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Auto review: Subaru's Ascent climbs into the ranks of first-rate family haulers

The throw-row eight-seater is an upscale and functional SUV loaded with convenience features.

Most likely you’ve never heard of McMinnville, Oregon, unless UFO sightings are your abiding passion.  It's the town where farmer Paul Trent took a photo of an alleged UFO hovering over his farm in 1950. Today it hosts an annual UFO festival where believers congregate to propose UFO theories, swap stories, attend an alien costume ball and decide the winner of the pet costume contest — among other things.

Being that McMinnville is 50 miles south of Portland, itself a city that could be mistaken at times for an alien landing site, the festival is a big deal — although the arrival of journalists in town to drive the 2019 Subaru Ascent seemed to be bigger news to locals. Remember, this is the Pacific Northwest, where Subarus outnumber people. So, of course, locals would welcome the Ascent, a three-row crossover that belatedly fills a hole in Subaru’s lineup in a way the 2005-14 Tribeca never could.

Resembling an oversized Outback rather than an alien life form — something the Tribeca never lived down — the Ascent is offered in base, Premium, Limited, and Touring trims. There are three rows and room for eight — seven with the available second-row captains’ chairs — and enough head and leg room for an extended family. Despite its spacious accommodations, the vehicle feels easily maneuverable, not massive. OK, compared with a 1970 Subaru 360 Van, the Ascent feels like the Spruce Goose, Howard Hughes’ wooden albatross stashed in a museum not far from McMinnville. But who would rather be in a 360 Van, aside from those who adore deprivation?

Climb inside the Ascent and you’ll discover an upscale interior that looks far richer than any earlier Subaru. Some materials are impressively upscale, such as the wood trim and intuitive instrument panel. Yet, despite being a premium Subaru, you might be disappointed by some cheap details, such as the incredibly insubstantial radio knobs.

However, being Subaru’s premium vehicle, there’s every comfort and convenience feature that you’d want, including Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, 4G LTE Wi-Fi, three-zone automatic climate control, 19 cupholders, multifunction display, blind-spot detection with lane change assist and rear cross-traffic alert, heated front seats, windshield wiper de-icer, heated exterior mirrors, keyless access with push-button start, and more. 

Does it sound splendid for a Subaru? Oh yeah, and most of the options are available on less expensive models.

Seats are impressively supportive and comfortable and are not overly bolstered, so they should prove acceptable for larger occupants. The cabin remains quiet, with just a hint of road noise and no wind noise. And the generous number of USB ports shows that someone at Subaru understands modern life.

Regardless of how far up the price ladder you ascend with your Ascent, there’s one driveline: all-new turbocharged and intercooler 2.4-liter flat four-cylinder engine that develops 260 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque mated to a continuously variable automatic transmission. 

There’s ample power without any indication of turbo lag, surprising given the transmission, which proves to be smooth and responsive. The CVT can imitate a traditional automated manual transmission, although shifts aren’t the quickest. The suspension absorbs bumps well without excessive rebound. Body lean is moderate. Steering is fairly light, but quick enough with good on-center feel. The car is very easy, if not relaxing to drive. It’s impressive in that regard. It’s no sports sedan, but it’s more engaging than its competition.

2019 Subaru Ascent

Base prices: $31,995-$44,695

Engine: Turbocharged 2.4-liter horizontally-opposed four-cylinder

Horsepower: 260

EPA fuel economy: 20-26 city;-21-27 highway

Length: 196.8 inches

Cargo capacity: 17.8-86.5 cubic feet

Towing capacity: 5,000 pounds

Curb weight: 4,430-4,603 pounds

BOTTOM LINE: Pleasant performer

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