- The ToyotaHighlander is one of the best selling mid-size family SUVs on the market.
- Through September, Highlander sales are up 14.2% over 2017.
- The Subaru Ascent all-new for 2019 and is the latest entrant into the lucrative mid-size three-row SUV market.
- The base 2018 Toyota Highlander starts at $US31,230, while the top-of-the-line Hybrid Limited Platinum model starts at $US48,480.
- The base 2019 Subaru Ascent starts at $US31,995, while our top-of-the-line Ascent Touring starts at $US44,695.
- The Subaru’s peppy driving dynamics, gutsy turbocharged engine, superior infotainment, abundant standard safety features, and well-designed cabin tip the scales in its favour over the Highlander.
The Toyota Highlander is a bonafide star in the midsize family SUV market. In 2017, Toyota sold nearly 216,000 Highlanders in the US, making it the third best selling mid-size SUV behind only the Ford Explorer and the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
The Highlander’s success has rival automakers looking to cash in on the strength of the mid-size SUV market. Last year, Volkswagen jumped into the fray with the three-row Atlas crossover SUV.
However, that hasn’t slowed the Highlander down.
In fact, it’s doing even better this year with sales up 14.2% through September. More than 180,000 of the Toyota SUVs have rolled out of showrooms in 2018.
Now, another new challenger has arrived in the form of the 2019 Subaru Ascent.
Subaru has been on a roll with nearly seven years’ worth of consecutive month-over-month sales growth in the US.
Subaru’s Outback off-road wagon along with Forester and Crosstrek crossovers have been hot sellers in recent years. But its most recent midsize SUV, the B9 Tribeca, proved to be a critical and sales flop.
Unfortunately, the Tribeca’s odd styling, diminutive size, and tepid performance prevented it from gaining traction in the market. Even a 2008 facelift and the addition of a more powerful engine couldn’t save the Tribeca, which soldiered on for nearly a decade before Subaru pulled the plug on the SUV in 2014.
Now, the Japanese automaker is trying to make up lost ground with the larger three-row Ascent.
Earlier this year, Business Insider has had the chance to experience the Highlander in mid-grade SE trim and in top-spec Hybrid Limited Platinum guise.
Recently, we also spent a week with a top-of-the-line Subaru Ascent Touring to see how it stacks up against the Toyota Highlander.
Here’s what we found.
First up is the Toyota Highlander.
Toyota lent us two new Highlanders for evaluation in mid-grade SE V6 AWD and top-spec Hybrid Limited Platinum V6 AWD trim. Our grey SE carried an as-tested price of $US42,545, while the brown Hybrid Limited Platinum stickered for $US49,499.
The base four-cylinder, front-wheel-drive Highlander LE starts at $US31,230.
Aesthetically, the Highlander is rather unexceptional. While decently attractive, it’s far from pretty. In 2016, Toyota updated the Highlander’s large chrome front grille to mixed reviews.
The Highlander’s side profile is traditional crossover utility — boxy with rounded edges. It straddles the line between tall wagon and traditional SUV looks.
The rear end of the Highlander features an integrated roof spoiler and a traditional lift-up tailgate.
It’s also one of the few remaining SUVs to have a separate lift-up window that’s great for loading small items.
The interior, however, is where the Highlander really impresses.
We found the cabin to be a really pleasant and friendly place to be. It’s quiet and comfortable, and the interior ergonomics are pretty much spot on. Material quality is very good, and everything you touch feels really well put together. Highlander’s cabin simply exudes this reassuring sense of solidity.
Our Platinum Limited test car added a brown leather and wood accents to the equation for a more premium feel.
The Highlander’s interior is packed with USB charge ports and clever storage nooks like this shelf that runs the length of the front dash. There’s also a massive storage box under the center armrest between the front seats.
In front of the driver is a 4.2-inch colour information display flanked by two traditional analogue gauges. The Highlander comes standard with the Toyota Safety Sense package, which includes collision warning, pedestrian warning, lane-departure warning, automatic high beams, and radar cruise control.
Our test cars came with an 8-inch touchscreen running Toyota’s Entune infotainment system. Base Highlanders get a smaller 6.1-inch touchscreen.
In spite of Toyota’s work to improve the system’s usability, Entune is not one of our favourites. It’s perhaps the weakest part of the Highlander package. Entune’s image quality is poor, and its overall presentation feels as if it’s stuck in a previous decade.
The infotainment unit aboard our Hybrid test car experienced a glitch that resulted in the system rebooting once every 60 seconds or so. This forced us to return the Hybrid test car to Toyota for repairs.
Both of our Highlander test cars came equipped with optional second-row captain’s chairs. A bench seat is standard.
The rear cabin as a whole proved to be spacious and comfortable. The captain’s chairs also allow for easy pass through to the third row.
A collapsible cup-holder tray is located between the second-row seats. It’s quite handy for passengers, but the tray in our SE test car rattled over bumps and rough surfaces. The tray in our Hybrid test car did not experience this rattle. Frankly, it’s really our only complaint with the Highlander interior.
There are 13.8 cubic feet of cargo room behind the third row. With the third row folded, cargo capacity goes up to 42.3 cubic feet. Fold down the second row and the Highlander’s cargo space nearly doubles to 83.7 cubic feet.
Under the hood of our Highlander SE is a 295-horsepower, 3.5-litre, naturally aspirated V6. The Hybrid model adds Toyota’s Hybrid Synergy Drive to the same V6, boosting horsepower to 306. The base Highlander is powered by a somewhat diminutive 185-horsepower, 2.7-litre, naturally aspirated four-cylinder. The 3.5-litre V6, shared with the Toyota Camry and Avalon sedans, is silky smooth. No one does naturally aspirated V6 engines quite as well as Toyota, and it shows.
The four-cylinder is paired with a traditional six-speed automatic transmission, while the V6-powered cars get an eight-speed unit. The hybrid models are equipped with a continuously variable transmission.
What’s it like to drive?
To drive, the Highlander was unremarkable. It’s far from surefooted in the corners, while its steering is rather numb and uncommunicative. It reminded me a bit too much of an old minivan. Unfortunately, the SE’s sport-tuned suspension doesn’t make much of a difference.
Behind the wheel, acceleration felt relatively brisk in both of our test cars, but the Highlander really makes you work for it. Our 4,400-pound SE’s fuel-economy-minded eight-speed automatic felt lethargic under hard acceleration. And when it decided to change gears, the shifts were hardly smooth.
This is where the Highlander really falls short. No one expects a Supra-esque experience, but Toyota should be able to give us something less dull than this.
Next up is the new Subaru Ascent.
The 2019 Subaru Ascent comes in four trim levels – the Ascent, Ascent Premium, Ascent Limited, and Ascent Touring. The base Ascent starts at $US31,995 while the Ascent Premium costs $US34,195. The Ascent Limited starts at $US38,995 while the Touring requires $US44,695.
Our Ascent Touring carried an as-tested price of $US45,670.
Aesthetically, the Ascent has a heavy dose of Subaru corporate-styling DNA. Its front grille and headlights draw heavily from the popular Outback and Forester. Overall, the look is attractive, but a bit anonymous.
From the side, it looks like every other crossover in the segment. It’s completely inoffensive. At 196.8 inches long, the Ascent is more than four inches longer than the Highlander.
In the back, the Ascent features dual exhausts and a power liftgate. I’m a fan of the sculpted tail lights.
Inside, the interior of our top-spec Touring model really impressed. The cabin is traditional Subaru — very conservative but effective and easy to use. Ergonomics are terrific, with no oddly placed buttons or knobs to report.
In case you’re wondering, the Ascent boasts 19 cup and bottle holders.
The interior feels solidly put together with good-quality materials. The leather upholstery is soft to the touch, and the plastics look and feel robust. The dark tan leather and wood grain accents add an extra dash of luxury to the business-like cabin.
In front of the driver is a nicely contoured leather-wrapped steering wheel complete with paddle shifters.
Beyond that is a set of traditional analogue gauges flanking a digital information display.
The center stack is dominated by an optional 8-inch high-definition touchscreen running the latest variant of Subaru’s Starlink infotainment system. The Ascent comes standard with a 6.5-inch unit.
Subaru’s Starlink system is simple and intuitive. It features a solid array of app content as well as 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot capability, built-in navigation, and …
… emergency roadside assistance.
There’s also Apple CarPlay integration.
Along with a standard back up camera.
Atop the main screen is a secondary information display. Using a set of buttons located on the dash, you can scroll through a variety of information including the weather, navigation, fuel economy, and vehicle dynamics
The display also shows which safety features are turned and …
… is home to the Ascent’s front-view camera.
Above the driver is a rear-view mirror that can double as a digital display.
Also located above the rear-view mirror are the sensors for Subaru’s Eyesight safety system, which is standard on all Ascents.
Eyesight is a suite of driver-assistance features that include adaptive cruise control, automatic pre-collision braking, lane-departure warning, and pre-collision throttle control.
Our Ascent test car came equipped with the optional second-row captain’s seats. Lower-spec models are available with a second-row bench that gives the Subaru room for up to eight.
The second-row captain’s chairs are comfortable and supportive. They are also mounted higher to give the occupants a commanding view of the road. Second-row passengers get 38.5 inches of legroom, almost identical to the Highlander.
The Ascent’s third-row passengers get 31.7 inches of legroom, four inches more than on the Highlander.
Open up the power train gate.
You’ll find 17.5 cubic feet of cargo room behind the third row.
With the third row folded, cargo capacity increase to 47 cubic feet. The maximum cargo capacity behind the first row is 86 cubic feet.
Power for all versions of the Ascent comes from a new 2.4-litre, turbocharged, horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine. The “flat” or “boxer” turbo four produces a stout 260 horsepower.
It’s mated to a continuously variant transmission and Subaru’s signature Symmetrical all-wheel-drive system. According to Motor Trend, the Ascent Touring can make the run from zero to 60 mph in 7.3 seconds. That’s actually 0.1 seconds slower than Motor Trend’s 0-60 time for the Highlander SE.
What’s it like to drive?
The Subaru Ascent is surprisingly good to drive. In a segment of the market in which driving pleasure is not exactly at the top of the priority list, the Ascent stands out for its confident handling and gutsy acceleration.
I was initially concerned about the lack of a six-cylinder option. After all, this is a 4,600-pound, three-row SUV. My fears, however, were quickly allayed by turbo four.
The Ascent felt perky around town and plenty capable while sprinting down highway on-ramps. In fact, even with four occupants and a full load of cargo, the Ascent’s drivetrain never felt overmatched.
The engine delivers solid low-end grunt with its 277 pounds of torque at just 2,000 RPMs. In addition, the traditionally lackadaisical CVT did a fair impression of an eight-speed automatic transmission. Its preprogrammed shift points mimicked the feel of an automatic and reduced the effect of that dreaded CVT drone.
Our only real complaint with the Ascent’s driving dynamics was its brakes, which felt spongy and not as responsive as we would have liked.
And the winner is… the Subaru Ascent.
The Highlander is truly one of the toughest foes in the market with rock-solid reliability, an impeccably designed cabin, and a silky-smooth V6 engine.
In spite of the Highlander’s excellence, its poor Toyota corporate infotainment system and lacklustre driving feel really proved to be its undoing. In addition, the current third-generation Highlander, which has been around since 2014, is really beginning to feel dated. Especially when it’s pit against a newly designed rival like the Ascent.
The Ascent’s advantage over the Toyota lies with its vastly superior driving dynamics, a brilliant interior, top-notch tech suite, and an infotainment system that is actually quite good.
With the Ascent, Subaru didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. Instead, they took the tried and true family SUV formula that’s been so expertly executed by Toyota and added a few twists that are decidedly Subaru.
The result is one heck of an impressive family SUV.