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If you’re in the market for a large, three-row SUV for your family, you’re spoiled for choice. Ignoring luxury options from the likes of Tesla or Volvo, mainstream automakers alone offer up more than a dozen different options to choose from, ranging from the Buick Enclave to the Volkswagen Atlas. To alleviate your analysis paralysis, we gathered up two of our favorite three-row SUVs, the 2020 Honda Pilot Black Edition AWD and the 2020 Subaru Ascent Touring, to help you decide which is the better buy for you and your family’s needs.
Both the Honda Pilot and Subaru Ascent fill similar needs, offering three rows, seven seats, and all-wheel drive, even if the approach to design and engineering are wildly different. The Honda, the older of the two vehicles (it debuted back in 2016), is the more traditional option. Built on a bespoke SUV chassis in Alabama (the Pilot also shares its architecture with the two-row version of the Pilot, the Passport, and the pickup version, the Ridgeline), the Pilot is powered by a standard 3.5-liter V-6, which produces 280 hp and 262 lb-ft of torque.
Front-wheel drive and a six-speed automatic are standard, but our fully loaded $50,740 Pilot Black Edition gets torque-vectoring all-wheel drive and a nine-speed automatic transmission.
Whereas the Pilot is built from the ground up on its own platform, the Indiana-built Ascent instead rides on Subaru’s modular Global Platform, which underpins everything from the Subaru Crosstrek to the Ascent. New for 2019, the Ascent gets a standard 2.4-liter turbocharged flat-four, which produces 260 hp and 277 lb-ft of torque and is paired with a CVT and all-wheel drive. Both the CVT and all-wheel drive are standard across the line on the Subaru, from the base model all the way up to our fully loaded $47,017 Ascent Touring tester.
The Ascent is the more efficient of the two crossovers; it’s EPA-rated at 20/26/22 mpg city/highway/combined. The Pilot is rated at 19/26/22 mpg.
Although many three-row SUVs drive about as well as a pool noodle, both the Pilot and Ascent are segment standouts in that regard. The Pilot, despite nearing the end of its current model-cycle, is among the quickest vehicles in the segment. It accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 6.2 seconds, from 45 to 65 mph in 3.3 seconds, and through the quarter-mile in 14.7 seconds at 93.9 mph.
Despite being a bit long in the tooth, the Pilot can still be quite enjoyable to drive. “Road isolation and ride quality are quite good. I also like the fluid steering very much,” said road test editor Chris Walton. The Pilot’s standard V-6 has a broad powerband, and if you stay deep in the throttle long enough, you’re rewarded by a boost of power near redline as Honda’s VTEC system kicks in (yo). But—and there’s always a but—it isn’t all roses for the Honda. The Pilot’s nine-speed automatic, which is standard on the range-topping Pilot Touring, Elite, and Black Edition models, is still far from the smoothest transmission on the market. It’s prone to slurred upshifts and rough downshifts, subtracting from the otherwise enjoyable experience.
The Subaru Ascent, like the Pilot, is among the rare three-row crossover SUVs to not drive like a box of sadness. The Ascent’s turbocharged four-cylinder deserves much of the credit. This torquey engine has, as my mom would say, “great get up and go.” Although throttle response can, on occasion, be overly aggressive, the Ascent’s engine has great low-end torque and very little turbo lag. It also exhibits good steering manners and body control, making it comfortable for passengers to ride in and confidence-inspiring for the driver. “It was the SUV I didn’t want to stop driving,” said associate online editor Nick Yekikian.
Where the Honda and Subaru really differentiate themselves is inside. You might think there are only so many ways to outfit what’s essentially a box on wheels, but both automakers have wildly different takes on how they outfit their respective cabins. Honda has a reputation for exceptional packaging—meaning it’s Ikea-good at making the most out of a given space—and the Pilot is no different. Up front, both occupants share a massive center storage bin and plenty of cupholders and cubbies for all your belongings. The Pilot’s second row is thoughtfully done, too, with six cupholders for the second row alone, not to mention the two USB outlets and its own center console. This one, though, is mounted between the captain’s chairs, making access to the third row via the aisle more difficult than it needs to be (the seats otherwise easily tip and slide forward with the press of a button).
Although the Pilot’s packaging is top notch, its weak point (relative to the Ascent) is mostly in its design. The Pilot’s cabin is unimaginative and somewhat crude, with black on black accents, rubberized plastics, and piano black trim. The Pilot’s infotainment system, which was updated for 2019, is functional but could still use some refinement. The addition of a volume knob is a welcome change, but radio tuning still requires using the touchscreen. It also takes one too many touches to switch audio sources, and the graphics look dated compared to other systems on the market. Additionally, some staffers found the Pilot’s seats to be a bit hard and uncomfortable.
Whereas stepping into the Pilot can be a bit like falling into a black hole, getting into the Ascent feels like slipping into a wood paneled library. Its cabin has a pleasing, earthy appeal to it, with three different colors of leather and wood trim. “Subaru did a nice job mixing in different tones of beige, brown, and black to give the interior a more premium look,” said MotorTrend en Español managing editor Miguel Cortina.
More than just a design study, the Ascent’s cabin is also supremely functional. Up front, the Ascent has clear, easy-to-read displays, and a good amount of storage cubbies built into the dash. Meanwhile, in the second row you’ll find four cupholders and heated seats. Third-row occupants will enjoy easy access to their seats via aisle-mounted handles and a wide door opening, plus USB outlets, and HVAC vents of their own.
The choice between the Honda Pilot and Subaru Ascent wasn’t an easy one. Both are roomy, comfortable, and surprisingly great to drive. With the Ascent and Pilot scoring so evenly in subjective metrics, it’s the objective stuff that help serve as our tiebreaker. Ultimately, the Ascent is more affordable, more modern, and ever-so-slightly more enjoyable to drive. The Pilot put up a helluva fight, but the Subaru Ascent is the better three-row family SUV.
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|2020 Honda Pilot Black Edition AWD||2020 Subaru Ascent Touring|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front-engine, AWD||Front-engine, AWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||60-deg V-6, alum block/heads||Turbocharged flat-4, alum block/heads|
|VALVETRAIN||SOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||211.8 cu in/3,471 cc||145.7 cu in/2,387 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||280 hp @ 6,000 rpm||260 hp @ 5,600 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||262 lb-ft @ 4,700 rpm||277 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm|
|REDLINE||6,750 rpm||6,000 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||15.3 lb/hp||17.7 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||9-speed automatic||Cont variable auto|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F; R||12.6-in vented disc; 13.0-in disc, ABS||13.1-in vented disc; 13.0-in vented disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||9.5 x 20-in cast aluminum||7.5 x 20-in cast aluminum|
|TIRES||245/50R20 102H (M+S) Continental CrossContact LX25||245/50R20 102H (M+S) Falken Ziex ZE001 A/S|
|WHEELBASE||111.0 in||113.8 in|
|TRACK, F/R||66.3/66.3 in||64.4/64.2 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||196.5 x 78.6 x 70.6 in||196.8 x 76.0 x 71.6 in|
|GROUND CLEARANCE||7.3 in||8.7 in|
|APPRCH/DEPART ANGLE||19.7/20.8 deg||17.6/21.8 deg|
|TURNING CIRCLE||39.4 ft||38.0 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||4,285 lb||4,594 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||56/44%||54/46%|
|TOWING CAPACITY||5,000 lb||5,000 lb|
|HEADROOM, F/M/R||39.5/40.9/38.9 in||40.1/38.7/36.3 in|
|LEGROOM, F/M/R||40.9/38.4/31.9 in||42.2/38.6/31.7 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/M/R||62.0/62.0/57.6 in||61.1/60.3/57.2 in|
|CARGO VOLUME BEH F/M/R||82.1/46.0/16.0 cu ft||86.0/47.0/17.6 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.1 sec||2.9 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||3.3||3.7|
|QUARTER MILE||14.7 sec @ 93.9 mph||15.8 sec @ 89.2 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||116 ft||118 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.79 g (avg)||0.80 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||27.6 sec @ 0.62 g (avg)||27.4 sec @ 0.63 g (avg)|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||1,500 rpm||1,500 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$50,740||$47,017|
|AIRBAGS||6: Dual front, front side, f/m/r curtain||7: Dual front, front side, driver knee, f/m/r curtain|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/35,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||5 yrs/60,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||3 yrs/35,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||19.5 gal||19.3 gal|
|5 x 25-MI LOOP, VEH. REPORTED*||21.2 mpg||17.7 mpg|
|REAL MPG, CITY/HWY/COMB||19.1/28.2/22.3 mpg||Not tested|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB ECON||19/26/22 mpg||20/26/22 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||177/130 kW-hrs/100 miles||169/130 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.90 lb/mile||0.87 lb/mile|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded regular||Unleaded regular|
|*Onboard trip computer averages|