LOS ANGELES -- Subaru is re-entering the market for big crossovers with three rows of seating -- a move that puts the surging brand in more direct competition with some of its bigger rivals but also promises to jump-start the company's sales gains just as growth slows.
Subaru sales have advanced year over year for 71 straight months to new highs, even amid an increasingly challenging and plateauing U.S. market.
The all-new Ascent, unveiled here on the eve of the Los Angeles auto show, launches Subaru right back into the hotly contested three-row crossover segment, one the automaker has not been able to tap since output of the ill-fated Tribeca ended in 2014.
Subaru executives acknowledge the Tribeca wasn't really a seven-seat vehicle. Nor did its styling and functionality mesh with what Subaru customers had come to expect. Dealers say some owners had trouble getting in and out of the Tribeca.
The Ascent, on the other hand, at 196.8 inches long, 76 inches wide and with room for seven or eight passengers, is the biggest Subaru ever.
It will compete directly with the Ford Explorer, Toyota Highlander, Chevrolet Traverse and Mazda CX-9 and arrives as the large crossover segment, a key source of profits for automakers, has grown 15 percent this year in an overall light-vehicle market that has cooled 1.7 percent.
Subaru of America President Tom Doll said Tuesday the company is targeting 60,000 to 70,000 Ascent sales a year in the U.S., adding volume may approach 80,000 if production is available.
Pricing was not released but executives say it will start in the low $30,000s.
"The big question with the Ascent is whether or not Subaru buyers are finally ready to embrace a large SUV," said Edmunds analyst Jessica Caldwell. "Subaru has come a long way from its days as a quirky niche brand, so the Ascent has a much better chance of success."
The crossover figures to be the answer that Subaru dealers have been looking for when customers outgrow the venerable Outback and head to other brands.
Subaru sold 532,893 vehicles in the U.S. through October, up 6.4 percent from the year-earlier period, placing the automaker well on track to surpass last year's record of 615,132 total sales. But the pace of the company's growth has slowed in recent months in part on lean supplies of popular models and as the overall market cools.
Still, Subaru officials said Tuesday they expects the brand's U.S. sales to total around 650,000 this year. That would easily mark Subaru's ninth consecutive year of record deliveries in the U.S.
The company has surpassed Kia in U.S. sales this year and is also closing in on Hyundai Motor America.
Subaru's sales trail Hyundai by fewer than 32,000 vehicles through October. A year ago, Hyundai led by almost 150,000.
Outback, Crosstrek cues
Hints of the strong-selling Subaru Outback and Crosstrek are evident in the Ascent, as is the large greenhouse that has been a staple of the Forester.
The production model remains similar to the Ascent concept that was shown this year in New York.
Subaru officials maintain that all-wheel drive, standard roof rails, an 8.7-inch ground clearance and 72.6 cubic feet of cargo space will help Ascent appeal to Subaru customers' outdoorsy activities just as much as its smaller siblings.
The Ascent is the first all-new Subaru model since the introduction of the then-XV Crosstrek. It will also come with an all-new powerplant: a turbocharged 2.4-liter boxer engine that produces 260 hp and 277 pound-feet of torque.
It's paired with a new version of Subaru's continuously variable transmission.
Fuel economy numbers were not released, but Subaru says the Ascent will be able to deliver 500 miles on one fill-up of the 19.3 gallon tank.
The Ascent, built on a modified version of Subaru's modular vehicle platform, will be available in either a seven- or an eight-seat configuration and in four trims: base, Premium, Limited and Touring.
The base trim line comes with a standard bench seat in the second row, while second-row captain's chairs are a no-cost option on Premium and higher trims, Subaru said.
Safety, tech gear
Higher trim lines come with safety and technology features suited to appeal to families on road trips.
Some of Subaru's EyeSight driver-assist technology, which has become an increasingly popular option among its current lineup, will be standard equipment across all trims on the Ascent.
The driver-assist technology available on the Ascent includes automatic pre-collision braking, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure and sway warning and pre-collision throttle management.
New to the safety technology lineup is EyeSight Assist Monitor, which Subaru says "provides a heads-up display of the EyeSight system warnings as well as system status information" on the windshield.
A cabin-view mirror that allows the driver and front passenger to view occupants in the second and third rows is also standard.
Standard tech goodies include a 6.5-inch multimedia touch screen with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay capability and four USB ports, while 4G LTE Wi-Fi connectivity is available on Premium and higher trims.
Premium and higher trims also get an 8-inch touch screen.
The top-of-the-line Touring trim comes with eight USB ports and a 120-volt power outlet.
Ascent production will begin at Subaru's Lafayette, Ind., plant in the second quarter of 2018, and the first models are set to arrive at dealerships by early summer, the automaker says.