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Comparison of 2023 Subaru Ascent and 2023 Toyota Highlander

1. Introduction

1.2 Purpose The Ascent has finally risen above the point where it could be considered a clone of the Outback and Legacy. With the new engine and transmission and some different drivetrain and suspension design, it is effectively its own vehicle at last. And Subaru's sales are good enough that there is no danger of discontinuation after only a few years. A comparison with Toyota, the company with the best reputation and longest history in this market segment, is necessary and in the best interest of Subaru. This is a comparison we could not have offered as recently as 4 or 5 years ago. (Ferré Gras, 2023)

1.1 Background Both of these models are near or at the top of their lineups with the possible exception of the Subaru Ascent Touring. The Highlander has been entirely redesigned and is first time available as a hybrid as of 2020. The Subaru Ascent is in its 4th year and has received several important attention to detail upgrades and a timely mid-cycle refresh. This mild restyle comes with the usual new front fascia and improved safety and comfort features. Most important is the upgraded 2.4-liter turbocharged engine that replaces the less powerful and less reliable 2.5-liter normally aspirated engine. A completely different and more up-to-date CVT transmission comes with the more powerful engine. These are very positive improvements.

Welcome to our complete buying guide to the 2023 Subaru Ascent and 2023 Toyota Highlander. We left nothing to chance in preparing this report. We pored over the product specs, price lists, and brochures for each brand. We make every effort to present this information with total accuracy, but we're not immune to errors. This report was written in Canada and many specifications can vary from one country to another.

1.1 Background of the Subaru Ascent and Toyota Highlander

The Subaru Ascent is a relatively new model with only two years of production. It is the biggest SUV that Subaru manufactures, seating up to eight passengers. Subaru prides itself on its safety features, and their vehicles are often recommended by Consumer Reports and IIHS. The Ascent is the latest example of this, as it was on the IIHS Top Safety Pick list for 2019. The Ascent is available in 4 trims, and the base model starts at around $32,000. It has a 2.4L turbocharged engine. The Toyota Highlander is a well-established vehicle in the Toyota lineup, having been in production since 2000. The latest generation is available in 6 trims and starts at around $34,600 for the base model. It has a 2.7L engine. Like Subaru, Toyota prides itself on their safety features and reliability, and their vehicles are often recommended by Consumer Reports and IIHS. This is the 4th year of production for the current generation, so there is lots of data and ratings available for the Highlander. (Edwards & Brumbelow2023)

1.2 Purpose of the Comparison

This sparked the idea to compare the Ascent to the vehicular standards that we are used to, which are our Outback and the Toyota Highlander. Each vehicle has its purposes and specific advantages that are well-suited to our needs, and this comparison will help us determine what those vehicles are so that we may make a well-informed decision on replacing the Outback with an Ascent and the Highlander with an Ascent for towing purposes.

With the recent new addition to my family, the arrival of one more child, that put us at a total family size of five. This means that our current towing vehicle, my Subaru WRX (which will soon be going on the market), will no longer suffice for family trips of sorts. After having inquired with nobody our top desired vehicle, the Subaru Ascent, we discovered a towing capacity of 5000 lbs. This doubled our original intention for the Ascent, which was to have a better-suited replacement for my wife's Subaru Outback.

There was a concern that the Ascent may not be as spacious as the three-row crossover it is replacing, the Toyota Highlander. Most of us are familiar with the Highlander and really like its size and capability for activities such as towing our utility trailers, which can range in weight from 1500 to 2500 lbs when loaded.

The purpose of the comparison is to determine how well the new Subaru Ascent compares to its long-standing competitor, the Toyota Highlander. The original plan for this review was to have in hand a 2019 Subaru Ascent. However, due to availability issues of the Ascent and a quick change in plans from Toyota, it ended up being a 2018 model for the duration of the review.

2. Exterior Design

From the front, the 2023 Toyota Highlander is elegantly designed with a new bold, trapezoidal grille. The muscular curves build on the redesign from 2020 when the vehicle was completely transformed to give it a more modern and assertive feel. All trims come standard with LED headlights and taillights, and the side profile of the Highlander is much sleeker compared to the outgoing model. This is partially for practicality, as the rounding of the rear of the roof was done to increase cargo space and efficiency, but it paid off in style points too! The Limited trim and above will come standard with a panoramic moonroof, and let's not forget about the available color options on the new Highlander. With even 20" wheel options, this new SUV will make a statement. XLE and Limited trims have the option of getting 20" alloy wheels, and Platinum trims will come standard with 20" platinum finish wheels. The sleek lines and modern design of the 2020 Highlander really make this SUV an attractive option in the segment.

Starting with the 2023 Subaru Ascent, the vehicle features a striking front with a large, prominent grille as well as LED headlights and daytime running lights. The car sits 8.7" above the ground and is designed with black side and wheel arch cladding. The Forester also features lower body side cladding that helps protect against mud, rocks, and other road debris, and makes the vehicle easier to clean. The Touring trim is equipped with exclusive 20" wheels with a silver finish. Designed for optimal balance and an even distribution of power for maximum traction, the Ascent offers X-MODE, which optimizes the Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system for maximum traction on slippery surfaces. The new Ascent will also come with an impressive panoramic moonroof, which comes standard on the Premium, Limited, and Touring trim levels. This large glass panel will open up front and middle row seating to the great outdoors. Plus, STARLINK Safety and Security has the ability to send first responders when an airbag deploys if you are unable to respond. Measures will also be taken if an advisor believes you are in need of assistance. This is made possible with the addition of the Safety Plus Package, with features like SOS emergency assistance, automatic collision notification, enhanced roadside assistance, and much more.

2.1 Styling and Aesthetics

In looking at the exteriors of automobiles, the first things that come to mind are usually the aesthetics of the overall design and the appeal of its styling. While consumers have different tastes and interpretations for what they define as attractive, it is still possible to compare the aesthetic designs of the Subaru Ascent and the Toyota Highlander. Subaru's Ascent has a more modest and clean design, which is typical for many Subarus. The lines on the vehicle are not overtly aggressive or pronounced, and the vehicle overall does not stand out very much. In contrast, the Toyota Highlander is more expressive in its design and a bit more aggressive. The lines on the vehicle are very pronounced and the overall styling hearkens back to the SUVs of the late 90s to early 2000s. This stereotyping of SUV styling in this era may either be a positive or negative appeal to different consumers, since beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The new styling is a shift from the more modern and aerodynamic design of the previous generation Highlander, which may be disappointing to some Toyota enthusiasts. Overall, these two vehicles embody different designs that may suit very different consumers. The vehicle that appears bigger with higher ground clearance and more capable off road and off pavement may be more appealing to those looking at the Ascent, while those who want to relive the golden era of SUVs and driving a Highlander from a few generations ago will be more inclined towards the new Highlander. High appeal for both vehicles would be from die-hard Subaru fans and existing Toyota enthusiasts opting to trade in for a new vehicle.

2.2 Dimensions and Proportions

Ascent - 196.8 inches in length, 76 inches in width, and 68.7 inches in height, weighing between 4231 and 4653 lbs. It has a wheelbase of 113.8 inches and a track width of 64.4/64.2 inches. Ground clearance is 8.7 inches. For a detailed breakdown: 15375.4 sq. inches of frontal area, 470.5 cubic feet/metric tonne, 39.14 sq ft per CID, 21.15 lbs/sq. ft of frontal area, and 0.524 lbs per lb/hr of fuel consumption at 100% mechanical efficiency if you are interested in what it takes to calculate on-road horsepower via the quarter mile. The Highlander measures in at 194.7 inches in length, 76 inches in width, and 68.1 inches in height. Track width is slightly larger than the Subaru at 65.3/65.4 inches, as is the 111-inch wheelbase, but the Highlander is lighter at 4146 lbs. The vehicles are extremely close in size, but the Highlander is more mid-sized while the Ascent edges out as a full-sized vehicle. Ground clearance of the Ascent is 0.8 inches higher, and the larger Subaru offers more in terms of passenger and cargo volume by 1-2 feet. Both vehicles turn in a similar ground clearance and similar breakover and departure angles, which isn't uncommon as a result of the vehicle class similarity. Ascent is slightly larger in overall size than its sibling, the Buick Enclave, with the 2008-2017 model measuring in at 201.9 inches long, 79 inches wide, and 72.75 inches in height. This being said, the Nissan Pathfinder, typically not seen as a vehicle in a similar class as the Highlander, measures at 197.7 inches in length, 77.2 inches in width, and 70.2 inches in height, which is still a closer match to the Ascent than the Highlander is. (Shay, 2021)

2.3 Wheel Options

Wheelbase is also important to mention. The Toyota Highlander is on a 2,850 mm (112.2 in) wheelbase, which is a small increase from the previous generation, while the Subaru Ascent boasts a 2,890 mm (113.8 in) wheelbase. Although these are only numbers, increasing wheelbase is associated with increasing stability and driving performance in general. It also measures the distance between the front and back wheels of the car. With a longer wheelbase, the Ascent will be equipped with many features to mitigate potential rollovers and loss of traction and stability on the road, meaning it is very likely that it will receive high marks in NHTSA safety tests for resistance to skidding and rollovers. This is a plus for the Ascent in terms of safety and stability, but some drivers may not notice a significant change in feeling from the difference in only 40 mm.

Both the Subaru Ascent and Toyota Highlander offer painted alloy wheels as standard. The Ascent comes with 18-inch wheels on all trim levels, and the Highlander offers 18-inch wheels on all trims as well. From here, the two models differentiate. Subaru offers new 20-inch wheels that are standard on the top Touring trim and available on the Limited model, while Toyota offers a super chrome finish, available for the SE and XLE, and 20-inch platinum alloy wheels on the Limited. The Touring Ascent and Limited Highlander are the only models offering 20-inch wheels. The Highlander has one more wheel option with 18-inch split 5-spoke wheels, which are available exclusively for the LE. The Ascent seems to have a slight edge, offering an extra inch in wheel diameter for two out of four trims.

3. Interior Features

The Highlander offers seating for 7 or 8 passengers depending on the trim level as well. It comes standard with an 8-way power adjustable driver's seat and offers optional second-row captain's chairs. The base L trim offers cloth seats, but you can find either leather or SofTex synthetic leather on the upper trim levels. The Highlander also offers tri-zone climate control and the same panoramic moonroof option as the Ascent. The second row of seats can be adjusted to increase legroom for third-row passengers, and this row also offers latch anchors for easy child seat installation. Both the second and third row of seats can be folded flat to maximize cargo space. The Highlander also offers several additional storage compartments, and both it and the Ascent feature a hands-free power liftgate process available.

When it comes to the interior features of a car, you want comfort, convenience, and as much room as possible. Both the 2023 Subaru Ascent and the 2023 Toyota Highlander offer spacious cabins with plenty of comfort and convenience features. The Ascent offers seating for up to 8 passengers, or you can opt for the second-row captain's chairs which reduces the seating to 7. It comes standard with tri-zone climate control and offers an optional panoramic moonroof. Depending on the trim level, you can find either cloth or leather upholstery. The Ascent features 19 cupholders, plenty of storage cubbies, and even an underfloor storage compartment. The second and third row of seats also fold flat to maximize cargo space, and both rows of seats feature latch anchors for easy child seat installation.

3.1 Cabin Space and Seating Capacity

Both the Ascent and the Highlander are three-row crossover SUVs capable of seating seven or eight passengers, depending on whether a bench or captain's chairs are selected for the second row. In the Ascent (above), Subaru has made a point of emphasizing the easier access to the third-row seat plus the fact that the third row is habitable by adults. The company says that the second row can be adjusted to allow up to 47.5 inches of space for passengers accessing the third row. The basic configuration for the Ascent has a bench seat for the second row, providing eight-passenger capacity. Opting for the seven-passenger setup gets you the captain's chairs. With the third row featuring a 60/40 split for both seating configurations, it's possible to keep a child seat latched into place while still allowing relatively easy access to the third row. Toyota's philosophy is to give Highlander a comfortable secure driving feel with easy entry to the third row, so the second-row and third-row seating for the Highlander are more on par. The second-row captain's chairs have a special collapsible feature, using a side lever to flip the seat up and slide the entire seat forward to allow entry to the third row, even if there's a child seat latched into place. The feature is available even with a child seat installed and it's included on both the XLE and Limited trims, though it does delete the ability to move the second row back and forth. Step-in height is lower into the third row and the seat sits a bit higher than in the previous generation. High-quality PU materials on the sliding surface will help keep the operation smooth over many years. Loaded Highlander Limited and Hybrid Limited models include a second-row bench with reversing abilities and the same 60/40 third-row split. Also noteworthy with respect to family vehicle needs, the new Highlander comes with a total of five LATCH attachments for child safety seats.

3.2 Infotainment System and Connectivity

The Ascent includes four USB ports on both the second and third-tier trims and an additional two for each tier on the higher-priced models. The base Highlander only includes one USB port and the HV and higher models include three. Depending on the number of passengers and their specific devices, the Ascent’s USB availability may be a significant bonus. It includes one more 12-volt outlet than the Highlander, again providing more opportunity to connect devices and equipment throughout the cabin.

When it comes down to the user interface, the Ascent’s 8-inch touchscreen is much more responsive than the Highlander’s 6.1-inch screen. This is almost a non-issue as the Ascent’s screen is available on any trim, whereas the Highlander requires you to jump up to its higher-priced models for its larger screens. With its intuitive interface comes six speakers throughout the cabin compared to the Highlander’s four, with the premium trim including a Harman Kardon audio system.

The Subaru Ascent and Toyota Highlander have up-to-date infotainment systems that combine functionality with ease of use. Both systems feature standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability. However, the Ascent comes out ahead with its standard Wi-Fi hotspot that allows users to stream from anywhere. This is only available in the higher-tiered trim of the Highlander.

3.3 Comfort and Convenience Features

For entertainment during long trips, the SUV is equipped with a rear seat reminder that will give a notice to the front passengers so they can check out the second and third-row seats (higher trims). Another feature for convenience that Toyota offers is STARLINK Concierge, and a 1-year trial subscription is included. STARLINK Concierge can help the driver find the best places and recommend destinations using voice commands. It can also be used to get assistance in all aspects of a road trip and daily driving.

As for the seats, the second row is equipped with captain seats for the limited and platinum grades. To enter the cabin, another feature possessed by the Highlander is the foot-activated power liftgate that can be used to both open and close with just a push of a button in the vehicle. And to improve convenience, the limited and platinum grades have interior ambient lighting to provide better visibility.

First, let's start with the Highlander, an SUV from Toyota, known for its comfort and convenience features. The SUV offers a 3-zone climate control with an air filter, second, and third-row vents for fixed passengers. This feature aims to ensure a comfortable temperature for all passengers inside the cabin. In addition, Toyota offers a conversation mirror for the driver to communicate with passengers in the second and third rows through eye contact.

3.4 Advanced Safety Technologies

One thing that all vehicles should have, especially family oriented ones, is standard child seat latches. This is a notable standout in the Subaru that should and will eventually catch the attention of Toyota. Subaru Starlink Safety and Security offers an added layer of protection and convenience with services Package offering, which including SOS emergency assistance, enhance roadside assistance, automatic collision notification, maintenance notifications, monthly vehicle health report, and diagnostic alerts. Concierge services provide personal assistance with tasks like navigation, restaurant reservations, and scheduling service appointments. Safe young drivers with SHARI (Subaru Highway Automated Response) with the ability to set notifications if the vehicles travels outside of preset parameters. All of these services are available with the 1 year free trial that is attached to the vehicle purchase. While the Toyota offers Safety Connect, a comparable service, they only offer a 3 month trial and offers much less. It is a wonder why Toyota has not extended their trial and 18 month short of the Subaru service. A free Starlink Safety and Security 1 year trial is now available on the top two trims of the 2018 Crosstrek, which must be activated within 4 months of purchase date. An overall, desirable safety feature from the Toyota include the windshield de-icer; a small yet very useful accessory. Offered in a package in the Ascent, this feature will provide drivers with an added assurance of safety in the winter season.

Surprisingly, neither vehicle has adaptive headlights available. Forward auto-braking, which is now available in most Subaru and Toyota vehicles, including the Outback and annual models of the Forester, is standard on the Ascent and unavailable in the Highlander (should be available in this segment on the Highlander within its next redesign). Pre-collision warning and throttle management are standard on both vehicles. The Ascent offers front-view camera, while the Highlander offers bird's eye camera, both will be useful in parking, and tight places where young children could be and not be easily seen. Reverse auto-braking and rear-cross traffic alert (which includes the auto-braking) are also both standard in the Ascent, but the Toyota only have those available in a package in its top of the line Limited Platinum trim. Most of the Toyota's features won't be added to the Highlander until its next redesign, as of current offerings they are minimal compared to the Ascent.

4. Performance and Efficiency

The Subaru Ascent features a 2.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder boxer engine, which delivers 277 horsepower and 266 lb-ft of torque. It is paired with a high-torque Lineartronic CVT and Subaru's Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive. This combination provides a great deal of power and an impressive 5,000-lb. towing capacity. It also offers the Subaru SI-DRIVE (Intelligent and Sport Sharp) engine management system, which allows the driver to tailor the vehicle's throttle characteristics by choosing between intelligent mode, which provides more fuel-efficient throttle response, and Sport Sharp mode, which yields more power and acceleration. The Toyota Highlander has a 3.5-liter V6 engine in a very similar specification to the Subaru Ascent's powertrain. It generates 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft of torque. It is paired with an 8-speed automatic transmission and provides available dynamic torque vectoring all-wheel drive for maximum traction. Both the Subaru Ascent and Toyota Highlander have respectable handling characteristics for vehicles of their size. Although the Subaru Ascent's ground clearance and generous approach/departure angles are designed to facilitate light off-roading, its four-wheel independent raised suspension gives it a nimble and responsive feel for everyday driving. The Toyota Highlander employs an independent McPherson strut front suspension and double-wishbone style rear suspension, with available dynamic torque vectoring all-wheel drive for maximum cornering stability. A multilink independent rear suspension is available on the XLE and Limited grades, which further improves agility and ride quality. Both vehicles provide adequate feedback from their electric power assist rack-and-pinion steering systems and have 18.6-gallon fuel tanks.

4.1 Engine Options and Powertrain

Toyota Highlander offers four unique powertrains. First is a V6 that has a combined 295 hp under a Direct Shift-8AT. It can be paired with Multi-Terrain Select with available torque-vectoring AWD with Driveline Disconnect to up the performance game of the standard FWD. Next is the Hybrid, offering a combined 243 hp. The hybrid powertrain uses an electronically-controlled CVT that has automatic on-demand all-wheel drive. This AWD is achieved by using a separate rear-mounted electric motor to power the rear wheels when necessary. The last engine offered is a 2.5-liter inline-4 that provides solid performance and efficiency in the city and on the highway. It can be had with FWD or AWD.

Subaru Ascent is equipped with a 2.5-liter turbocharged, direct-injection Subaru Boxer engine that delivers robust all-round performance. It is mated with a high-torque Lineartronic CVT that enhances driving dynamics and, due to its stepped shifting, maintains a steady power delivery. The Ascent features standard Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive and Active Torque Vectoring. When paired with the 8.6 inches of ground clearance, it makes easy work of a dirt trail, a snow-covered driveway, or a rain-soaked road.

4.2 Handling and Driving Dynamics

Lastly, the driving dynamics of the 2023 Subaru Ascent will be increased through having an increased spring and damper rate with optimized front and rear damping force. This will result in a smoother and quieter ride, with less roll and noise experienced in the cabin. While both vehicles can be commended for their provision of a comfortable and quiet ride, the Toyota Highlander does not compare to the standards set by the Subaru Ascent, meaning further competition between the two vehicles.

While the Toyota Highlander features a Dynamic Torque-Control All-Wheel Drive System that will also automatically distribute engine power between the front and rear, it does not compare to the system in the Subaru Ascent. The Toyota's system is one that requires to be initiated by the driver (it is not AWD at all times) and will not distribute power or brake the wheels automatically. This results in a less capable and more predictable performance on all road surfaces that will not compare to the Subaru Ascent.

Subaru's Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive is a true asset when it comes to giving the best possible performance in handling and driving dynamics. It evenly distributes power for maximum traction, which results in fuel efficiency and a performance that is predictable and solid on all road surfaces. When the system senses a loss of traction, it automatically transfers more power to the wheels with the best traction. The Active Torque Vectoring will also automatically apply the brake to the inside front wheel, resulting in better cornering and more neutral handling. The 2023 Subaru Ascent will be aiming to improve the standard of handling and dynamics in the midsize-crossover segment, and it will certainly be raising the bar for the rest of the competition.

4.3 Fuel Efficiency and MPG Ratings

With the Ascent, all engine choices are mated to a Lineartronic Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT). The Lineartronic CVT is engineered to work with the AWD system in the Ascent to get an optimal power distribution, and also includes an 8-speed manual shift mode for those wanting more control. This system accounts for the fact that all Ascent models are AWD, and as such no fuel economy difference exists between engine options. The 2.4-L H-4 engine gets a combined 23 MPG. This results in a slightly better expected fuel economy when compared to the heavy V6 Highlander, but the inline 4 Highlander actually outperforms the Ascent with its 20-inch or smaller wheels; the 2WD inline 4 Highlander gets a combined 24 MPG and the 2WD Ascent gets 22 MPG. Furthermore, the 20-inch or larger wheeled Highlanders are only rated at 22 MPG with the AWD system. This means that fuel economy-wise, the smaller engine options for both supersede the larger engine for the rival SUV. However, in the 3-row SUV market, the fuel efficiency gap between a large 3-row SUV and a smaller 2-row is becoming smaller. 23 or 24 MPG for these larger SUVs and their AWD variants is still impressive. On the other hand, some customers considering a 2-row SUV would be surprised how little fuel economy difference there is between a large 3-row SUV and a 2-row. (Wang et al.2022)

The Ascent and the Highlander are both large 3-row family SUVs. They come with a 2.4-L H-4 engine and a 2.7-L inline 4 engine, respectively. These engine size options are nearly identical, though the Ascent only offers a single engine choice. The Ascent tops off at 260 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of torque with the single available engine. The Highlander comes with either the inline 4 engine or a 3.5-L V6. The 2.7L inline 4 makes less power than the Ascent at 245 HP and 175 lb-ft. However, the 3.5L V6 option absolutely blows the Ascent out of the water for engine options, topping off at 295 horsepower and 263 lb-ft. This is only the beginning, however, as we first consider fuel economy when comparing these 2WD and AWD SUVs.


Ferré Gras, M., 2023. Desarrollo de una web segura. ub.edu

Edwards, M.A. and Brumbelow, M.L., 2023, September. Relationship of Whiplash Injury Metrics and Crash Pulse Severity to Injury Claim Rates. In International Research Council on the Biomechanics of Injury (IRCOBI 2023). ircobi.org

Shay, S., 2021. The impact of the world climate following the growth of the deserts and the solution to the extermination of the desert growth article id: Inv110. Agric Food E Newslett. researchgate.net

Wang, Y., Biswas, A., Rodriguez, R., Keshavarz-Motamed, Z. and Emadi, A., 2022. Hybrid electric vehicle specific engines: State-of-the-art review. Energy Reports, 8, pp.832-851. sciencedirect.com