Eight seats, four cylinders: is that enough love from the 2021 Subaru Ascent?

2020 Subaru Ascent Limited

What changes will make the 2021 Subaru Ascent different?

by Chuck Giametta

Nothing major as Subaru’s largest-ever vehicle settles in to await a refresh expected for model-year 2023. Launched for model-year 2019 with seating for up to eight, Ascent competes with such three-row midsize crossovers as the Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, and Toyota Highlander. It added convenience features for 2020 and should return little changed for ’21. It’ll remain one of two crossovers in the competitive set – the other is the Mazda CX-9 — with a four-cylinder as its sole engine.

2020 Ascent Limited

Should I wait for the 2021 Subaru Ascent or buy a 2020?

Little reason to wait. The ’21 Ascent is almost certain to cost more than the 2020, but it’ll be fundamentally the same vehicle. Buying a ’20 gets you styling and features with plenty of shelf life. And it may be subject to Covid-19-related discounts and incentives that might not be in place when the ’21 is released. Indeed, introduction of the 2021 Ascent could be delayed by the pandemic.

When it arrives, the ’21 Ascent will again feature a powertrain with advantages and disadvantages versus its V-6 competition. And its third-row seat won’t comfortably accommodate adults. But it should remain attractively priced, especially considering all-wheel drive (AWD) is standard. And even the least expensive model will again come with Subaru’s laudatory EyeSight Driver Assist Technology providing autonomous emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, and lane-maintaining automatic steering.

Expect the 2021 Ascent to return four trim levels: Base, Premium, Limited, and Touring. Standard on all but the Touring should be a second-row bench seat for eight-passenger capacity. Included with the Touring and optional for Premium and Limited will be second-row captain’s chairs for seven-passenger seating. All ’21 Ascents will continue with a turbocharged engine using Subaru’s traditional horizontally opposed cylinder design. It’ll link to a continuously variable automatic transmission and the automaker’s well-engineered Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive.   

Will 2021 Subaru Ascent styling be different?

2020 Ascent Limited

Not beyond a possible color choice or two, maybe a new wheel design. Other than the brand’s hexagonal grille – and headlights intended to evoke the “boxer” engine’s pistons — this is a generic-looking midsize crossover. 

Expect model-level differentiators to again run to details like body-color side mirrors for all but the Base trim. Steering-linked LED headlights, LED foglights, and turn-signal mirrors should again distinguish the Limited and Touring, the Touring further garnished by satin-silver mirrors and additional exterior brightwork. Alloy wheels will return as standard: 18-inchers on the Base and Premium, 20s standard on Limited and Touring and optional for the Premium.

2020 Ascent Limited

The dashboard might change with the 2023 refresh, but for now looks dated. The ’21 will again locate controls logically and identify them clearly, however. It’ll again integrate its infotainment touchscreen instead of following the trend to tabletlike displays with separate controls. The Base model should return with a 6.5-inch touchscreen, the others an 8-incher, with imbedded navigation standard on Touring and optional on Premium and Limited. In our tests, the system interface is mostly intuitive although voice recognition could be frustratingly erratic.

2020 Ascent multi-function display

Again topping the center stack will be a multi-function display for outside temperature and other data. On Limited and Touring it’ll include useful off-road info, such as steering angle and vehicle pitch; the Touring also gets a 180-degree forward video view.

Available second-row bench allows eight-passenger seating

Except for the unrefined movement and feel of the gearshift lever, cabin-materials quality is better than average for the class, with plenty of padded surfaces and a solid feel throughout. Expect the ‘21 Limited and Touring to again replace cloth upholstery with leather, the Touring getting Java Brown hides and faux matte-wood accents.            

Ascent’s third-row seat is cramped

Its footprint is midpack for a three-row midsize crossover, but Ascent lacks the packaging efficiency that makes Subaru’s smaller five-seat Outback and compact-class Forester crossovers so spacious for their size.

Bullet train-inspired grab handle

Second-row passengers must slide their seats well back for good legroom. Third-row knee clearance and foot space are hostile to grownups. Only the young and nimble can easily climb into and out of the third row, despite sturdy second-row seatback handholds inspired by those in Japan’s bullet trains. For adult-friendly accommodations in all three rows, consider the Pilot, Chevrolet Traverse, Volkswagen Atlas, Kia Telluride, and Hyundai Palisade.

2020 Ascent Limited

Small-items storage space will remain adequate and include a handy dashboard shelf. Cargo volume is competitive: 17.8 cubic feet behind the third row (abetting by a shallow but useful underfloor bin), 47.5 cubic feet behind the second row, and a generous 86.5 with both the second- and third-row seatbacks folded. Expect a power liftgate to again be unavailable on the Base model, optional for the eight-seat Premium, and standard elsewhere. In a thoughtful touch, it’ll again include a button that closes it and locks the side doors.

Any 2021 Subaru Ascent mechanical changes?

2020 Ascent Limited

Not likely. Expect the ’21 Ascent to reprise a turbocharged 2.4-liter four-cylinder of 260 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque. The “boxer” nickname reflects how its horizontal cylinder layout evokes prizefighters throwing punches. This engine’s signature will remain robust torque at low engine speeds. (Imagine torque as the force that gets a vehicle moving, horsepower the energy that keeps it going.)

Like other continuously variable transmissions, Subaru’s Lineartronic CVT transfers power in the manner of a rheostat rather than with the stepped gear ratios of a conventional automatic. Credit Subaru with minimizing the annoying tendency of most CVTs to allow engine speed to race ahead of vehicle speed. And every ’21 Ascent will again have steering-wheel shift paddles, so drivers can simulate eight manual gear ratios.

Ascent’s torque output matches or exceeds that of virtually every V-6 in the competitive set. Acceleration at around town speeds is satisfying, and the 5,000-pound tow rating is in line with rival six-cylinders. But expect the ’21 Ascent to again hold relatively little in reserve for authoritative highway passing or merging. Don’t expect the engine-transmission combo to consistently furnish a predictably linear delivery of power. And anticipate the engine will remain unpleasantly gruff most anytime you toe the throttle.

2020 Ascent Limited

On a brighter note, the ’21 Ascent will remain an adept handler, with firm, natural-feeling steering and reassuring poise in changes of direction. On dry roads, Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive applies torque vectoring to lightly brake the inside wheel and help pivot the crossover through turns. In slippery conditions, it minimizes tire spin by continuously distributing power to the wheels with the most grip, front to rear and side to side. It’s particularly adept in snow.

While no Subaru is designed for serious off-roading, Ascent is unperturbed on unpaved trails. Its 8.7 inches of ground clearance is roughly an inch greater than most crossover competitors. And every ’21 Ascent will again have Subaru’s driver-selectable X-Mode, which optimizes powertrain and brakes for off-road conditions. We’d suggest the automaker offer the ’21 Ascent with its Dual X-Mode, which allows more wheel slip to improve effectiveness in mud and deep snow.

Wind noise is held at bay, but there’s that abrasive engine note, and the 20-inch tires roar on coarse pavement. They also allow sharp bumps and tar strips to jar the cabin, compromising Ascent’s otherwise controlled, compliant ride. The 18-inch wheels and tires are more isolating and absorbent.  

Will 2021 Subaru Ascent fuel economy improve?

2020 Ascent Limited

It’d be nice if it did, but don’t count on it. Subaru’s reliance on a four-cylinder engine doesn’t seem to pay the gas-mileage dividends in might. With no change to powertrain, expect this relatively weighty crossover to repeat its 2020 EPA ratings.

That means 21/27/23 mpg city/highway/combined for 2021 Ascent Base and Premium models with the 18-inch wheels and tires and 20/26/22 mpg for Ascents with the 20-inchers. That’s hardly more fuel-efficient than roomier V-6 rivals, such as the Pilot and Highlander. And it’s no better than the CX-9’s 2020 EPA ratings of 20/26/23 mpg with AWD. The Mazda’s 2.5-liter turbo four has 227 horsepower (250 using 91-octane gas) and 310 pound-feet of torque and links to a conventional six-speed automatic transmission. Expect Subaru to again tune the ’21 Ascent for 87-octane gas.

Will there be new 2021 Subaru Ascent features?

2020 Ascent Limited

Unlikely, although we’d urge Subaru to expand availability of blind-spot and rear-cross-traffic detection. For 2020, it was exclusive to the eight-seat Premium model and to the Limited and Touring trims. Buyers of 2021 Ascent Base and seven-seat Premium grades deserve the protection of these useful driver assists, too, at least as options.

Similarly, we’d ask Subaru to consider expanding availability of its Smart Rear View Mirror, which projects a video of what’s behind if the standard mirror view is blocked by passengers or cargo. For 2020, it was exclusive to the Touring model.

Standard safety features on every 2021 Ascent should again include the aforementioned EyeSight, as well as alert to check the rear seat before exiting the vehicle. Look for the ’21 Ascent Limited and Touring trims to return steering-linked headlights, automatic high-beams, and autonomous braking that can stop the Ascent if an obstacle is detected while backing up. For 2020, rain-sensing windshield wipers were exclusive to the Touring.

All doors can be locked from button on the power liftgate

Every ’21 version of this crossover will again come with 19 cupholders; three-zone automatic climate control; and support for Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Pandora, and satellite radio. Also included: Auto Vehicle Hold, a congenial feature that relieves the driver from holding down the brake pedal at long stop lights.

Available panoramic moonroof

In addition to equipment already noted, expect the ’21 Ascent Premium to build on the Base model with a standard power driver seat; spill-repellent cloth upholstery in black or ivory; privacy glass; a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift handle; rear climate controls; and the All-Weather Package with heated exterior mirrors, three-mode heated front seats, and a windshield wiper de-icer. A panoramic moonroof with a front sliding panel and power sunshade should also return as standard on the seven-seat Premium.

The ’21 Limited should continue with all that, plus second-row retractable sunshades; adjustable driver’s thigh support; keyless access with pushbutton ignition, and six instead of two USB ports. To those features, the ’21 Touring should again add three-mode ventilated front seats; eight UBS ports and a 120-volt power outlet for charging tablets, phones and laptops; 14-speaker Harman Kardon premium audio, and power-folding mirrors.

Will 2021 Subaru Ascent prices be different?

Second-row captain’s chairs, for seven-passenger seating, standard or optional depending on model

They’ll likely rise, though Subaru’s likely to keep increases modest. Ascent sales fell 18 percent in the first quarter of 2020, more than double the decline for the midsize-crossover class. And like every automaker, Subaru will need to find ways to offset demand weakened by the pandemic.   

Even with a small increase, the 2021 Ascent would remain priced attractively against AWD versions of rival three-row midsize crossovers. For reference, here are 2020 Ascent base prices, including the manufacturer’s $1,010 destination fee.      

8-inch touchscreen with imbedded navigation

The 2020 Ascent Base model started at $33,005, the Premium at $36,360 with eight seats and at $36,865 with seven. As it should for ’21, buying a ’20 Premium model with either seating configuration should open access to option packages. For ’20, Subaru grouped keyless access with pushbutton start, automatic-dimming rearview mirror, and reverse automatic braking in a $1,460 Premium-model package (it also included the power liftgate for eight-seat models). Another package, priced at $4,260, included all that plus 20-inch wheels, panoramic moonroof, 8-inch touchscreen with imbedded navigation, and cargo cover.

Base price for the 2020 Ascent Limited – in both seven- and eight-passenger form — was $40,335. The ’21 should again be available with an option package that adds the panoramic roof, navigation, Hardman Kardon audio, and cargo cover for around $3,000. The ’20 Ascent Touring was priced at $46,005 with no available options.

When does the 2021 Subaru Ascent come out?

2020 Ascent Limited

Barring Covid-19-related delays look for a 2021 Ascent release date in the third quarter of 2020.

What are the best 2021 Subaru Ascent competitors?

Dodge Durango, Ford Explorer, Chevrolet Traverse, GMC Acadia, Honda Pilot, Hyundai Palisade, Kia Telluride, Mazda CX-9, Nissan Pathfinder, Toyota Highlander, Volkswagen Atlas

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]