Ascend lets Subaru ascend to big SUV realm

August 6, 2021 by
Filed under: Weekly test drives, Autos 

Stylishly aggressive nose signals Subaru Ascent arrival in woodsy green, near our woods, 

By John Gilbert

When Subaru made assorted small all-wheel-drive vehicles and everybody else made big ones, it seemed as though both sides competed with each other in lifestyle as well as vehicle choice. It was sort of like two knights in shining armor pulled their facemasks down, straightened their armor, lowered their lances, and charged! And both sides scored direct hits.

The companies making large, overpowered SUVs have downsized successfully, with a smaller model, or two, or six — while Subaru keeps trying to enlarge some models into bigger SUVs.

It may be that Subaru will never match the Suburban or Expedition or Land Cruiser, and surely it doesn’t want to. But Subarus keep growing, like the new Forester, and now, entering its second season for 2021, Subaru was its own large SUV, with the Ascent.

Interesting name, and obviously it is hoping to conjure up the name of something that will climb the highest mountain, or at least the steepest terrain — or the tallest avenues in a Duluth blizzard — without difficulty.

Presumably, if Subaru sells enough Ascents, it might bring out something still larger, and call it, maybe, the Descent, if it’s decent, because we all know that what goes up must come down, hopefully with style and grace in the process.

Three rows of seats with room to haul stuff.

The Ascent ranges in price from $35,000 to around $45,000, depending on how many added options you choose. But it does rise above the normal tradition of bargain-priced and compact-sized Subarus.

Subaru fans are amazingly loyal. They love the ruggedness, the dependability, the all-weather hardiness, the all-terrain capability, and if they never push their Subarus to the limits, they like the security of having those capabilities in reserve.

I guess of all the Subarus, my favorite three remain the WRX STi, which is an all-terrain race and rally hot-rod, the Crosstrek, a very tidy compact SUV that leads the company in style, in my opinion, and the now-extinct SVX, which was the sleekest and raciest Subaru ever but was discontinued in 1997. That was my all-time favorite, and I still see one around Duluth occasionally by an appreciative owner.

All Subaru lovers accept the odd, flat-opposed four and six cylinder engines that deliver good power but not great fuel-economy, and we can only wonder where that aging engine will fit if and when Subaru follows the leaders toward electric vehicle power. Or even advanced plug-in hybrids.

For now, we needn’t worry about all that. We have good-size vehicles like the Outback and Forester, and now we have the biggest Subaru with the Ascent, one that’s capable of hauling a family of seven or eight on its appointed rounds, or even off the beaten and appointed rounds.

Attractive and “bullet-proof” fabric covers the seats and dash of the Ascent.

After spending a week with an Ascent “X” — the sportiest version — we ran it through its paces. We used it for commuting, for running errands, and for cruising, as we ventured off on an assortment of short trips to destinations that took awhile. Our favorite was to drive from Duluth, up the North Shore to Grand Marais, which is quite nearer the Canadian border, and a very neat and trendy little artsy community with a scenic pleasure-boat harbor.

We even found a new place to eat up there, although it took awhile because road construction has found its way into the Lake Superior harbor area of downtown Grand Marais. We circled around to get downtown to check out a couple of outfitter’s stores, and we followed a similar route to get back to the west side and out of town. Then we circled back around to get to the eastern edge of Grand Marais, where our built-in GPS told us we would find a restaurant called My Sister’s Place. We had never visited it before and it has a surprisingly large menu and, we found, very good food that bridges the gap from comfort food to the more gourmet-type offerings. We need to go back to verify our first finding.

That gave us a target beyond the Angry Trout, and Sven and Ole’s Pizza, where you pretty much are drawn in by the name alone and lured back because it’s not only good pizza, but you get a large yellow sticker with blue script lettering to tell the world that you’ve been to Sven and Ole’s. Good to know that Swedes and Norwegians like pizza, too.

Subaru has made a tradition of building durable little SUV-type vehicles, but with the Ascent, it is going after the big, 3-row trucksters.

Unusual curves and contours sets Ascent apart from normal Subarus.

My personal favorite stopping place is right near the outfitters store, hard by the harbor. In past columns I have mentioned how that place reminds me of the Jimmy Buffett song, “One Particular Harbor,” and it still does. This time was extra special, because after wandering around town, I heard the faint strains of an Eagles song, being sung outdoors. Following my ears, we walked over toward the water where there was a small stage set up and a fellow was playing the guitar and singing an assortment of Bob Dylan songs, interspersed with a few Gordon Lightfoot ballads. He had a couple of guys backing him up, and he was highly entertaining, both in his choice of songs and in his professional-quality delivery.

I walked up after they took a break and learned his name was Joe Paulik, and he said he plays up there on the beach every Saturday night, only venturing down as far as Duluth on rare occasions. I have mentioned him to a couple of Duluth promoters, who would do well to expand on what has become an all-too-familiar array of performers. I would pay a cover charge to go see Joe, and he would do well at one of the assorted “fests” at Bayfront Festival Park.

Anyway, we also had a good time driving up the Shore and back in the Ascent, stopping along any of dozens of favorite spots such as Iona’s Beach along the big lake, which is always a treat, even if it’s no particular harbor.

Second row seats fold and slide to ease Olympian squeeze into third row.

The 2.4-liter 4 handled all of our demands of the Ascent with ease, and while performance was adequate, comfort was at a high. I particularly liked the seat surface, which is some sort of new material that is a cut above the usual fake-leather-but-really-vinyl, and is not unpleasant to touch, and feels as though it might be bullet-proof for kids or pets. The material is repeated on the dashboard, which gives the interior of the Ascent a boost as well.

The size of the Ascent is big for a Subaru, but would be compact for other companies, although the key determination in my mind is the availability of a third row of seats. The Ascent has a third row, and it’s reachable by a second row that folds down and slides fore and aft, to ease the entry and exit to Row 3. Let’s face it, though, that third row is for small kids, and especially those who feel gymnastic urges after watching the Olympics.

We got about 24.4 miles per gallon as a normal, everyday average for fuel economy, and the Ascent drinks regular fuel, which is nice, because you are saving 20 or 30 cents per gallon over premium alternatives.

The interior has a sporty flair, something Subaru hasn’t always put on display. The colors and fabrics and trim levels were a step up — Ascending, we might say — over the Subaru norm. All of the connectivity and contemporary features are in place, and I like the thick feel of the steering wheel. Carbon-fiber trim on the dash and doors was a nice touch, too.

While the power was good enough, I was surprised that the handling was just so-so. It felt a little loose, for some reason, and it should have been firmer, based on the sporty styling, and the large wheels, which were shod with 245-45, 20-inch tires.

The big information screen was impressive, also, but there was almost too much. We wanted to find the exterior temperature, for example, because that’s important in this summer of 90-ish highs complemented by Canadian wildfire smoke channeled directly to us, but we couldn’t locate the temp gauge. After scrutinizing the instruments over and over, we finally spotted it, located in its own, separate binnacle up on top of the dashboard by the windshield. We almost needed a GPS to find it.

Spacious front buckets welcome occupants.

A definite sporty touch is the presence of steering wheel paddles, which give you the ability to instantly choose if you want a higher or lower gear range, which is particularly helpful if you are descending Duluth’s long and hilly avenues, where it might spend its brakes prematurely if you were to ride the brakes down those hills every day.

There you are, another reason that the Ascent with paddles should next be joined by a Descent model.

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