Subaru Corporation (NASDAQOTH:FUJHY) showed off what it's calling a "concept version" of a big crossover SUV in New York this week. It's almost certainly a very close preview of the next all-new Subaru model, which -- like the concept -- will be called the Ascent when it debuts next year.
What it is: A Subaru, only bigger
Officially, the Subaru Ascent SUV Concept is a "styling concept" that shows, inside and out, what a big seven-passenger Subaru crossover SUV might look like. It's very similar to the VIZIV-7 Concept that Subaru showed last fall -- except that unlike the VIZIV-7, the Ascent Concept has an interior.
Unofficially, like the VIZIV-7, the Ascent SUV Concept is a very close preview of an all-new model that Subaru will start building at its Indiana plant early next year. A few details may change between now and then, but when we're talking about the "all-new 2019 Subaru Ascent" a year from now, we'll almost certainly be talking about a vehicle that looks more or less just like this one.
So what is it? As noted above, the Ascent Concept is a seven-passenger crossover SUV. It's very close in size to Ford Motor Company's (NYSE:F) Explorer, though it has a somewhat longer wheelbase. (The Subaru is about 2.4 inches taller than the Ford, but its length and width are within an inch of the Explorer's.)
In person, the Ascent Concept is instantly identifiable as a Subaru. It looks somewhat like a scaled-up Outback, with subtle fender flares and an upright, truck-flavored version of Subaru's current front-end design. The interior has some show-car touches, but the basic design is similar to other recent Subarus, with a center touchscreen and what appear to be removable second-row "captain's chairs" with armrests.
Subaru said that the production model will have an all-new turbocharged version of Subaru's horizontally opposed "boxer" gasoline engine, though it didn't give much detail. The new Ascent will be built on what Subaru describes as a "modified" version of its Global Platform.
The Global Platform is a scalable vehicle architecture that made its debut last year with the all-new 2017 Impreza. It allows different Subaru models to share many common parts under the skin, boosting the still-small automaker's economies of scale. It also allows several models to be built on a single production line, allowing Subaru to easily adjust production of its different models to meet changing market conditions.
Why it's significant: Subaru is missing an important market segment
Subaru is a small company, much smaller than nearly all of its global rivals. But it has seen tremendous growth in recent years, thanks to its focus on "crossovers," vehicles that combine the rugged sure-footedness of SUVs with the predictable, comfortable handling of sedans.
Subaru was a pioneer of that formula with the original Outback many years ago. Today, its five-passenger Outback and Forester models have built exceptionally loyal followings and sell in big numbers -- but Subaru's lineup lacks a larger "three-row" alternative for families that need seating for seven.
That has left Subaru on the sidelines in a market segment that includes huge-selling models like the Explorer, Toyota's Highlander, Honda's Pilot, and General Motors' Chevrolet Traverse. But now that its new Global Platform is in place, Subaru has the ability to develop and build a larger model cost-effectively -- that's the Ascent.
When will the Subaru Ascent go on sale?
Subaru said only that production of the Ascent will begin in 2018. But previous hints have suggested that the Ascent will make its debut in the early part of next year as a 2019 model.