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2020 Subaru Ascent vs Toyota Highlander

2020 Subaru Ascent vs Toyota Highlander

2020 Ascent vs Highlander - How do they stack up? Which is Better?

Finding the right third-row SUV to fit your needs can be tough. This is a pretty competitive segment, so you will find that there are plenty of options to choose from - some of which are better than the others. How do the 2020 Subaru Ascent and the 2020 Toyota Highlander stack up against one another? Is there one that is more well-rounded than the other?

The Ascent hits a lot of the right spots, but its continuously variable transmission (CVT) is way touchier than the smooth 8-speed automatic that you get on the freshly revamped Highlander. That's right, the Highlander finally got a make-over! And Toyota definitely rectified some previous issues.

First, the Highlander now has more cargo space than before. It also has standard smartphone app integration via Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, which was inconveniently missing before this model year. You get a nice, quiet ride from the Highlander now, and the interior looks quite upscale.

Unfortunately, both of these vehicles suffer the typical third-row SUV problem: a cramped third row. Kids will undoubtedly be relegated to the back, so if you are looking for something that is oriented toward seating adults in the third row, you will have to look elsewhere. However, both vehicles come off as being family-friendly.

But what about their powertrains? How easy are they to drive? Read through to the end of this comparison review to find out. At the end, we will let you know which vehicle we think has the most value and which represents the best deal overall. It's your hard-earned money you'll be investing, so these things are important to know, right?

The Powertrain

Right. Let's get things kick-started with a look at the powertrain options that are available on the 2020 Subaru Ascent and the 2020 Toyota Highlander. The Ascent is up first with its standard 2.4-L 4-cylinder engine, which is matched with the problematic CVT that we mentioned above. This powertrain manages to generate 260 hp and 277 lb-ft of torque. All-wheel drive (AWD) comes standard (because it's a Subaru thing). The engine itself is powerful, but you need a light touch of the foot for the CVT since moderate throttling sends it into surging acceleration.

Off-roading is a capability that the Ascent has by nature. It has 8.7 inches of ground clearance, which is certainly enough. It also has hill descent control to help while off-roading or while driving on slick wintry roads. The Ascent does alright on fuel too, getting 22 mpg combined (with 20 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway). Real-world tests reflect this with a range of 23.6 to 25.2 mpg combined. Oh, and bonus - premium gasoline is not required!

Now for the 2020 Toyota Highlander. Toyota ditched the base engine from the third generation and made the 3.5-L V6 its standard engine. And this is definitely a good change. The V6 is paired with an 8-speed automatic transmission and gets 295 hp and 263 lb-ft of torque. Front-wheel drive (FWD) is standard, but AWD is an option across the board. There is even a hybrid variant that you can opt for.

The hybrid Highlander can be equipped on any trim level. It gets 35 mpg combined from its 2.5-L engine and electric motor. It comes with an electronically controlled CVT (ECVT) and electronic on-demand AWD. It runs a lot like the gas-only counterpart, but the hybrid does perform better on fuel, of course.


So, what makes these two vehicles enjoyable to drive? What makes them problematic? Drivability is not just about how the mechanical features perform, even though they certainly factor into the equation. Drivability involves comfort, design, technology, and utility.

As we already mentioned a few times, the 2020 Subaru Ascent has a CVT that is touchy. It makes the driving experience feel a bit unrefined. However, the interior is comfy. It is just the third row that suffers from too-firm seats. The climate control system is excellent though, and the rear ceiling mounted vents ensure that everyone receives air flow. The tires do make some noise while going over cracks in the road. The engine also gets noisy as you increase your RPMS, letting out quite the groan. While the ride does not necessarily feel floaty, it is below average for what you find in terms of road comfort in this segment.

The interior is full of easy-to-use controls that are clearly labeled and sensibly laid out along the dash. They do have a few odd acronyms that will force you to look them up in the owner's manual. Outward visibility is excellent though, and the high-definition rear-view camera helps you get out of tight parking spots. The hood does slope in such a way that it makes the front end's location hard to gauge.

On the tech side of things, the Starlink infotainment system is very user-friendly. The touchscreen only requires a tap of the finger to get to whatever you are looking for on the menu. Smartphone app integration via Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is standard and can take care of navigation for you.

In all, you get 86 cubic feet of cargo space after putting the rear seats down. With them up, you get 17.6 cubes. This is a decent enough amount of space for this segment. There are not too many small item storage spaces, but the ones that are there are well-sized. Also, as is typical for an AWD in this segment, the Ascent has a max tow rating of 5,000 pounds.

The 2020 Toyota Highlander gives one totally smooth ride. Even when you equip the optional 20-inch wheels, the ride is refined. The suspension is superb, and handling and steering should inspire some confidence in the driver. The Highlander can easily accelerated while fully loaded thanks to the smart pairing of the 3.5-L and the 8-speed automatic transmission.

The interior is also designed for maximum comfort. You only get 16 feet of cargo space with all seats left upright, but it is a lot better than last model year's 13.8 cubes. It just still isn't an industry-leading amount of space. However, you get a lot of higher quality materials in the cabin and the choice between the standard 8-inch touchscreen or the 12.3-inch screen that comes on the Platinum trims. The 2020 Highlander is much more tech-savvy, as it now integrates standard smartphone app syncing. The old Etunes infotainment system just was not that adept at things like navigation or even playing music.

Other standard features include tri-zone climate control, LED headlights, and the Safety Sense 2.0 - a bundle of driver aids that we will discuss more in-depth in the Safety section below. The LE trim gets blind-spot monitoring, LED fog lights, a power liftgate for easier access to the cargo area, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. The XLE gains roof rails, a sunroof, heated front seats that are more adjustable, second-row captain's chairs, simulated leather upholstery, and a bigger driver display. The Limited gets those big 20-inch wheels, leather upholstery, built-in navigation, ventilated front seats for added comfort on hot days, and a premium JBL sound system that cranks out concert-like quality. The Platinum tops things off with a panoramic sunroof, the 12.3-inch touchscreen, a surround-view camera system, a head-up display, and a digital rear-view mirror. Overall, you get a lot of features packed in for the price.

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Obviously, safety is paramount when making the decision on which new vehicle to buy. You don't just have features to consider; you also need to be aware of each vehicle's safety ratings, as those are indicative of how they perform in crashes.

The 2020 Subaru Ascent packs in a good number of standard safety features. The Eye Sight bundle of driver aids comes on every single trim level, which is something you will not find on just any vehicle. Oftentimes, you'll have to go up a trim level or two. The Ascent's Eye Sight suite has adaptive cruise control, advanced adaptive cruise control, collision mitigation prior to a collision, and throttle management to help stabilize when a crash is detected. It also has lane keep assist with sway management.

The 2020 Toyota Highlander comes with the new Safety Sense 2.0 bundle of driver aids. It includes a pedestrian detection feature with its pre-collision warning, dynamic radar cruise control, high beams that switch on and off automatically, an assist for tracing lanes, a lane departure warning, and an assist feature that recognizes road signs. This makes it pretty comparable to EyeSight, but it does come off as being slightly more comprehensive. Also, the features seem to all work well.

Features are all well and good, but ratings and crash test scores matter too. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are the major groups who test and score new vehicles in America. The IIHS assigned the 2020 Subaru Ascent a full 5 stars, but it only got 4 stars on the rollover assessment. No recalls have yet been released, but the few complaints that exist are big ones. First, there is the failure of the vehicle to start. Second, there is the random windshield cracking, which could cause serious problems on the road.

Regarding the 2020 Toyota Highlander, the IIHS rated it the Top Safety Pick. The Highlander got "Good" ratings on all but the headlights. The Limited's LED projector beam headlights got an "Average" score because they showed some glare. The LED reflectors on the L, LE, and XLE showed excessive glare and therefore got a "Poor" rating. NHTSA has not yet rated the 2020 Highlander, but we can make some educated guesses on how it will perform based on the 2019 ratings. The 2019 received 5 stars overall but got 4 stars on the overall front crash test, specifically with the star lost for the front driver side. An 18.50% rollover risk was noted.

Which Has the Best Value?

Everything we've already discussed factors into the worth of each vehicle. And both of these SUVs clearly have a lot of value. The 2020 Subaru Ascent has an interior design that is made from high-quality materials. It might look a bit crowded on the center console, but the design is pretty functional and upscale. Getting standard all-wheel drive is definitely a huge bonus and, regarding the warranty coverage, it is right on par with what you should expect to get.

The 2020 Toyota Highlander has a good amount of value too, especially if you go with the second trim level (the LE). The cloth seats are the only downside. But the higher trim levels tend to get a little too pricey, and you have to pay more for AWD on any of the trims. That's where the Ascent gets the better of the Highlander.

Which is Better?

The 2020 Subaru Ascent and 2020 Toyota Highlander are two strong contenders in the third-row SUV segment this model year. They both have powerful engines and a lot of standard safety and infotainment features that get packed in. The Ascent is definitely the better vehicle if you need something with AWD, and that is going to be a factor that draws in a lot of buyers. The Highlander has been freshly revamped, so we still need to wait and see how it will hold up, but it certainly has a better powertrain option than the Ascent. If you do not need AWD, then consider giving the Highlander a try.

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