New & Used Subaru Outback: In Depth
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The Subaru Outback is a crossover wagon that’s capable of handling a bit of light off-roading. The Outback comes in a variety of forms, competing with the Jeep Grand Cherokee, Volvo XC60, and the Toyota Venza.
For a more detailed look at the Outback, see the full review of the 2014 Subaru Outback.
But Outback buyers could often afford much pricier and more luxurious cars--one Subaru dealer told us two-thirds of his Outback owners simply wrote him a check for the car--because it's a known and trusted quantity for residents of snowy areas (think Colorado and Vermont) as well as a more carlike alternative to taller utility vehicles in any locale.
Today's Outback remains where it's been for more than a decade: precisely halfway between a station wagon that happens to all-wheel drive and a high-riding mid-size crossover with room for five people and all their gear inside. While most people think they can tell wagons and crossovers apart, the Outback can split the answers 50-50 when you ask. That may be one of the reasons for its enduring popularity.
In 2012, the generation launched in 2010 got a light cosmetic refresh, consisting of a newer grille design. More importantly, the Outback also received an all-new version of the 2.5-ilter flat four, replacing an older engine that produced 170 hp. In the 2013 Outback, Subaru finally added a USB charging port, plus iPod controls, as well as Bluetooth hands-free calling and audio streaming. A host of active-safety features—an EyeSight driver-assistance system, adaptive cruise control, vehicle lane departure warning, and pre-collision braking—were also made available. The body structure was also stiffened, and steering and suspension were refined to improve handling and ride quality.
The 2013 Outback can be ordered with either a 173-hp, 2.5-liter four or a 256-hp, 3.6-liter six. A six-speed manual transmission is standard with the four, but a fuel-stingy continuously variable (CVT) automatic is optional—making the Outback one of the more fuel-efficient crossovers, at 22 mpg city, 29 highway.
Although the new Outback has a more settled, refined ride, like a larger car, it doesn't handle with quite the same bite as did the previous generation. Utility is even better than earlier models, though: Cargo space is up, the back seat is now usable by adults for long distances, and a new roof-rail system folds down when not in use. Options, many of them limited to the Premium and Limited models, include a windshield-wiper deicer, power moonroof, voice navigation, and 440-watt, nine-speaker Harman Kardon sound system.
The Outback got its start as a special trim level on what was then the wagon version of the Subaru Legacy sedan. It came ata time when Subaru's sales were suffering, and sales of sport-utility vehicles were booming. Initially, the Outback got standard all-wheel drive (not every Subaru had it, back then), more rugged trim, two-tone paint, and fog lamps.
In 1996, the model followed through on the promise a bit more, gaining slightly more ground clearance than the Legacy wagon, along with taller tires, full-skirt body cladding, tougher seat upholstery, and big fog lamps in the bumper. In the years that followed, Subaru gave the Outback all the interior luxury of a Jeep Grand Cherokee or top-trim Ford Explorer of the time, with leather seats, dual sunroofs, and special interior themes offered. Original Outbacks had a 135-horsepower, 2.2-liter horizontally opposed ('flat') four-cylinder engine, but with the 1996 changes came a 155-hp, 2.5-liter.
The Outback was refreshed for 2000, when it gained completely new front- and back-end styling, along with a redone interior. A 165-hp, 2.5-liter was under the hood, with five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmissions. During this period, even more luxurious L.L. Bean Edition and VDC models were introduced—the latter with a 212-hp, 3.0-liter flat-six—which in this iteration never felt much faster than the four. At this time, the Outback had a little over an inch of extra ground clearance than the Legacy Wagon, along with more shielding, chip-resistant body cladding, and a standard roof rack, plus larger 16-inch wheels, and Subaru confirmed the Outback was good for light off-roading.
In 2005 came a redesign and a considerably raised ride height--which turned the car from a wagon to a "light truck" in the eyes of the NHTSA, although Subaru rarely discussed it--as well as other modifications. These included revised powertrains: the base engine now made 170 hp, the flat-six 245 hp, and there was a new XT model featuring a 243-hp, 2.5-liter turbocharged flat-four. Most of the four-cylinder models had five-speed manual or four-speed auto transmissions again, but the six was paired with a five-speed automatic.
These Outbacks are among the best choices among the recent years, as they, have more interior refinement. These models handle surprisingly well and have great steering, as well as a strong reputation for safety. Among all these models, however, the Outback's back seat is somewhat cramped for adults, and the Outback isn't as quiet and refined inside as luxury crossover vehicles. Although the base four-cylinder versions have enough pep, they'll feel winded and sluggish with a full load or in the mountains. Among premium models, the XT is a good bet if it's been well-maintained; the six-cylinder models are especially thirsty, and the turbo four actually feels perkier than the six.