New & Used Subaru Outback: In Depth
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Since its launch 20 years ago as a slightly tougher version of a wagon, the Subaru Outback crossover has provided utility, comfort, and surprising off-road and all-weather capabilities to buyers who like wagons and don't want truckier SUVs. Most recently revamped for the 2015 model year, the Outback is now more fuel-efficient, quieter, more comfortable, and offers a higher feature level--letting it blend passenger-car comfort and all-weather utility in a way that almost makes it a one-of-a-kind vehicle.
MORE: Read our 2015 Subaru Outback review
Most people think they can tell what's a wagon and what's a crossover or SUV, but the Outback sits right on the dividing line. That may be one of the reasons for its enduring popularity. It's closest in concept to the Volvo XC60, but because it's derived from the Legacy sedan--and its boxer engine gives it a low center of gravity even with more than 8 inches of ground clearance--it handles like a car.
Competitors span the gamut, from the Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee to pricier entries like Mercedes-Benz wagons. One Subaru dealer we spoke to said he sells the majority of his Outbacks for cash, to repeat buyers who come in every few years--whether that's every three or every eight--and simply buy a new one because the old one did everything they wanted. They could buy other, pricier, more prestigious cars, he suggested, but perhaps the Outback has taken over the role occupied by the old square Volvo wagons: safe, sensible, and entirely unflashy practical transport for people who don't feel the need for their cars to make any kind of statement.
2015 Subaru Outback
The new Outback launched for the 2015 model year is a bit larger than before, with a bit less body cladding, for a more road-friendly look. Inside, the new Outback is also an evolution rather than a radical rethink, and it's undoubtedly better for it. The dash has been straightened up, and seats have been upgraded.
The mechanicals are familiar. The engines essentially carry over, while all versions now sport a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Steering goes electric-assist across the model line, and the ratio is quicker than that used in its predecessor; brakes get an upgrade, too, with ventilated four-wheel discs now in all models. The new X-Mode system helps the Outback's standard all-wheel drive permits active torque distribution where traction needs arise. There's also Hill Descent Control, a Hill Holder mode, and a special logic for the stability control and all-wheel drive systems.
Ride and handling are better than ever, too. The Outback no longer requires even a small sacrifice in on-road comfort for its moderate trail-blazing ability. To wit: The Outback maintains 8.7 inches of ground clearance—more than some taller crossovers with more rugged profiles. It still feels as if you're in a mid-size car, jacked up a few more inches--which makes the Outback's cargo space a little easier to load than most crossovers, too.
The Outback gets top 'good' crash-test results from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and its Top Safety Pick+ nod. Subaru’s EyeSight active-safety system, which uses a multiple-camera system to incorporate Adaptive Cruise Control, Pre-Collision Braking, and Vehicle Lane Departure Warning, is available. A new Rear Vehicle Detection System can see vehicles in blind spots, warn you of approaching vehicles in adjacent lanes, and detect vehicles cross traffic as you back out of a driveway.
Earlier Subaru Outback generations
The Outback got its start as a special trim level on what was then the wagon version of the Subaru Legacy sedan. It came at a 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, The first Outback 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 four.
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.
A new generation was launched in 2010, and for 2012, it received a new 2.5-liter flat four, replacing an older engine that produced 170 hp. The flat six carried into the new model. Although this Outback had a more settled, refined ride, like a larger car, it didn't handle with quite the same bite as did the previous generation. Utility was even better than earlier models, though, with greater cargo space.
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.