It’s easier to sell what no one else does, but harder to make a sale when you haven’t got what everyone else has.
Subaru is the only car company that sells only AWD cars (well, with one exception — the rear-drive BRZ sports car) and not just that, but AWD-equipped cars that are powered by low-mounted, horizontally-opposed “boxer” engines instead of the usual upright, inline and V-type engines everyone else sells.
Not just some of them — all of them.
Including the BRZ.
But the one thing Subaru lacked that almost everyone else already has is a full-size crossover SUV with three usable rows and room for eight full-size people.
Now Subaru does — and unlike the ones sold by everyone else, the new Ascent comes standard with both AWD and the horizontally-opposed boxer engine, the former available (at extra cost) in the others and the latter not available at all (at any cost).
It will probably sell.
WHAT IT IS
The Ascent is a full-size, three-row and 7-8 passenger (depending on the configuration) crossover SUV.
Subaru has had a three-row crossover in its lineup before—the Tribeca—but that one was closer to mid-sized, with a for-kids-only (small ones) third row and realistic room for five.
The Ascent is adult-friendly in any of its three rows.
It is not quite as long overall as one of its main rivals, the Mazda CX9, but it turns out that it has more room inside than the Mazda does, and not just in its third row. It also has more cargo room behind its third row and with its second and third row folded down.
Ditto vs. the Honda Pilot, which is almost as roomy, but not quite.
The Pilot does come standard with a V6 engine, though—another type of engine that’s getting hard to find in crossovers of any size, even the super-sized ones.
The Ascent stickers for $31,995 to start, which includes standard AWD and a turbocharged 2.5 liter boxer four to go with it. All trims come standard with the same set-up.
Rivals like the CX-9 and Pilot come standard with FWD; AWD is available optionally.
The Ascent is a new model for Subaru, and the first truly full-sized Subaru the company has ever sold.
Best-in-class third row legroom (32 inches).
More cargo room and much more power than Mazda CX-9.
Stout tow rating (5,000 lbs.)
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Turbocharged engine wants premium fuel.
Big size equals a big appetite for fuel.
Second row seat tracks are dirt traps.
UNDER THE HOOD
Subaru, like other car companies, finds itself between a rock and a hard place. Buyers want ever-bigger vehicles and expect them to be able to move, despite being big.
The Ascent is both big and heavy. Almost 4,500 lbs. before the driver even opens the door. Usually, this kind of weight in a vehicle this big would call for a big engine to match—a V6 engine at the least, which is what cars this size used to come standard with.
But we live in abnormal times.
The government wants (demands) fuel-sippier cars, no matter how little people buying the cars care about that as expressed by their buying choices.
So, on the one hand, even really big vehicles like the Ascent, and several of its same-sized rivals, including the Mazda CX-9, now come standard (and only) with tiny four cylinder engines.
But these very small engines aren’t big enough by themselves to get such big and heavy vehicles moving quicker which is why turbochargers are added to make them adequately powerful on demand.
The idea here is not new. It was resorted to back in the late ’70s and early ’80s—another abnormal era. Back then, turbocharging small engines to maintain the power of larger engines while, in theory, using the fuel of a smaller engine was resorted to for a more fundamental reason:
Gas prices were high.
Today, it’s government fuel efficiency mandates that are high at the same time that gasoline is cheap. There is no market incentive for small engines and lots of market demand for big and powerful vehicles.
V6s and even V8s would make more sense in such vehicles, but the car companies have to cater to the government at least as much as they do customers.
So, that’s why the biggest and heaviest-ever Subaru has an engine not much larger than the engines used in the smallest and lightest Subarus. Just 2.4 liters, slightly smaller than the engine in the half-this-size (well, not quite, but not that far from that) Legacy and only marginally larger than the 2.0 liter four used in the Impreza and BRZ sports car—the latter of which weighs about half what the Ascent does.
But, it is turbocharged which boosts the output of the little four on demand (when under boost) to about what a 3.5 liters-or-so V6 without a turbo would make: 260 horsepower and 277 ft.-lbs. of torque.
This is similar to them, but stronger in horsepower output, to the Mazda CX9’s 2.5 liter and also turbocharged four cylinder engine, which makes 225 hp but also 310 ft.-lbs. of torque, which is a lot more torque than the Soobie’s four.
On the other hand, there’s the Honda Pilot which has a V6 without a turbo that makes more horsepower (280) than either, but less torque (262 ft.-lbs.) than both of them. And here we come to the main real-world advantage of these turbocharged fours — which isn’t fuel economy.
It is superior (and sooner) torque production.
The turbocharged fours swell with motive force at lower engine RPM (more on this below) as the turbos come online. Note that the Pilot’s V6 not only makes less torque, but it doesn’t make its peak torque until the engine is spinning 4,700 RPM.
The Soobie’s (and the Mazda’s) turbo fours make their peak torque at about half that engine speed.
But gas mileage is at best a draw.
The Ascent, with AWD standard, rates 20 city, 27 highway. The AWD-equipped (optionally) Mazda CX9 posts 20/26.
The V6/AWD-equipped Pilot comes in at 18 city, 26 highway — a difference without much distinction.
A difference with a distinction is the Ascent’s uniquely configured (well, other than Porsche) boxer engine layout. The cylinders lie flat rather than upright, which gets the weight down low. The cylinders are also opposed rather than in-line, which naturally and internally balances the engine as the pistons box each other across the crankshaft rather than all of them pushing it down and pulling it back up.
So, there is no need for a heavy external balancer to tamp down engine vibrations.
ON THE ROAD
There’s no denying the torque advantage of these turbocharged fours.
They may be smaller than the non-turbo’d V6s they are replacing and down on horsepower. But when you’re pulling out of your driveway or trying to nudge your way through traffic, not having to floor the accelerator pedal or even halfway floor it is inarguably pleasant.
And that pleasantness is a function of and a definite upside to the torque enhancement of the turbocharger. This engine does its best work below 4,000 RPM. It is rarely necessary to rev it past that.
Of course, a turbo V6 would enhance things even more pleasantly. But Uncle would get really mad, stomp his feet and probably indict someone for wasting the earth’s precious bodily fluids.
The Ascent, like other Subarus, uses a continuously variable (CVT) automatic rather than a traditional automatic, as in the CX9 and others. The CVT hasn’t got the usual planetary gearset and fixed number of forward speeds (e.g., six or seven or eight or nine) but instead what amounts to infinite/constantly adjusting gear ratios, with the idea to keep the engine operating at just the right speed (RPM) at all times, for maximum mileage potential.
CVTs are coming into general use for the same reason that small/turbocharged-to-make-up-for-their-smallness engines are coming into general use. To squeeze out an MPG here or maybe over there.
In order to appease the fuel economy edict-issuers in DC.
And like the turbo’d engines, (which are heavily boosted to make-up power lost to their smallness, at the expense of fuel economy) the car companies have had to compromise the efficiency potential of CVTs by making them shift more like traditional automatics to keep customers happy.
Thus, the Ascent’s CVT seems to shift through 7-8 fixed forward speeds, just like a conventional automatic because most buyers don’t like the turbine-like feel (and sound) of “shiftless” CVT operation.
Though this is the biggest and heaviest Subaru ever, it is designed to not feel like it is. The hood slopes down and away — and the steering is very quick with visibility and maneuverability.
As in most Subarus, you sit higher up, and so does the Ascent itself. It has 1.5 inches more ground clearance (8.7 inches) than the Pilot (7.3 inches) but, somewhat surprisingly, slightly less than the Mazda CX9 (8.8 inches).
But the Ascent’s standard AWD (optional in the Mazda) is more sophisticated—capable of vectoring torque to individual wheels, rather than pairs of wheels (i.e., the inside right rear wheel rather than both rear wheels). This is a trick it learned from its WRX cousin. Also, the low-mounted boxer engine unavailable in the Mazda or the Honda or anything else helps with stability during cornering.
AT THE CURB
Crossovering is a question of packaging more than anything else. What to emphasize? Room for people or cargo? How much of each? And how much of each given the space available?
There is a lot of space available in the Ascent.
It is nearly 17 feet long overall (196.8 inches) and so are its rivals. The Mazda is even closer to being 17 feet (199.4 inches).
So there is a lot of room to work with. The question is — how to allocate it?
The designers of this thing didn’t compromise any of the essential categories—most notably, the third row. It has 32 inches of legroom, more than most, and viable adult headroom, too. This is even with the available panorama sunroof, which extends from the first row all the way to the third row.
But there is also best-in-class cargo room, too and in both categories. Behind the third row, 17.8 cubic feet (significantly more than the CX9’s 14.4 cubic feet) and more than even the ex-king of space efficiency Pilot’s 16.5 cubic feet. The Ascent also has more total cargo capacity— 86.5 cubic feet vs. 83.8 in the Pilot and just 71.2 in the longer overall Mazda.
The exterior styling is generically handsome, but it’s the details which are pretty. For example, the four AC vents built into the headliner, including a pair set back far enough to vent air to the third row occupants who also get USB/device charging points, too. The rear doors open almost perpendicularly which allow easy access to the second (and third) rows.
There is also a wide-angle/drop-down accessory rearview mirror to keep track of the kids in back without having to use (or readjust) the main rearview mirror. There’s also an available forward camera which pipes images of the road ahead through an LCD screen in the top of the dashboard. That’s not new.
What is new is that the Subaru’s view doesn’t shut off once the car is moving at more than a crawl. Most if not all of the others do. This one, you can turn on at any time and at any speed.
The door-mounted controls for the power windows are canted slightly downward toward the driver, which makes using the power window controls more comfortable. The dash has an open storage shelf built into it which isn’t a new idea, either.
What is new is the way Subaru designed it. It rolls forward just slightly, and there’s a slight lip at the forward edge—just enough of both to keep whatever small items placed there from jostling loose and onto the floor (or under the seat) as you drive.
Subaru’s EyeSight (so called because the cameras are mounted at eye-level, not in the car’s lower bumper as is general practice) is standard in all trims. It bundles adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, and automated emergency braking.
You can also choose either seven or eight passenger seating, with the former offering larger and plusher individual captain’s chairs rather than the more utilitarian three-across type.
I found one nit to pick with the Ascent: If you slide the second row seats forward, you will discover the tracks in the floor are recessed into the floor and exposed. There is no shield or cover to prevent the inevitable dirt and kid debris from accumulating in the tracks and gumming up the works.
Well, one other thing: The Ascent’s engine is a premium fuel engine.
Not required, but recommended. That means you can use regular 87 octane unleaded and not hurt anything other than the maximum power produced by the engine. If the computer senses other-than-premium, it dials back the power just a bit to accommodate the lower-test fuel.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Subaru’s got what the others have — and also what they don’t!
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The Eric Peters Car Review is sponsored by the NMA Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting your interests as a motorist and citizen through the multi-faceted approach of research, education, and litigation. The Foundation is able to offer this assistance through tax-deductible contributions.