MAINSTREAM RIVAL: Subaru restrains its nonconformist quirks, aims for the middle of the road with its full-size 2019 Ascent three-row SUV

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Subaru has always marched to a different drummer.

All its vehicles (except the low-volume BRZ sport coupe) feature standard all-wheel drive. All of them are powered by horizontally opposed “boxer” engines. And until recently, all of them featured rather unusual styling quirks that set them apart from their competitors.

But Subaru has gradually edged into the mainstream while turning its non-conformist credentials into a marketing strategy.

Now comes the feisty Japanese firm’s most middle-of-the-road offering: the 2019 Ascent, a three-row, large crossover that’s the biggest vehicle Subaru has ever made. It aims right at the heart of one of the hottest segments in autodom, and it scores a bull’s-eye.

Yes, it still features a “boxer” four-cylinder, this one turbocharged for a useful, responsive 260 horsepower. And of course it’s all-wheel drive for foul-weather security. Its bulky styling resembles a Forester on steroids, which may not be much of a demerit given that model’s continual sales increases.

The Ascent transfers power to all four wheels via Subaru’s latest version of its continuously variable automatic transmission, which features an eight-speed manual mode controlled through steering wheel shift paddles. This is perhaps the best version of a CVT on the road today. In automatic mode it does a credible job of simulating shifts as it accelerates, helping pacify the annoying engine drone common to less-advanced CVTs.

The big Ascent displays confident handling through corners and delivers a solid-but-compliant ride on most road surfaces.

Inside, there’s surprisingly generous space for passengers, even in the back row. As with all Subarus, outward visibility is excellent. Materials aren’t exactly luxury level, but thoughtful details abound, making the cabin useful and quite comfortable.

Standard in all Ascents is Subaru’s highly praised EyeSight, a suite of driver assists designed to help avoid accidents and keep the driver alerted to potential problems.

All in all, the Ascent is a formidable competitor, one that can only increase Subaru’s skyward sales trajectory.

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