an excellent cross-country cruiser. Even those relegated to the back bench have little to complain about, with plenty of vents keeping the temperature comfortable, too.

Adding to the Ascent’s considerable comfort is its supple ride. Rolling on 20-inch wheels has little impact on ride quality, with most road irregularities filtered out before reaching the cabin, and the same is true for the majority of road, wind, and engine noise.

User Friendliness: 9/10

Playing into its practicality, Subaru has also done a great job making the Ascent very easy to drive. Beyond the excellent visibility all around, the controls are very traditional, which means there’s no learning curve before setting off. The gear selector is a familiar stalk sprouting from the console – not a rotary dial or push-button affair, or some sort of telekinesis that’s sure to be the next tech trend – and the gauge pod features a speedometer and tachometer in round dials, just as they’ve successfully worked for decades. There’s a small information screen between the gauges, but otherwise there’s nothing overly complex to distract or annoy a driver.

The same is true for the central dash where both the stereo and climate controls have easy-to-use – and -reach – knobs and simple push-buttons that can be worked with a fleeting glance. Plus, oft-used switchgear like the buttons for the seat heaters are situated near the climate buttons, as they should be.

Subaru has sorted out its infotainment systems, and the eight-inch touchscreen affair in the Ascent isn’t as large or fancy as the bigger vertical unit found in the Outback, but this one works well. Its operation is also simple, logical, and glitch-free, while Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity are well-integrated, too.

Power: 7/10

The majority of mainstream three-row SUVs still utilize V6 engines. While the smoothness and more pleasing sound is appreciated in those larger engines, Subaru’s smaller four-cylinder is turbocharged, making it torquier than most of the competitors. Even though the Ascent’s 260 hp is lower than all the vehicles in the class save for Mazda’s CX-9, which also uses a small turbocharged four-cylinder, its 277 lb-ft of torque surpass all but the Mazda’s 2.5L turbo and the turbocharged Explorer, and give the Subaru a decent kick away from a standstill. Passing power is also adequate.

Power filters through a continuously variable transmission (CVT) to Subaru’s excellent full-time all-wheel-drive system. While few driving enthusiasts would willingly choose a CVT over a traditional automatic transmission, Subaru has done a decent job with its CVT’s drivability, helping to mitigate the elastic-band feeling so many possess thanks to simulated “gear changes” that step the revs during acceleration. As the only kind of automatic Subaru offers, its CVT gets a pass.

Fuel Economy: 7/10

The primary benefit attributed to CVTs is improved fuel efficiency, and the Ascent fares well in this department. Its 11.6 L/100 km average for city driving is among the best in the class (tying the two other turbocharged four-bangers from Mazda and Ford), but its 9.0 L/100 km highway rating and 10.4 combined average fall just above the Explorer and even Toyota’s V6-powered Highlander.

After a week, and several hundred kilometres of mixed highway and city driving, I saw no better than an indicated 11.5 L/100 km, although in fairness the Ascent was wearing a set of winter tires that would be less efficient than its usual all-season rubber.

Driving Feel: 7/10

Having just driven Subaru’s smaller – and nimbler – Crosstrek the week before I picked up the Ascent, it took a bit of time to adjust to the Ascent’s considerable body roll when cornering. What’s more, the Ascent’s steering is boosted so much that virtually all road feel has been filtered out before reaching the driver. While this combo makes for a somewhat ponderous machine at highway speeds, when zipping into town or parking in suburban big box store lots, the Ascent is easy to wheel around and feels smaller than it is.

Despite its soft suspension and lack of steering feel, the Ascent still possesses the same surefootedness in its handling that I’ve experienced in other Subarus. As large as it is, the Ascent, when pressed, clings to the earth impressively. While no sports car, the big Subaru will still help drivers stay out of harm’s way when emergency manoeuvres are required.

Safety: 9/10

The other area that Subaru seems to take very seriously is the safety of its machines. Starting with its full-time all-wheel-drive system offering immediate response (as opposed to the slip-and-react systems employed by some other manufacturers), coupled with strong brakes, and excellent outward visibility, Subaru has tried to make accident avoidance relatively easy for its drivers.

Add to that excellent adaptive headlights, and the company’s host of active safety features ranging from pre-collision braking and throttle management, lane departure warning and lane centring assist, and adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go functionality, and the Ascent does a good job of protecting its occupants as well as others on the road.

Styling: 7/10

While there are family traits evident in the Ascent’s exterior – from some angles it looks like an over-inflated Forester – it’s a pretty generic appearance overall. Of course, there are very few examples in the category that don’t look like they’ve been baked in the same oven, with tall side glass and portly proportions. Sportier competitors tend to compromise in terms of usable interior space (like the CX-9) or poorer visibility (Explorer), but both the Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride appear decidedly more upscale than the Subaru.

The same is true inside the Ascent, where, aside from the cream-coloured swath of faux leather along the door panels and across the dash, the interior is more sombre business than luxury or sport. Instead, the space is functional, practical, and comfortable – like the beloved sweatpants most of us have been wearing throughout 2020, but it’s not likely to attract the attention of the fashionistas.

Value: 8/10

Equipped as it is in Limited trim at $48,595, the Ascent represents a decent value. With the level of content offered, plus its torquey engine and standard all-wheel drive and safety suite, Subaru has priced the Limited very competitively, and it’s this trim that occupies the sweet spot in the model lineup for overall value.

The Verdict

Die-hard fans of the brand who need something larger than the Forester or Outback need look no further than the 2021 Subaru Ascent. For most other shoppers looking at three-row SUVs, there are lots of choices, some of which are more stylish, sporting, posh. Even if the Ascent isn’t a stand-out in any respect, it makes a strong case for itself as a well-built, capable, and safe family hauler that’s well worth considering.

Competitors

Specifications

Engine Displacement 2.4L   Model Tested 2021 Subaru Ascent Limited
Engine Cylinders Turbo H4   Base Price $48,595
Peak Horsepower 260 hp @ 5,600 rpm   A/C Tax $100
Peak Torque 277 lb-ft @ 2,000–4,800 rpm   Destination Fee $1,875
Fuel Economy 11.6 / 9.0 / 10.4 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb   Price as Tested $50,570
Cargo Space 498 / 1,331 / 2,435 L behind 3rd/2nd/1st row  
Optional Equipment
None