2019 Subaru Ascent Touring
Highs: Three rows of seats, generous cargo space with seats folded, perky acceleration.
Lows: Porky curb weight, not much cargo room behind the third row, disappointing fuel economy.
2019 Subaru Forester Touring
Highs: Compact dimensions, fuel-efficient powertrain, excellent outward visibility.
Lows: Only two rows of seats, smaller cargo bay with seats folded, relaxed acceleration.
Shopping for a conventional SUV in the Subaru showroom these days comes down to two primary choices, the compact 2019 Subaru Forester and the mid-size 2019 Subaru Ascent. Sure, you also could include the brand's Outback station wagon and subcompact Crosstrek hatchback in the mix. But the Forester and Ascent both are capable enough in many ways to be cross-shopped with each other, depending on what exactly you're looking for. While we've grown to appreciate the overall agreeableness and three rows of seats in our long-term Ascent test vehicle, there's a lot to like about the latest Forester as well.
With only two rows of seats versus three in the Ascent, the Forester is 14.7 inches shorter, 4.5 inches narrower, and has 8.7 fewer inches between its axles. Pricing for the Forester starts at $25,270 and can run into the mid-$30,000s, whereas the larger Ascent will set you back at least $32,970 and the top-level Touring model tops $45K. Although the two share a family resemblance, the Ascent's taller beltline and narrower side windows gives it a more traditional SUV-like appearance versus the Forester's tall-station-wagon look. The styling creates two different experiences behind the wheel, with the Forester's expansive windows providing more unobstructed views of the road ahead and to the sides.
On the Road
Both the Ascent and the Forester handle rough stretches of road well, soaking up bumps and smoothing out potholes with little fuss. Neither vehicle exhibits any sporty pretentions, yet they both feel composed and competent on twisty roads, although the Forester's smaller size makes it feel a bit friskier and slightly less top-heavy around corners. Greater distinctions can be found under their hoods. Each Subaru is powered by a flat-four-cylinder engine (also known as a boxer engine due to its horizontally opposed cylinders) paired to a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) and standard all-wheel drive. The Ascent's powerplant, however, is a turbocharged 2.4-liter unit that develops 260 horsepower while the Forester's is a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter good for only 182 ponies.
At the test track, the Forester's lower power output put it at a disadvantage in terms of acceleration, even though it weighs around 1000 pounds less than the Ascent. Its leisurely 8.5-second zero-to-60-mph run is two seconds slower than what its larger sibling needs, and the Forester struggles more in 30-to-50-mph and 50-to-70-mph passing maneuvers. In normal driving, the Forester often doesn't feel as short on power as its test results indicate, and an aggressive initial throttle tip-in lends it a peppiness around town that feels similar to the more powerful Ascent's responsiveness. Both Subarus can stop from 70 mph in a respectable 168 feet.
Fuel-economy tests find the advantage tipping to the Forester's non-turbocharged engine, as it proved more efficient than the Ascent in both its EPA estimations and our own testing. While the Ascent is rated at 22 mpg combined, the Forester earns an estimate of 29 mpg. On our highway fuel-economy test, which consists of a 200-mile round trip on Michigan's I-94 at a steady 75 mph, the Ascent matched its 26-mpg federal highway rating, yet the Forester returned a more frugal 32 mpg, one lower than its official estimate.
The Inside View
Both of these Subarus feature welcoming and easy-to-use interior designs that will appeal to pragmatists but won't win any favor among fashionistas. The Touring-level test vehicles we drove both wore handsome caramel-colored leather and came fully equipped with all manner of infotainment and driver-assistance technologies, including navigation, adaptive cruise control, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and lane-keeping assist. Selecting the Touring trim—the top spec on both the Ascent and the Forester—essentially gets you a loaded SUV with only a few accessories available as add-ons.
Front- and second-row passenger space is similar in both models, but the Ascent also brings a third row of seats and available second-row captain's chairs (optional on the Ascent Limited and standard on the Touring), whereas the Forester is strictly a two-row five-seater. The 33 cubic feet of cargo space behind the Forester's second row is significantly more than the 18 cubes available behind the Ascent's third row. With all of the rear seats folded, however, the larger Ascent's longer and wider interior proved to be much more capacious, holding 10 more carry-on suitcases than the Forester's. The Ascent also benefits from more spacious cubbies for storing smaller items throughout the cabin.
The Bottom Line
If you're in need of an SUV that can accommodate more than five people, the Ascent is the obvious pick over the Forester. But considering the smaller Subaru's greater fuel efficiency, notably lower price, and the fact that it—at least at the Touring trim level—offers nearly all of the same creature comforts as the Ascent in a more wieldy package, there's little incentive to go big just for the sake of it. If you're on the fence about needing a three-row ute and find yourself in a Subaru showroom, the Forester makes a solid case for itself as the more reasonable purchase.
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