Not to long ago, if you wanted an affordable SUV that could carry more than five adults in comfort, your options were pretty much limited to the full-size, truck-based versions by Chevy, Ford and General Motors. Although a handful of mid-size were available with a third row of seats, they were only suitable for small children.
But in recent years, practically every manufacturer has brought out a new or revised mid-size crossover with enough room for seven or eight adults, at least for reasonable trips. They did this by increasing the size and interior space of vehicles in the mid-size range, thanks in large part to bigger and boxier designs that maximize passenger accommodations.
As a result, the affordable mid-size three-row crossover category is now the most competitive market segment. Consumers are faced with staggering number of choices, especially since they are all available in different trim levels that range from well-equipped base models to borderline luxury versions.
How to choose?
The three-row 2020 Subaru Ascent is a logical pick for those of us in the Pacific Northwest because Subaru is already to go-to brand for dealing with wet weather and occasional light off-road driving. Its legendary Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system is standard on all models except the two-seater BRZ sports car. All trim levels also come with X-Mode which allows the Ascent to drive down even steep slope with ease. And it will tow up to 5,000 pounds.
Although earlier Subaru models had limited appeal because of their relatively bland styling and slightly unrefined production standards, Subaru has substantially upped its game in recent years, with a corresponding increase in sales.
But the Ascent, which was introduced in 2018, is a step above even those improvements. The quality is on par with practically every other manufacturer. It is as comfortable and quiet as virtually all competitors. And the upper trim levels, like our Limited test model, have a genuinely premium feel.
With the Ascent, Subaru has also tamed the occasional roughness of its standard horizontally opposed Boxer engine. The unconventional design creates a lower center of gravity and allows lower hood designs, but has sometimes been harsh and noisy in the past, especially under heavy acceleration. But the Ascent is equipped with a turbocharged 2.4-liter version that produces an incredibly smooth 260 horsepower and 277 foot pounds of torque. In fact, the Ascent might be faster off the line than most drivers expect, and freeway passing is also easier than some competitors.
Because the Ascent is so new, there are only a few changes for the 2002 model. The biggest are a standard rear-seat reminder alert system and power-folding side mirrors
The Limited version of the Ascent is not quite the top of the line. That would the Touring version. But the Limited is nearly fully loaded, and our tester featured an option package — number 23 — that included a 14-speaker Harmon Kardon stereo, a panoramic power moonroof, a Starlink multimedia navigation system with an 8-inch screen, and a stowable cargo area cover, all for an additional $2,950 over Limited's suggested retail price of $39,345. That raised the price to $43,305, which, in case you don't know it, is very reasonable for such a large and well equipped vehicle. Well-equipped base versions start at around $32,000.
Safety is a big concern for mid-size SUV buyers, and the Ascent offers a wide range of systems. Even the base models come with a rear-view camera and Subaru's great EyeSight driver assistance system, which includes adaptive cruise control, forward emergency braking, and lane keep assist. In the Limited trim, you also get blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, reverse automatic braking, and steering-responsive headlights.
During a week of test driving, the our Ascent consistently felt like a smaller vehicle, thanks to its peppy engine and well-tuned suspension. The large rear view image on the touch screen made parking in even tight spaces relatively easy. And although we never used all of them, it was nice knowing there are 19 — count 'em, 19 — cup holders available for all passengers.
The three-row mid-size crossover market segment hardly existed just a few years ago. Now it is the most competitive. But for Pacific Northwest buyers, the choice is clear — the 2020 Subaru Ascent Limited needs to be at the top of the shopping list.
2020 Subaru Ascent Limited
Base price: $39,345
Price as tested: $43,305
Type: Midsize crossover SUV
Engine: 2.4-liter turbocharged horizontal 4 (260 hp, 277 lbs-ft)
Transmission: Continuously Variable Transmission
EPA estimated mileage: 20/26
Overall length: 196.8 inches
Curb weight: 4,592 pounds
Final assembly: Lafayette, Indiana
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