New & Used Subaru Outback: In Depth
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Since its launch 20 years ago, the Subaru Outback crossover has provided utility, comfort, and surprising off-road and all-weather capabilities to buyers who prefer wagons to truckier SUVs. Most recently revamped for the 2015 model year, the Outback is now more fuel-efficient, quieter, and more comfortable, while also offering a higher level of features. The changes help 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
The distinction between crossovers and wagons is usually relatively clear, 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 XC70 and Audi's Allroad models. Because it's derived from the Legacy sedan--and the placement of its boxer engines give it a low center of gravity even with more than 8 inches of ground clearance--it handles more like a car than a crossover.
Competitors span a wide swath of the automotive universe, from the Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee to pricier entries like Mercedes-Benz's E-Class wagon. Crossover-wagon alternatives include the Volvo XC70 and V60 Cross Country as well as the Audi Allroad. In some wealthier locales, 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.
Today's Subaru Outback
The new Outback, which launched as a 2015 model, has grown compared to the last model. It has lost some of its body cladding for a more road-oriented aesthetic, somewhat closer to the Legacy wagons of old. And like its Legacy sedan sibling, the latest Outback has evolved instead of undergoing any big changes, which turns out to be a good thing. Inside, the dash sits straighter and the seats are nicer than before.
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 got an upgrade, too, with ventilated four-wheel discs now standard on all models. The new X-Mode system helps the Outback's standard all-wheel drive control active torque distribution where traction needs arise. There's also Hill Descent Control, a Hill Holder mode, and 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. 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 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) gives the new Outback five stars overall, with five stars in every category except for rollover, where it scores four. The Outback gets top 'good' crash-test results from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and earns the Top Safety Pick+ award as a result. The 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 of approaching vehicles in adjacent lanes, and detect vehicle cross traffic when backing out of a driveway or parking-lot space.
Earlier Subaru Outback generations
The Outback got its start as a 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. Subaru also began offering an Outback sedan in this generation.
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. The Outback sedan, which had been offered in the second and third generations, was discontinued when the fourth-generation car received a face lift in 2008.
A new generation was launched in 2010, at which point all sedan models became Legacys and all of the wagons used the Outback nameplate. For 2012, the Outback 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 on earlier models, though, with increased 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.