Enough room? Adequate power? Pros and cons of 2020 Subaru Ascent crossover

2020 Subaru Ascent

2020 Subaru Ascent

What changes will make the 2020 Subaru Ascent different?

Expect little more than a new color choice or two to mark the sophomore season of Subaru’s largest-ever vehicle. Available with room for up to eight passengers, the Ascent bowed for model-year 2019 as competition for other three-row midsize crossovers such as the Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, and Toyota Highlander. Along with the Mazda CX-9, it’s one of only two three-row midsize crossovers with a four-cylinder as its sole engine.

With Ascent launched — to decent but not blockbuster sales – Subaru will turn its model-year 2020 attention to introducing a redesigned version of its best-selling vehicle, the Outback. The all-new Outback will continue as a midsize crossover and remain more akin to an inflated station wagon versus the larger Ascent’s classic crossover proportions. The ’20 Outback will again seat five but move to a version of the architecture that underpins the Ascent. And it probably will dump its available six-cylinder engine for the same turbocharged four used in the Ascent.

Should I wait for the 2020 model or buy the 2019?

Little reason to wait. The ’20 Ascent is almost certain to be a virtual rerun of the 2019 Ascent, although it’s apt to cost more. Buying a ’19 gets you styling and features with a plenty of shelf life because the next notable changes aren’t likely before a midcycle refresh, around model-year 2023.

Until then, Ascent will make do with powertrain that has weaker around-town response than most rival V-6 powertrains. And not until it’s fully redesigned, perhaps around 2025, would it have a chance at a third-row seat fit for adults. Choose a ’19 or a ’20, however, and you’ll benefit from Subaru’s wise decision to equip even the least expensive trim level with its laudatory EyeSight Driver Assist Technology. That means every Ascent comes standard with autonomous emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, and lane-maintaining automatic steering.

Expect the 2020 Ascent lineup to mirror 2019’s: Base, Premium, Limited, and Touring. Second-row captain’s chairs for seven-passenger seating are optional for Premium and Limited and standard on Touring. All ’20 Ascents will again share a turbocharged four-cylinder engine with Subaru’s traditional “boxer” design, so called for its horizontal arrangement of cylinders that evokes prizefighters throwing punches. Every model uses a continuously variable automatic transmission and comes standard with the Japanese automaker’s well-engineered Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system.

Will the styling be different?

No. It’ll reprise the clean-but-conservative look Subaru settled upon for what actually is its second shot at a three-row midsize crossover. The first was the B9 Tribeca, sold from model-years 2006-2014 with seats for five or seven. It was smaller than the Ascent and used a horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine. A model-year 2008 freshening dropped the B9 prefix and replaced the off-putting inverted horse-collar grille with a more traditional shape but did little to raise sales.

Like the 2019 Ascent, the ‘20 will continue with the latest version of the brand’s hexagonal grille flanked by C-shaped headlights, which Subaru claims are reminiscent of pistons moving inside a boxer engine. It also says the body’s prominent wheel arches suggest the presence of Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive. Overall, there’s not a lot of character to the look or the proportions, especially against the segment’s new styling benchmark, the redesigned 2020 Explorer.

Subaru will continue to visually differentiate the 2020 Ascent’s models subtly. All but the Base will again come with body color side mirrors. Alloy wheels are standard across the board, with 18-inchers on Base and Premium and 20s on Limited and Touring and optional for the Premium. The Limited will again have steering-linked LED headlights, LED foglights, and mirrors with integrated turn signals. To those cues, the ’20 Touring will again add satin-silver mirrors and more exterior brightwork.

Inside, orderly simplicity describes the driving environment. Controls are placed logically and identified clearly. The dashboard will again eschew the trend to discrete, tabletlike infotainment touchscreens. It’ll fully integrate a central 6.5-inch display for the Base model and an 8-incher on the other trims, with imbedded navigation standard on Touring and optional on Premium and Limited. The interface is pleasantly intuitive, though we’d urge Subaru to improve response to voice commands for 2020. The system’s cognitive ability was frustratingly erratic in the Touring model we tested.

No complaints about materials quality. Padded surfaces are plentiful and a solid feel throughout compliments Ascent’s reassuringly rigid structure. Expect leather upholstery to again be standard on the 2020 Limited and Touring, the latter treated to exclusive Java Brown hides and, less impressive, to faux matte woodgrain accents.

The 2020 Ascent’s exterior dimensions will again put it about midpack among three-row midsize crossovers. But it doesn’t deliver the highly efficient interior packaging that makes Subaru’s Outback and compact-crossover Forester so spacious for their size. There’s plenty of front-seat volume, but second-row passengers get little excess legroom. Third-row knee clearance and foot space are cramped for anyone larger than a grade-schooler. And they’re about the only humans nimble enough to climb in and out with little strain, despite the presence on the second row’s upper seatbacks of sturdy handholds inspired by those in Japan’s bullet trains. For adult-friendly accommodations in all three rows, consider rivals such as the Pilot, Explorer, Chevrolet Traverse, and Volkswagen Atlas, with the new-for 2020 Kia Telluride and Hyundai Palisade worth a look, too.

The 2020 Ascent’s cargo volume is more competitive, at 17.8 cubic feet behind the third row (abetting by a shallow but useful underfloor bin), 47.5 cubic feet with the second-row seatbacks folded, and a generous 86.5 both the second- and third-row seatbacks stowed.

Any mechanical changes?

Not for model-year 2020, although we’ll note that Subaru plans to introduce its first all-electric vehicle around 2022. It’ll use the same Subaru Global Platform architecture that underpins the Ascent, Forester, and redesigned Outback, as well as the company’s Crosstrek subcompact crossover and Impreza compact car. However, whether the EV will be a version of the Ascent, of some other Subaru, or a wholly new model is open to speculation.

Meantime, the ’20 Ascent will return with a turbo 2.4-liter boxer four-cylinder of 260 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque. Torque is the key ingredient here: think of it as the force that gets a vehicle moving and horsepower as the energy that keeps it moving. Ascent’s engine matches or exceeds the torque output of virtually every V-6 in the competitive set and does so at relatively low engine speeds. Still, Ascent doesn’t stand out for acceleration.

At highway speeds, it’s terrific, so merging and undertaking is a breeze. But movement away from a stop is lazy for a vehicle length or so until the turbo spools up. And around-town throttle response is inconsistent. Ascent isn’t particularly lightweight, but the main culprit is teaming a small displacement turbocharged engine with a continuously variable transmission.

Like other such transmissions, Subaru’s Lineartronic CVT transfers power in the manner of a rheostat rather than via stepped gear ratios, like a conventional automatic. Credit Subaru with minimizing the annoying tendency of most CVTs to allow engine speed to race ahead of vehicle speed, although when the boxer four does rev up it reveals a gravely, unrefined nature. Every ’20 Ascent will again have steering-wheel shift paddles, so drivers can simulate eight manual gear ratios. But without some recalibration for 2020, expect Ascent’s powertrain to often feel out of sync when you need it to deliver smooth, predictable acceleration.

On a brighter note, families experiencing the largest Subaru ever are apt to be pleased with its handling. The steering is video-game numb on center but feel builds naturally as you turn and Ascent answers with good grip and reassuring poise in changes of direction. Credit both the solid structure and Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system. On dry roads, it employs active torque vectoring to apply light braking to the inside wheel and help pivot the crossover through corners. 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 the snow.

And while no Subaru is designed for serious off-roading, Ascent is unperturbed on unpaved trails. It has 8.7 inches of ground clearance, a Jeep-worthy margin and roughly an inch greater than most crossover competitors. Just as important, every ’20 Ascent will again come standard with Subaru’s X-Mode, which automatically optimizes the powertrain and brakes for off-road conditions and includes speed-limiting hill-descent control. The automaker, however, ought to consider offering it with its enhanced new Dual X-Mode, which allows more wheel slip to improve performance in mud and deep snow.

Other drivetrain pluses include standard Auto Vehicle Hold, which will again keep the ’20 Ascent in position at a stop, so the driver need not continuously depress the brake pedal. And Ascent can tow trailers weighing up to 5,000 pounds. That matches the trailer rating of many V-6 rivals and exceeds by 1,500 pounds the towing capacity of the only other three-row competitor with a turbocharged four-cylinder as its sole engine, the Mazda CX-9.

Aside from that sometimes-abrasive engine note, Subaru’s midsize crossover is nicely insulated from unwanted noise. The 20-inch tires make themselves heard on coarse pavement, but their bigger offense is allowing sharp bumps and tar strips to pound into the cabin. That compromises Ascent’s otherwise controlled, compliant ride. The smaller-diameter wheels and tires prove more isolating and absorbent.

Will fuel economy improve?

Not likely, although it’d be good if it did. Subaru’s decision to rely on a four-cylinder engine and CVT (and to deny it enough size to provide good third-row comfort) doesn’t pay dividends in great gas mileage. With no change to powertrain, expect the 2020 Ascent to repeat the 2019/s EPA ratings.

That means 21/27/23 mpg city/highway/combined for 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 2019 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 Ascent for 87-octane gas.

Will there be new features?

Unlikely, although we’d urge Subaru to expand availability of blind-spot and rear-cross-traffic detection. For 2019, it was standard on eight-seat Premium models and on the Limited and Touring versions of the Ascent. Buyers of the Base trim and seven-seat Premium models deserve the protection of that useful driver assist, too.

Similarly, we’d ask Subaru to consider expanding availability of a novel new feature it calls the Smart Rear View Mirror. This uses a camera above the liftgate to let the driver see what’s behind when the standard mirror view is blocked by passengers or cargo.

Look for Limited and Touring trims to return with standard steering-linked headlights, automatic high-beams, and reverse autonomous braking that applies the brakes if an obstacle is detected while reversing. For 2019, rain-sensing windshield wipers were exclusive to the Touring.

Otherwise, the ’20 Ascent should return with a praiseworthy range of standard and optional equipment, including the aforementioned EyeSight on every grade. Also standard across the board: 19 cupholders, three-zone automatic climate control, and support for Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Pandora, and satellite radio.

In addition to the features mentioned earlier, the 2020 Ascent Premium will again add to the Base model a power driver seat; unique spill-repellent cloth upholstery in black or ivory; privacy glass; a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift lever handle; rear seat climate controls; and the All-Weather Package with heated exterior mirrors, three-mode heated front seats, and a windshield wiper de-icer.

The ’20 Limited will continue with all the Premium-grade features, plus second-row retractable sunshades; driver’s seat adjustable thigh support; a power liftgate with height memory; and keyless access with pushbutton ignition. Two additional USB ports are added to Limited, to bring the total number to six.

Ascent’s Touring flagship will again include as standard three-mode ventilated driver and front passenger seats; eight UBS ports and a 120-volt power outlet for charging tablets, phones and laptops; Harman Kardon premium audio system with 14 speakers; a panoramic power moonroof; and rain-sensing wipers.

Will 2020 prices be different?

Look for them to increase, though not significantly. That would maintain the 2020 Ascent priced competitively with AWD versions of three-seating-row, midsize-crossover rivals. Base-price estimates here include Subaru’s destination fee, which was $975 for the 2019 Ascent.

Estimated base prices are $33,370 for the 2020 Ascent Base model and $35,570 for the Premium, both with standard seating for eight. The Premium should again be available with two second-row bucket seats in place of the three-passenger bench for an additional $1,200 or so.

Stepping up to the 2020 Ascent Premium would also open access to other options, such as a roughly $1,500 package though would again include the power liftgate, keyless access with pushbutton start, automatic-dimming rearview mirror, and reverse automatic braking. At about $4,300, an enhanced package including all that, plus 20-inch wheels, imbedded navigation, and the panoramic moonroof should also return.

Estimated base price for the 2020 Ascent Limited – in both seven- or eight-passenger form — is $40,370. It should again be available with an option package that adds the panoramic roof, navigation, and Hardman Kardon audio for around $3,000.

Priced at around $46,100, the ’20 Ascent Touring should continue as seven-seater only and fully equipped with no available options.

When does it come out?

Look for a 2020 Ascent release date in the third quarter of 2019.

Best competitors

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

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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]