When we first drove the Kia brand’s boxy-chic new entrant in the Emperor’s-new-minivan class, we declared the 2020 Telluride’s chief competitors to be the Honda Pilot, the Toyota Highlander, and the new Ford Explorer. There are enough other rivals to warrant a MotorTrend-certified Big Test of the class, but it takes a while to round up all those competitors. Patience, please. Besides, it just so happens that we currently have a really close competitor conveniently parked in our Detroit office long-term garage: The 2019 Subaru Ascent.
Sizing Them Up
By the tape measure, these two are darned close competitors, measuring within a tenth of an inch in length and four-tenths in wheelbase. The Telluride is, however, a significant 2.3 inches wider and 2.7 inches lower (0.7 inch of which comes from reduced ground clearance). Yet surprisingly it’s the Telluride that the holds the interior height advantage (with headroom bonuses of 1.5 inches in the middle row and 1.8 inches in the way-back) and the Ascent that holds the interior width advantage in third-row shoulder room, hip room, and cargo-width (1.9, 2.2, and 2.5 inches respectively).
It appears that the Kia engineers programmed their design computers to maximize passenger-volume (perhaps driving that boxy exterior shape), because when we look at the entire three-row crossover class—comparing base vehicles—the Telluride tops the list in overall passenger volume with 160.7 cubic feet, followed closely by its Hyundai sistership at 159.1 and the Chevrolet Traverse at 158.1. (Adding sunroofs shrinks front/middle-row results a bit without changing the order.) That Traverse is the big winner in third-row passenger space with 41.1 cubic feet to the Telluride’s (and coincidentally, the Ascent’s) 36.0 cubes. The Chevy also trumps the class in cargo space, accommodating 98.2/58.1/23.0 cubic feet behind the front/middle/rear seat rows. The Telluride and Ascent carry 87.0/46.0/21.0 and 86.0/47.0/17.6 respectively.
Riding in Them
If Kia optimized for size, Subaru optimized for comfort. But just like when choosing a mattress, you can’t just look at both interiors, you have to try them out for a little while. The Telluride interior makes a fabulous first impression with a wider touch-screen, and (thanks to the $2,000 Prestige package) more interesting sew-patterns on the seats, an Alcantara-look headliner, and a head-up display. They’ve even discovered a new fake open-pore wood technology that fools both the eye and the hand better than most (and better than the stuff in Subaru’s fanciest Touring trim—our Limited arguably looks better without the mock maple). But spend a couple hours in the seats and you’ll find the Subaru’s offer more comfortable long-term support. The Ascent’s third-row is also better suited for taller kids or adults, because it’s wider and the seat cushion is about an inch higher off the floor than the Kia’s, though middle-row passengers will need to scoot their seat forward to provide adequate leg room. It’s also easier to climb into, with 10 inches of foot clearance between the door opening and folded middle-row seat to the Telluride’s 8.5. Props go to Kia for providing a quieter interior, however.
Here the balance shifts back to Kia. Not only is there noticeably more space behind the third row, it’s way easier to reconfigure the Telluride from passenger to cargo hauling duties, and Kia’s load floor ends up considerably flatter. Pull the single strap on the back of each third-row seat and the headrest flips forward as the backrest flops down. The Ascent’s headrests must be manually lowered, then the backrest is released by the small upper strap (not the larger, more obvious central one, which is just for raising them back up). Kia also provides a remote electric release for the middle row seatbacks, while Subaru makes you walk around and twiddle two levers on each of the captain’s chairs (I’d get the bench if it were my money). Both provide under-floor storage in the back (measuring 45 x 20 x 7 inches in the Kia, 43 x 12 x 6 in the Subaru), but Kia lets you position the floor at the bottom of this well to get 7 inches more overall luggage height. Each also provides convenient under-floor stowage space for the optional roller luggage-area cover (our Kia lacked this $155 option).
Of course, if you plan to carry anything on the roof, the Subaru’s luggage rails stand proud of the roof by about 2 inches, sacrificing some aero slickness and potential wind noise so you can lash things to them (or use the $201 official accessory cross bars). Kia’s luggage rails are flush with the body, forcing purchase of the $310 cross bars or other accessories to use the roof at all. Both are rated to tow 5,000 pounds.
While nobody drag races three-row crossovers, everybody moans if/when their new Conestoga struggles to climb I-70 to the Eisenhower Tunnel. In this contest we see a less powerful (260 versus 291 hp), heavier (4,626 versus 4,510 pounds) Subaru with taller gearing (by 18 percent in first gear) winning the drag race and—thanks to its turbocharged engine—heavily favored to crest Loveland Pass most easily. How? Credit the Soobie’s broader, flatter, slightly higher torque curve and continuously variable transmission, which maintains optimal gearing better than Kia’s eight-speed can. Our Subaru maintains a 0.2-0.3-second advantage through 70 mph. After that, the Kia charges ahead, cresting 100 mph 1.6 seconds sooner (in the unlikely event anybody cares). Refinement-wise, Kia’s big-lunged V-6 idles smoother and quieter than Subaru’s boxer four, but its calibration needs work. Throttle responsiveness is inexplicably non-linear with no turbo-lag to blame—especially in the Eco drive mode. Torque management around transmission shifts is also lumpier than expected.
Ride & Handling
Neither of these minivan stand-ins will embarrass an Alfa Stelvio, and the numbers show them pretty evenly matched in terms of braking distance, skidpad grip, and figure-eight performance. Both vehicles offer a soft brake pedal that doesn’t really bite until you’re deeper into the travel, and both lean a bit in the figure-eight, but on normal twisty roads they each feel reasonably well planted at sane speeds. There’s a sensation of greater unsprung weight clomping over bumps in the Kia, but impressive chassis rigidity prevents such events from resonating through the body. Ride quality is reasonably plush in both with a single driver onboard, and neither body roll nor head-toss is major concern for either.
It would be foolish to attempt the Rubicon Trail in either of these utes, but the Subaru holds a distinct advantage. Its X-Mode off-road button tailors the throttle, transmission, center-differential locking strategy, and stability control tuning for optimal poise when traversing off-road obstacles. It also provides hill-descent control. Our Ascent’s ground clearance and approach- and departure-angles are superior to the Telluride’s as well. Kia only offers a center differential lock and a snow-mode to improve traction. Furthermore, should you go off road and find yourself stuck, the Ascent offers two underbody shipping tie-down hooks in front and a ($499 optional) trailer hitch in back for recovery. And if you don’t order the hitch, there’s an eyelet that mounts to the rear bumper for recovery. Our Telluride SX offered no recovery points at all (a trailer hitch is available for $795). Sadly, neither offers a full-size spare, and both hang their mini-spares underneath, where they could be hard to access in a pinch off road.
Features and Amenities
Back to those first impressions: Our loaded Telluride SX comes with a lot more stuff than even the Touring grade Ascent can match. Things like a color head-up display, power-folding mirrors, a Qi wireless charging pad, cooled rear seats, and some less-ubiquitous features like a quiet-mode for the stereo (which plays only through the front speakers at up to volume-level 7), Safe Exit Assist (disables door handles if a vehicle is approaching), and a Driver Talk feature which broadcasts dad’s admonishments to the whiners in back. That having been said, the integration of some features is better in the Subaru, like the adaptive cruise and lane-departure warning systems. Subaru’s will follow vehicles in front closely enough to prevent cars from constantly filling the gap, and it delays beeping until you’ve strayed onto the line, whereas our Kia tended to panic earlier. The Kia’s rain-sensing wipers didn’t seem to sense rain at all, and an automatic speed-limit-following feature of the Highway Driving Assist system was difficult to engage and once engaged failed to lower our speed from 70 to 55 when such clearly marked and long-established limit-changes occurred. It’s cool to boast S-Class feature content, but it needs to work for full credit.
Value & Operating Costs
Load an Ascent up and it comes within $600 bucks of this Telluride, so there’s not much value advantage either way. There’s not a lot of data on long-term maintenance and repair costs for either of these two new entries, but the EPA seems to think you’ll spend less on gas in the Subaru (20/26/22 mpg versus 19/24/21), and with its larger tank, you might even coax 500 miles between fillups in the Ascent (though 453 is as far as we’ve stretched ours). As a brand Kia has been out-ranking Subaru in recent JD Power studies, and when things do go wrong with either vehicle the Kia warranty will cover you longer.
So that’s three for Ascent, three for Telluride, and one draw—a photo-finish for this early, quick back-to-back matchup. You might reasonably call this contest for the Telluride on the strength of its cargo capacity, impressive feature content, and bold, striking design (several SoCal staffers have been stopped and engaged in conversation by awestruck strangers). We’re calling it for the Subaru in view of its superior acceleration, off-road advantages, and more comfortable seating. And we’re itching to watch things shake out in a rigorous Big Test of all players.
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