Underrated 3-row SUV Battle: Nissan Pathfinder vs Subaru Ascent


Choosing the right 3-row SUV is a challenge nowadays. Each brand has at least one or more offerings, not to mention almost all of them have electric or hybrid versions that make it even harder to choose the right one for your family. We have already reviewed and compared the most popular and bestselling 3-row SUVs, and this time we compare the two most underrated 3-row SUVs.

On one side, we have the Nissan Pathfinder, the 3-row SUV that offers the traditional mid-size SUV formula with a naturally aspirated V6 engine and great towing features. On the other side, we have the most “un-traditional” 3-row SUV, the Subaru Ascent. It offers traditional Subaru features like a great all-wheel-drive system and a practical interior in a 3-row SUV format.

Both Pathfinder and Ascent are mainly focusing on North American audiences, meaning that they have to accommodate larger families, but they offer much more than that. It is important to remember both entries have been on the market for a while, the Subaru Ascent was refreshed two years ago, but the Nissan Pathfinder continues to have the same exterior design since it was first released.

Despite its age, the Pathfinder still looks rugged and premium, while carrying the traditional Nissan corporate design language you would find in other models. The big front grille with chrome edges, c-clamp-shaped headlights and a boxy front fascia are some of the signature design features that make the Pathfinder recognizable from a distance. The rest of the vehicle matches with the features you find in the front fascia, it offers a nice balance of rugged and premium feeling overall.

After the refresh, the Subaru Ascent received a significant update, especially in the front fascia. It no longer has boxy details, as it received a much more modern look. Just like the Pathfinder, it has a huge front grille but a chrome piece going across the grille and the whole front end. When you compare both entries side by side, the Ascent has sportier design elements, especially in the front bumper, and the rear dual exhaust tips. However, unlike the front end, the rest of the vehicle didn’t change a lot when it was updated, so it looks a little bit outdated from the rear end.

The interior of both entries is appealing to most families in a different way. Nissan decided to take the traditional route with many physical controls in the dashboard, with a touchscreen on top of the dashboard. It is easy to understand what’s happening even if you are not familiar with Nissan products. The interior quality is decent, Nissan used the right materials to make it feel a little more upscale but left a few things on the table for the Infiniti QX60 for premium SUV shoppers.

On the other hand, the Subaru Ascent feels more utilitarian, but less premium compared to the Nissan Pathfinder. Subaru decided to implement the corporate vertical screen that they used in all other Subaru models when they updated the Ascent, meaning that you get fewer physical controls compared to the outgoing model, and compared to the Pathfinder. The latest infotainment system works problem-free, but the screen quality and overall resolution should be better to compete with heavy hitters in this segment.

None of the entries have cutting-edge tech, but the Ascent only comes with an analog gauge cluster with a small TFT screen in the middle no matter which trim you get, whereas the Pathfinder comes with a fully digital gauge cluster with decent customizable options and layouts. It is not class-leading in terms of tech in any way, especially after reviewing the other entries like the Volkswagen Atlas, but the Pathfinder is the better choice in terms of interior quality and tech despite having more traditional looks and more physical controls compared to the Ascent.

Both the Ascent and the Pathfinder offer comfortable seats in the front. The Ascent offers more adjustment options including the headrest and thigh support, which are not available with the Pathfinder. However, Nissan’s zero-gravity seats feel a lot more comfortable than any other entries in this segment, and the seating position is a lot different than the Ascent. Subaru feels like you sit on top of the car and armrests are quite far from the driver, whereas the Pathfinder’s armrest is closer to the driver and the steering wheel. The Ascent feels a lot smaller behind the steering wheel, and it offers excellent visibility mainly due to large windows and lower belt line. It feels it is easier to drive the Ascent if you are driving in the city, or parking in tight spaces.

The rear seat comfort is pretty similar no matter which trim you choose. You get nice creature comforts like the 3rd zone climate control and heated seats for the rear seat passengers. The Pathfinder is bigger than the Ascent from the outside, and ultimately it feels a little bit more spacious inside. For families, the biggest selling point is the child seat-friendly 2nd-row seats with the Pathfinder, as you don’t have to remove the child seat to access the third row with the Pathfinder. There are not many entries that offer this feature.

Neither the Ascent nor the Pathfinder has a usable 3-row SUV for larger adults. They are for emergencies or children. I was expecting to see a larger 3-row area, especially considering the Pathfinder is the larger vehicle of this comparison, but they feel quite similar. Getting in and out is not easy, the floor is located quite high, and the headroom is limited. If you are looking for a usable 3rd-row area, you may want to look for a minivan or other 3-row SUVs.

The Drive

Even though both entries offer a similar layout for the same audience, there are big differences in terms of the drivetrain choice. Both entries indeed offer 7 7-seater layout, an all-wheel-drive, a relatively large cabin, and a comfortable ride – some of the fundamental features you expect to see from a 3-row SUV. The Nissan Pathfinder offers the traditional mid-size SUV drivetrain with a naturally aspirated 3.5 litre V6 engine paired with ZF’s 9-speed torque-converted automatic transmission.

The Subaru Ascent though, takes an unorthodox approach especially when it was first released, it was quite a bit different than the others. It comes with a 2.4 litre horizontally opposed turbocharged engine with a continuously variable transmission. It is Subaru’s “premium” drivetrain that you would find only with some of the higher-end Subaru models, but it comes standard with the Ascent regardless of which trim you choose.

The 2.4-litre engine generates 260 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of torque. The numbers may not look as high as the other entries, but the way that it delivers the power completely compensates and even makes it more fun than naturally aspirated engines available in this segment. The engine has a significant turbo lag which is noticeable mostly in manual shifting mode, but the CVT does a great job hiding it and keeps the revs at the right place for smoother power delivery. It is not trying to hide the fact that it is a CVT, and keeps the revs steady when you drive it normally. It mimics shift points at wide-open throttle like any other CVTs available.

The 2.4-litre boxer engine feels much more punchier in the mid-range than Nissan’s naturally aspirated V7 engine, and that’s the main reason why the Ascent feels much more alive and responsive than the Pathfinder. The Pathfinder’s V6 engine is a carry-over from the previous generation with minor updates, and it is a very smooth engine that helps with the overall refinement.

However, you have to rev the engine to get a decent amount of power, especially if you have lots of people, cargo or if you are towing. It is years ahead compared to the previous Pathfinder with a CVT. It feels underwhelming even without towing or carrying people, and the ZF’s 9-speed transmission is quite lazy when you ask to downshift, it may take several seconds to respond.

Speaking of towing, both entries offer a decent amount of towing capacity, but the Pathfinder is the clear winner as it offers 6000 lbs of towing capacity vs 5000 lbs with the Ascent. More importantly, Nissan was nice enough to include the hardware you need to tow, including the wiring and the hitch. You have to remove the rear bumper, install a hitch and do the wiring with the Ascent. Even though Subaru used a very solid continuously variable transmission that handles the extra heat and torque, I still wouldn’t prefer the Ascent if you are planning to tow regularly.

Both entries offer all-wheel-drive as standard no matter which trim you choose, but the way they operate is very different. The Pathfinder comes with a traditional front-biased AWD system that sends power primarily to the front wheels and sends more power to the rear on-demand basis. It offers different drive and terrain modes that change the AWD algorithm, so technically the Pathfinder can send power to the rear wheels up to 50%. There is quite a bit of torque steering when it loses traction, it just doesn’t feel as confidence-inspiring compared to the Ascent.

The Ascent comes with a symmetrical all-wheel drive system and all axles have the same length, meaning that there is no torque steer when you lose traction. It can send an equal amount of power to all wheels, and the AWD system in general feels very capable. It offers more ground clearance than the Pathfinder, and Dual X-Mode allows more wheelspin and sends more power to the wheels that have more traction. It feels more confident on any surface, and that’s the main reason why the Ascent is the ideal choice for inclement weather if you are planning to take it camping or drive off the beaten path more frequently.

The Verdict

Both entries are the most underrated 3-row SUVs available, they offer a great value depending on which trim you choose. The Ascent is the right choice if you are looking for the traditional Subaru features in a 3-row SUV format, including a great all-wheel-drive system, higher ground clearance, and a solid powertrain with character and a rugged feeling. If you have an outdoorsy lifestyle, the Ascent may be the right choice. The engine is not the most fuel-efficient, or it is not the most spacious 3-row SUV, but it offers the best value propositions available in the market.

The Pathfinder, on the other hand, offers the features that you want to see in a 3-row SUV and it is more appealing to the traditional SUV shoppers. Despite having a mellow drivetrain with an underwhelming powerband, it is spacious, comfortable, easy to live every day, offers more family-oriented features and has a great towing capacity. The Pathfinder is a great deal especially if you are shopping the mid-trims, as you still get most of the family-oriented features for much less.

2024 Nissan Pathfinder2024 Subaru Ascent
Engine3.5-litre naturally aspirated V62.4-litre turbocharged flat-4
Transmission9-speed automatic & all-wheel-driveCVT & all-wheel-drive
Max power284 hp @ 6400 rpm260 hp @ 5600 rpm
Max torque259 lb-ft @ 4800 rpm277 lb-ft @ 2000 rpm
0-100 km/h7.3 sec6.9 sec
Fuel Economy (as tested)20 MPG – 11.8L / 100km17 MPG – 13.8L / 100km
Base MSRP (starting at)$49,683 CAD$44,572 CAD

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