There’s been a lot of action in the three-row SUV segment over the last couple of years with the launch of several entirely new models and a couple of significant refreshes. The Subaru Ascent feels longer tenured as a result, but a quick skim of the data banks reveals that this vehicle was entirely new to the market just two years ago. (To be fair, 2020 has felt like a decade.)
All this change has led to the Ascent seeming outdone in some respects in a rather head-spinningly short amount of time. The Limited with Captain’s Chairs model under consideration here is priced at $50,470 including destination fees, and at that price the features that aren’t offered are just as apparent as the ones that are. However, while the vehicle tested is naturally the one that’s the focus of this review, it’s worth pointing out that a lot of the best elements of the Ascent are integrated across the entire trim range. Were I shopping for a three-row SUV on a sub-$40,000 budget, the Convenience trim’s heated front seats and standard all-wheel drive would turn this into a different discussion.
As it stands, the Ascent offers the same powertrain no matter which grade you choose. Its 2.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine, arranged in a horizontally opposed layout as is typical for Subaru, produces 260 hp and 277 lb-ft of torque between 2,000 and 4,800 rpm. Though this power figure is lower than the segment average, the relatively accessible torque band created through turbocharging makes the Ascent an energetic suburban companion. The continuously variable transmission can get a little noisy under high loads such as highway merging, but for the most part it’s compliant and unobtrusive. And that low-mounted engine – again, typical of Subaru – puts a lot of the vehicle’s weight closer to the ground, which contributes to a lower centre of gravity and handling that’s surprisingly good for the Ascent’s size, if maybe a touch soft in the dampers.
Where the Ascent may not necessarily excel is in fuel consumption. On paper, the Natural Resources Canada numbers are decent at 11.6 L/100 km in city driving, 9.0 on the highway, and 10.4 combined. But after spending a week in it myself, I returned it at a reading of 12.5 L/100 km and climbing. But granted, I don’t tend to be especially gentle on the go pedal, so a more conservative driver may have a different experience.
Subaru takes pride in its ratings with the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which rates the 2021 Ascent a Top Safety Pick+ based on the addition of standard steering-responsive LED headlights with high beam assist. The EyeSight suite of safety and convenience features is also standard and includes a pre-collision system, adaptive cruise control, lane sway and departure warning, lane centring assist, traffic jam assist, and lead vehicle start alert. Blind spot monitoring, lane change assist, and rear cross-traffic alert are also included on the Limited grade.
The Ascent’s bright interior is both pleasant and functional. The soft-touch surfaces in this Limited tester are set out in layers of colour that add some visual interest. But more importantly, a panoramic sunroof introduces plenty of natural light, and Subaru’s in-character low shoulder line and tall windows create very good all-around visibility. And it’s almost an obligation at this point to mention the 19 cupholders any time the Ascent comes up in conversation.
However, at this price point or higher, some of the more upscale features being offered by competitors are conspicuous in their complete absence from the Ascent line-up such as a wireless charging pad, digital gauge cluster, and head-up display.
The Subaru infotainment system integrated into the 8-inch touchscreen is acceptable but not exceptional. The home screen is customizable but not especially intuitive, and some inputs such as volume adjustments slow down its functioning. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay functionality is standard, however, and goes a long way in mitigating these concerns.
If I’m looking for an SUV that I’m going to brag about to my neighbours, the 2021 Subaru Ascent might not be my first choice. But those who care more about function than fashion – especially families operating on a sub-$40,000 budget – will find that the Ascent’s greatest strengths are in its safety, practicality, and affordability of the features that matter most.