The 2021 Subaru Ascent stands out in showrooms as the brand’s largest model, but in the American car market it’s overshadowed by a plethora of other popular three-row crossovers. Folks who appreciate Subaru’s wholesome image and ubiquitous all-wheel-drive system will find something to like here: its versatile seating configurations and seven- or eight-person capacities are perfect for families. Every model has driver aids including adaptive cruise, automated emergency braking, and lane-keeping assist. The big Subie’s main drawbacks are its noisy engine, apathetic passing power, and uninspiring driving behavior. Our long-term example has shown us how useful it is for shuttling people and stuff, but also how annoying the beeps and chimes from its driver-assist systems can be if they’re not disabled.
Engine, Transmission, and Performance
With the company’s trademark all-wheel-drive system, the Ascent is well suited for four-season family road trips. Its 260-horsepower turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder powertrain delivers middling acceleration and can be noisy under duress, but it’ll pull a camper trailer or speedboat. While the Subaru’s continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) contributed to a noisy ride during our test, the gearless gearbox was otherwise receptive and steady. Its throttle response was particularly abrupt at low speeds around town. The Ascent even has paddle shifters mounted on the steering wheel for those who want more control over the transmission. The Subaru has a comfortable ride that isolated us from rough surfaces. It wore 20-inch wheels but still rode smoothly over bumpy roads and soaked up harsh impacts. Unfortunately, we noticed a lot of wind and road noise while cruising on the highway. While the Subaru lacks the fun-to-drive nature found on the Mazda CX-9, the sizable three-row was nicely composed. Its light and accurate steering responded to quick maneuvers and felt relaxed at higher speeds. The brake pedal on our test vehicle was firm and progressive, with no play or touchy feedback.
Fuel Economy and Real-World MPG
The EPA estimates the 2021 Ascent will earn 21 mpg in the city and 27 mpg on the highway. Those who select the top-tier Limited and Touring models will lose 1 mpg in both categories. Still, the Ascent has above-average EPA estimates and confirmed the latter in our 200-mile real-world test. The top-of-the-line Ascent Limited earned 26 mpg on our route, matching its EPA highway rating. However, rivals such as the Chevy Traverse and Honda Pilot proved to be even more efficient despite having lower government ratings.
Interior, Comfort, and Cargo
The Ascent’s interior has all the hallmarks of a large crossover, with a raised driving position and versatile seating configurations. While the cabin accommodates a crowd, its third-row-passenger space trails bigger alternatives such as the Volkswagen Atlas. Too bad only the top two versions are available with desirable features such as a heated steering wheel, heated rear seats, memory driver’s seat, power-adjustable passenger seat, and leather-trimmed upholstery. The Ascent can pack up to eight people inside, but in our testing it only held five carry-on bags behind the third row. While that was one less than we fit in the Traverse, the Subaru also had less interior cubby storage than most rivals. Still, it remains a capable travel companion with some clever cargo solutions. These include Velcro straps in the cargo area to hold up the load floor if you need the added room. Our test vehicle had the optional second-row captain’s chairs that use multiple levers for adjustments and will fold nearly flat.
Infotainment and Connectivity
The Subaru infotainment system lacks the customization settings and intuitive controls found on premier competitors. Still, it has features that consumers love, such as Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and a Wi-Fi hotspot. The standard touchscreen has large onscreen icons that are easy to see and respond to your inputs quickly. While touch-only means there are more opportunities for driver distraction, the screen’s position and large icons alleviate this issue well.
Safety and Driver-Assistance Features
The 2021 Ascent earned a five-star rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). While the latest model year hasn’t been evaluated by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the 2020 Ascent was named a Top Safety Pick+ by the agency. Subaru doesn’t save the best safety and driver-assist technology for the top trims, either. In fact, every Ascent except the base model is available with most upgrades.