The smallish three-row crossover segment is a big deal. This group of vehicles has replaced the minivan as the ride of choice for anyone who needs seating for more than five but doesn’t want to go to something truly gargantuan.
The competitive segment means automakers need to work hard to stay on top, with frequent refreshes, feature updates, and other little changes to help them do it.
For 2023, the Subaru Ascent is getting one of those updates. There are cosmetic changes to make it look different, safety system upgrades to keep it on top, and useful tech changes that make it better at doing family hauling duties.
In short: The 2023 Subaru Ascent’s new looks keep it fresh, even if they’re a little odd. The new safety and in-cabin tech are big improvements, but slow response times, sluggish acceleration, and poor fuel economy keep the Ascent from climbing to the top.
2023 Subaru Ascent
- Engine 2.4L Turbocharged Boxer Four
- HP/Torque 260/277
- MPG 19/25/21 City/Highway/Combined
- Cargo 17.8 cu. ft. (42.1 w/ second seats folded, 75.6 max)
- Towing 5,000 lbs. (2,000 lbs. on base)
- Good cargo space behind third row
- Soft, comfortable ride
- Roof rails can hold 700 lbs.
- Fast-acting AWD
- Driver distraction monitoring
- Big gap between folded seats
- Poor observed fuel economy
- Tough to reach middle cup holders
- Sluggish acceleration
- Slow-responding infotainment
2023 Subaru Ascent Review
2023 Ascent Gets New Face
Styling changes are small but make a big difference, a difference I’m not sure everyone will like. What was a simple and rugged nose is now overly complicated with elaborately styled headlights, a massive grille, and odd chrome inlet surrounds at the bottom of the bumper.
The changes at the back are even smaller and much less controversial. The old rectangular section of the lights on the hatch is now C-shaped. Subaru calls them Konoji taillights, and they do modernize the look. The changes here are much more successful than the ones up front.
11.6-Inch Center Screen Dominates Dash
In the cabin, the 2023 Ascent gets the same 11.6-inch center screen you’ll find in the rest of the Subaru lineup. The big panel is a big upgrade over the old screen, though fans of buttons and knobs might not like the change.
The new screen has an old-looking interface that controls just about everything, so you’ll be looking at it a lot … and waiting for it because you need to wait for it to finish booting to use the heated seats or change the climate settings. You’ll also need to wait while it does the things you ask because this system is frustratingly sluggish.
There is a volume knob, and there are buttons for the temperature, so points to Subaru for that. The system has the wireless versions of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, another big perk.
Cabin Connect Makes Sure You’re Heard
New for 2023 is Cabin Connect. Subaru says it “improves communication from the driver or front passenger to the third-row occupants.” I say it helps you yell at the kids in the third row without having to yell.
A microphone in the front picks up your voice and puts it through the speakers in the back. It does a good job of making you heard, though you have to activate it through the center screen. Mercifully, the feature (offered on all grades with Harman/Kardon audio) doesn’t work the other way around.
Charging and Drinks for Everyone
Every Ascent gets lit-up USB-A and USB-C ports in the front console as well as at the back of the front console. The former is for the front seat, the latter for row two. Touring trim gets a 110V household-style electrical outlet.
The second row’s cupholders are in the back of that console below the power plugs, which makes a long reach for second-row passengers. Kids, especially in car seats, are going to have a tough time reaching. Get the second-row bench, and you get two more accessible cup holders in the fold-down center armrest; there are a total of 19 cupholders on offer, depending on trim.
On Ascent Limited and higher, the third row gets USB-A ports too. Both are on the passenger side of the vehicle, so you might have to settle some cable disputes, but more power plugs are always better. There are two cupholders on each side of the third row, so at least there won’t be any quibbles over that space.
Ample Cargo Space With All Seats Full
Eight-passenger seating is standard, with two in the front and three in each of the rear rows. On those models, both rows of seats fold flat to give you loads of easy-to-use cargo space or a place for two (or three) to sleep for the night.
Second-row captain’s chairs are standard on Limited and options on most other trims. They slide fore and aft but do not fold flat with the third row. I tried to take a nap back there, and it was doable (and more comfortable than the photo suggests). But for maximum hauling and adventuring, I recommend the eight-seater.
The first and second rows offer loads of room and plenty of adjustability, so they’re comfortable places to be for a long time. The third row isn’t big but is slightly larger than most of the segment, like Mazda’s CX-9 and the Toyota Highlander.
Anyone over 6 feet tall probably won’t want to be in the back for long, but they at least have a chance of fitting. The sliding second row makes it easy to get back there, or smaller passengers can slide between the two middle-row seats.
With all the seats up, Ascent offers an excellent 17.8 cubic feet behind the third row. There is 43.5 or 42.1 cubic feet behind the second row (depending on whether you have the moonroof) and a maximum of 75.6 with everything folded. The latter two figures are more average for the segment.
Tent-Ready Roof Rack
If that’s not enough cargo room, the base trim Ascent can tow 2,000 pounds. All other trims can tow 5,000 pounds, with the difference being a cooler for the fluid in the CVT.
The factory roof rails can handle up to 176 pounds while you’re driving. When you’re not moving, though, it’s rated for 700 pounds. Plenty for a rooftop tent and most of the family for a night of camping.
Subaru’s Safety Suite Gets Upgraded
Subaru’s EyeSight safety suite is upgraded this year. The changes to the system include a new electric brake booster to better integrate software and vehicle hardware. There is also a new wide-angle camera that can spot pedestrians and cyclists sooner when you’re in an intersection. The Ascent can then alert you and even brake to help avoid a crash.
Higher grade Ascents with blind-spot detection, lane change assist, and rear cross-traffic alert get Automatic Emergency Steering. This can help steer around a crash at speeds under 50 mph.
A 360-degree surround view monitor is new to the options list, making parking less stressful. It does give you a great view in front and behind, but the surrounding part of the view is quite distorted. All Ascent models get excellent steering-responsive LED headlights, all seatbelt reminders, and a washer jet for the rearview camera.
Limited, Onyx, and Touring get DriverFocus Distraction Mitigation. The system watches your eyes to make sure you’re watching the road. Look away, and you get beeped at. It’s handy, humbling, and works through polarized lenses, though I think the warning could be louder. And more insistent. The same scanning system can link your face to your seat and radio presets, which is pretty neat.
Driveline Stays the Same
Now for what hasn’t changed. Under the hood of the 2023 Ascent is the same 2.4L turbo flat-four as before. The engine makes 260 horsepower and produces 277 pound-feet of torque from 2,000 all the way to 4,800 rpm.
This is the same engine used in the Subaru Outback, and a version of it is found in the WRX. In those vehicles, the engine has plenty of oomph, moving both along quite briskly. In the 600-pound heavier Ascent, the engine doesn’t feel so sprightly.
Thanks to a CVT that responds a bit sluggishly and the extra weight, it takes some time to get the Ascent moving. Using manual mode tightens up the transmission responses and makes the Ascent feel slightly quicker than it does in auto mode. Still, the Ascent could use either some extra power and torque or a CVT that feels tighter. Or both.
Disappointing Fuel Economy
Government ratings put the Ascent’s fuel economy, 19 miles per gallon city and 25 highway, right on the button with the rest of the class. In my mostly rural highway driving, I saw a disappointing 18 mpg.
In the rest of the class, I normally match or exceed the EPA’s highway figure. Here I put at least some of the blame on the underpowered feeling of the Ascent. More time on the gas means more time in boost and more fuel out the tailpipe.
X-Mode AWD Standard
All-wheel drive is standard, with Subaru’s system engaged all the time. You can watch it direct power front and rear on the center screen as you get slip on icy surfaces, and watch as each wheel is reigned in by the computer.
Ascent has the two-mode version of Subaru’s X-Mode drive modes, meaning it has one for deep snow and mud and one for less snow and dirt. The system can be activated below 12 mph and tweaks the AWD and throttle/transmission settings for slippery conditions. It stays on through 25 mph, and if your speed climbs and then falls below 25 again, it will automatically turn back on. It’s handy, though all of the beeps that accompany it can be a bit much.
X-Mode includes hill descent control for off-roading. It maintains your speed on declines at low speeds and works well for slick trail conditions.
Subaru Soft on the Highway
On the road, the Ascent responds like the rest of the Subaru lineup. The steering is heavily boosted and a bit quicker in ratio than you’d find in most crossovers. The quick ratio means you’re turning the wheel less, but the soft suspension means the nose takes longer to respond to the wheel. The brake pedal is a bit soft too, but you get used to it quickly.
There’s nothing wrong with this softness. It’s part of the appeal of the Subaru lineup: not everything needs to be a sports car, especially a family hauler. The softness is quite nice over bumps and off the pavement because more of the impact is absorbed before it gets to you and your passengers.
The Ascent doesn’t feel like it has the long suspension travel of other Subarus, though. You can see that pretty clearly in the photo above, where a rear tire came off the ground quite quickly.
Subaru’s AWD system doesn’t mind a tire off the ground, though. So in practice, it’s not a performance issue. It’s more of a comfort one when you start heading down cottage paths.
2023 Subaru Ascent Review: Conclusion
The Subaru Ascent is comfortable and capable. With a starting price of $33,895 and an as-tested price of $48,195, it also represents a solid bargain.
Subaru’s safety upgrades and tech changes for 2023 make it more user-friendly and better able to help keep you safe on the road. What they don’t do is fix the slow acceleration and the less-than-impressive fuel economy. Both the turbocharged engine and the infotainment system need more power to make the Ascent best in class.