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By Brady Holt
Subarus are known as stellar family cars — user-friendly, all-wheel-drive cars and crossovers that are easy to drive and well-designed to withstand a crash.
But until now, the company reserved these qualities for smaller families who could fit into its five-passenger Impreza, Crosstrek, Forester, Legacy, and Outback. It briefly offered a three-row crossover called the Tribeca, but it lacked the roominess and value that characterizes a traditional Subaru.
Now, the 2019 Subaru Ascent is a properly-sized challenger to such popular crossovers as the Ford Explorer, Honda Pilot, Chevrolet Traverse and Toyota Highlander. Priced from $32,970, the Ascent brings seating for eight, up to six USB ports and 19 cup-holders. Let there be no mistake: this is an all-function family car.
That’s not to say that the Ascent can’t also be luxurious. Like its competitors, it’s available with a dazzling array of high-end luxury features, especially if you choose the top Touring trim ($45,670). It rides smoothly and quietly, and it offers rich, yet sturdy, leather upholstery.
But based on a brief preview drive, the Ascent is purpose-built as a family-friendly box on wheels. Its turbocharged four-cylinder engine feels like it’s built to maximize fuel economy (an excellent 22 miles per gallon in mixed driving) rather than power or silky-smooth quietness. And light steering makes for easy maneuvering but doesn’t inspire you to hustle.
Inside, the Ascent offers comfortable front- and second-row seats, though the third row is tight for adults — not unusually so for an SUV, but not best-in-class. The interior is well-finished, and some clever displays include a camera that pops up to show you an approaching obstacle. The user-friendly infotainment system is compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration.
The Ascent is plain, however, inside and out. From most angles, the exterior styling resembles that of many other Subarus, just scaled up to a larger size. Yet, although the Ascent is Subaru’s most expensive model, it’s even less decorated than cheaper models, with a big black expanse for a grille and generically-rounded taillights. Similarly, the interior looks like other Subaru models — functional and well-finished, but without design verve.
The Ascent’s base price is a couple of thousand dollars higher than many competitors, but it makes up its value quotient with extra-standard equipment — notably all-wheel-drive and a comprehensive suite of advanced safety features. That said, because the Ascent is still fairly new, don’t expect much discount from the sticker price for a while.
There are many reasons to want an Ascent, but don’t overlook excellent competitors that provide a similar flavor, including the newly-updated 2019 Honda Pilot.
Another brand that recently entered the full-size crossover market is Volkswagen, which debuted the Atlas as a 2018 model. The Atlas had been tested for a week last year and had been driven briefly back-to-back against the Ascent, revealing some similarities and differences between these two class standouts.
The Atlas is the one you’d pick if you want a sporty driving experience, at least by the standards of huge family cars. With its rich-sounding V6 engine and its responsive handling, the Volkswagen proved more fun to drive than the Subaru.
It’s also roomier, which isn’t what you might expect from the sportier-driving model. Though seating capacity tops out at seven rather than the Ascent’s eight, the Atlas has more usable legroom across all three rows. There’s also more cargo room: up to 97 cubic feet, compared to a still-competitive 87 cubic feet in the Ascent.
And while aesthetic tastes will vary, the Atlas is inarguably more interesting to look at than the Ascent. Volkswagen accentuates the boxy SUV shape with bold chunky rectangles, while the Subaru is more cautiously rounded off. Inside, the Atlas is cleanly European with straight, simple lines, though it’s not much more exciting than the Ascent.
However, at least based on the brief drive, the Ascent rides more smoothly. It also boasts richer upholstery and more user-friendly controls.
The Ascent also gets better gas mileage than most Atlas versions. Volkswagen offers a four-cylinder engine on the base model, with front-wheel-drive only, which is EPA-rated for an outstanding 24 mpg in mixed driving. However, every other Atlas is a 19-mpg V6.
Atlas prices start at $31,745 but can rise quickly. As the Atlas’ newness has worn off, however, you can expect VW dealers to be more willing to cut a deal.
For style and driving enjoyment in this class, the Mazda CX-9 is another can’t-miss option. It looks nothing like the Atlas; instead, it disguises its spacious cabin in the svelte look of a smaller crossover. It also boasts sprightly handling and excellent fuel economy. You won’t get the most interior space in this class, though.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.