Subaru offers roomy new Ascent to compete with three-row crossovers

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The Ascent, due in showrooms in July, will compete with the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot and Ford Explorer.

Just as Chrysler is credited with inventing the modern minivan, you can argue that little Subaru gave us the vehicle now sweeping the nation: the crossover SUV.

Basically, the automaker accomplished this by doing something that couldn’t be helped. Because it didn’t have the bucks back in the ’90s to develop a new SUV to compete with the truck-based models that dominated the market at the time, it cleverly made do with what it had. It jacked up its Legacy station wagon slightly, adorned it with some macho styling cues, and, presto, the Outback, the first car-based SUV, was born.

Subaru’s next major excursion in the world it created wasn’t as pioneering or brilliant. Its attempt at a three-row midsize crossover, an Outback variant called the Tribeca, proved too small for the job, and the company finally pulled the plug on it in 2014.

What the company decided it needed was a midsize three-row crossover roomy enough to compete with the likes of the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, and Ford Explorer. And that “something,” which will be in the showrooms by early July, is the Ascent, the largest, heaviest Subaru ever built.

“We had to do it,” product planning manager Peter Tenn said. “We were losing the customers who needed a larger vehicle. …We wanted to prevent this child-raising generation from leaving Subaru.”

After driving two of the Ascent models at a recent media introduction, I suspect this crossover will fare a lot better than the Tribeca. The car doesn’t have any significant flaws. It gets good marks in categories ranging from roominess and ride comfort to noise abatement, handling, and acceleration.

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The Subaru Ascent has 19 cupholders, which may be a record.

At a little over 16 feet long, the Ascent affords plenty of room for passengers and cargo. It seats eight with the second-row bench and seven when fitted with second-row captain chairs (provided at no extra cost). The second-row seats can be adjusted to provide adequate legroom for adults in both the second and third row. While the second row furnishes good headroom, the third row, thanks to the sloping roof, won’t let those over 6 feet sit up straight without coming in contact with the headliner.

The Ascent’s passengers are afforded 19 cup and bottle holders, which may be a record. And the largess, which includes the cupholders, ventilation controls, and reading lights, filters back to the young’uns in the third row.

“We wanted the third row not to be a penalty box,” Tenn explained.

Cargo capacity is another happy story. There’s 85.5 cubic feet of space with both rear rows folded down. That’s enough, Subaru points out to the soccer mom, to accommodate 239 soccer balls.

The Ascent’s body styling could be described as mainstream muscular, the interior design as fresh and clean. That interior proves comfortable and quiet, with good visibility and ready access to instruments and controls.

The Ascent, which is built on a lengthened and strengthened version of the platform employed in its little brother, the compact Impreza sedan, will be the first Subaru to use the new 2.4-liter, four-cylinder boxer engine. With the help of a turbocharger and direct injection, it develops 260 horsepower and 277 pounds feet of torque. That’s enough to get the car from 0 to 60 in a little over 7 seconds, which is a bit more sprightly than when it passes at highway speeds. It also allows it to tow 5,000 pounds.

In league with a continuously variable automatic transmission and all-wheel-drive, this engine managed EPA mileage ratings of 21 city and 27 highway in the $34,195 Limited model I drove, and 20 and 26 in the heavier, $38,995 Limited model I tried.