Ascent lets Subaru ascend to big-SUV status

Stylishly aggressive nose signals Subaru Ascent arrival. The emerald green fits the woods, too.

By John Gilbert

When Subaru was the only manufacturer making compact all-wheel-drive vehicles and everybody else starting to make big ones, it seemed as though both sides competed with each other. 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 seen the wisdom they were missing, and they have successfully come out with a downsized model, or two, or six. Subaru has not avoided the fray, as it keeps trying to make bigger and bigger SUVs.

It may be that Subaru will never match the Suburban or Expedition or Land Cruiser levels of hugeness, and surely it doesn’t intend to, or even want to. But Subarus keep growing, like the new Forester, and now, entering its second season for 2021, Subaru has 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 mild-off-road grade, 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.

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 diminutive 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 having those capabilities in reserve, at least.

Three rows of seats with adequate room to haul stuff befits the biggest Subaru.

I guess of all the Subarus, my favorites remain the WRX STi, which is an all-terrain race and rally specialist, and the Crosstrek, a very tidy compact SUV that leads the company in style, in my opinion. My all-time favorite Subaru is the SVX, which was a very sleek coupe with room for four and thepower of a flat-opposed 6 that was never promoted enough to catch on. I still see one once in a while, and I regret that I didn’t simply seek one out and buy it when it was available.

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

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, one that’s capable of hauling a family of seven or eight on its appointed rounds, or even off the beaten and appointed tracks.

After spending a week with an Ascent “X” — the sportiest version — we used it for commuting, for running errands, and for cruising, as we ventured off on an assortment of 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.

Unusual curves and contours sets Ascent apart from normal Subarus.

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 Grand Marais. So we circled around to get out of town, and then we circled back around to get to the eastern edge of Grand Marais where we found My Sister’s Place, a homey restaurant with a surprisingly large menu. 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.

But that gave us a target beyond 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 there.

Our favorite stopping place is right near the outfitters store, hard by the harbor. In past columns I have mentioned how that place reminds me vividly of the Jimmy Buffett song, “One Particular Harbor,” and it still does. This time was extra special, because after checking out everything inside the outfitters place, and wandering around town, I heard the faint strains of an Eagles song. Following our ears, we walked over toward the large area near the water where there is a small stage set up. 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 very impressive, both in his choice of songs and in his professional-quality delivery.

Spacious front buckets welcome occupants.

I walked up after they took a break. His name was Joe Paulik, and he said he plays up there on the beach every Saturday night, and while he has ventured down to Duluth, he pretty much stays closer to his Grand Marais home to perform. I have mentioned it to a couple of Duluth promoters, who would do well to expand on what has become an all-to-familiar array of local 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, and stopping along any of dozens of favorite spots along the big lake is always a treat, even if it’s not any particular harbor.

The 2.4-liter 4 handled all of our demands 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 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 slides fore and aft, and folds down before sliding 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 particularly gymnastic 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 20-30 cents per gallon compared to a premium-burner.

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

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, but there was almost too much. We wanted to find the exterior temperature, because that’s important in these times of 90-ish highs accompanied by Canadian wildfire smoke-filled breathing, and we couldn’t locate it. After checking all the gauges and 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.

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

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 — particularly helpful if you are descending Duluth’s long and hilly avenues, where the car’s brakes might spend themselves prematurely if you were to ride the brakes down those hills every day.

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

  • About the Author

    John GilbertJohn Gilbert is a lifetime Minnesotan and career journalist, specializing in cars and sports during and since spending 30 years at the Minneapolis Tribune, now the Star Tribune. More recently, he has continued translating the high-tech world of autos and sharing his passionate insights as a freelance writer/photographer/broadcaster. A member of the prestigious North American Car and Truck of the Year jury since 1993. John can be heard Monday-Friday from 9-11am on 610 KDAL( on the "John Gilbert Show," and writes a column in the Duluth Reader.

    For those who want to keep up with John Gilbert's view of sports, mainly hockey with a Minnesota slant, click on the following:

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  • Exhaust Notes:

    More and more cars are offering steering-wheel paddles to allow drivers manual control over automatic or CVT transmissions. A good idea might be to standardize them. Most allow upshifting by pulling on the right-side paddle and downshifting with the left. But a recent road-test of the new Porsche Panamera, the paddles for the slick PDK direct-sequential gearbox were counter-intuitive -- both the right or left thumb paddles could upshift or downshift, but pushing on either one would upshift, and pulling back on either paddle downshifted. I enjoy using paddles, but I spent the full week trying not to downshift when I wanted to upshift. A little simple standardization would alleviate the problem.

    The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution has the best paddle system, and Infiniti has made the best mainstream copy of that system for the new Q50, and other sporty models. And why not? It's simply the best. In both, the paddles are long, slender magnesium strips, affixed to the steering column rather than the steering wheel. Pull on the right paddle and upshift, pull on the left and downshift. The beauty is that while needing to upshift in a tight curve might cause a driver to lose the steering wheel paddle for an instant, but having the paddles long, and fixed, means no matter how hard the steering wheel is cranked, reaching anywhere on the right puts the upshift paddle on your fingertips.

    Even in snow-country, a few stubborn old-school drivers want to stick with rear-wheel drive, but the vast majority realize the clear superiority of front-wheel drive. Going to all-wheel drive, naturally, is the all-out best. But the majority of drivers facing icy roadways complain about traction for going, stopping and steering with all configurations. They overlook the simple but total influence of having the right tires can make. There are several companies that make good all-season or snow tires, but there are precious few that are exceptional. The Bridgestone Blizzak continues to be the best=known and most popular, but in places like Duluth, MN., where scaling 10-12 blocks of 20-30 degree hills is a daily challenge, my favorite is the Nokian WR. Made without compromising tread compound, the Nokians maintain their flexibility no matter how cold it gets, so they stick, even on icy streets, and can turn a skittish car into a winter-beater.