But part of the way through the day, we saddled up to some especially demanding conditions, where the unpaved road opened up to a curved ridgeline, surrounding a steep slope on either side, covered with coarse, gravel-like volcanic rock. To show off the capability of the Outback on this especially tricky situation, Subaru had us descend an especially loose, steep slope.
X-Mode: Set and forget for when the going gets tough
It was the perfect situation to show off Subaru's so-called X-Mode. With a simple press of a center-console button, you engage a different control logic for the stability system, to reduce wheelspin, and you soften throttle response and transmission behavior—all while making the Active Torque Split all-wheel drive system a little more proactive. Hill Descent Control also kicks in and actuates the brakes to keep speed down.
2015 Subaru Outback - First DriveEnlarge Photo
Back in town, the Outback has plenty of other assets to help keep you safe. A new version of the automaker's Eyesight active-safety suite (top-rated by the IIHS) includes rear cross-traffic and blind-spot detection, and it has a range that's 40 percent longer for 2015. The system can now help potentially avoid an accident altogether, with braking when the speed differential is less than 30 mph to the vehicle ahead. Head toward a barrier—a test one, as we did—even with your foot on the accelerator, at under 30 mph, and the Outback will first warn, and then panic-brake you to a stop, with at least a few inches to spare. It's a great system, with very few of the false alarms that plague those in some luxury vehicles.
Infotainment much improved, albeit still with some flaws
There's other major change in the Outback that's readily apparent from the driver's seat: Subaru has at last caught up with rivals' infotainment systems; we're not saying they've innovated or pushed ahead, but they've caught up. The new systems in the Outback are based around a 6.2-inch touch-screen, with a relatively simple menu and layout, easy phone pairing, Even on the base-model 2.5i, you get HD Radio, and apps-based streaming of Pandora, among others. Quite like the systems that are now offered on a range of Toyota systems, but with a more attractive display, this Subaru system is quick to react to menu selections (it'll accept tablet-like clicking and dragging), and we like the intuitive way its tasks are arranged. Voice controls are now natural-language enabled, and they extend even to climate-control functions.
The only down side to the display was that it's shiny, and on a bright, sunny day we saw a lot of reflections (it didn't play well with our polarized sunglasses, either); a matte finish for this system, or some attention to those reflections, would have made it much easier to use.