- Agile handling for a crossover
- Much-improved infotainment
- EyeSight active safety
- Good gas mileage (2.5i)
- Useful X-Mode
- Definitely an evolutionary look
- Manual gearbox is gone
- Limited skimps on passenger seat
- 3.6R model isn't fuel-efficient
The 2015 Subaru Outback is as much of a tough, safe family wagon as ever; but this year, its brawn doesn't come with as much compromise in comfort and quiet.
The 2015 Subaru Outback is an ideal family-adventure vehicle in many respects. It's nestled in the ideal spot between a brawny wagon and a lean, responsive crossover. And with the finer attention to detail that the Outback has been given for 2015, it's less of an 'either/or' than it ever was; what you get is a vehicle that can more effectively than ever play both roles.
The Subaru Outback has, for nearly 20 years, been ‘the way’ that Americans like their wagons—more rugged and butch than a sport wagon, but not nearly as tall and imposing as many of the other utility vehicles that work for active families. Then there was Major Change for this model five years ago, as Subaru sized it up from where it had been—a generous-sized compact—to what's essentially the generous end of mid-size.
It’s not tremendously surprising that Subaru hasn’t messed all that much with ‘the way’ in this fully redesigned version of the Outback. Again based on the latest (and recently all-new) Legacy sedan, the Outback is just as family-oriented than ever, while is by a long shot the best-selling of Subaru’s models in the U.S. Fundamentally, the Outback hits the sweet spot of the U.S. family market; at around 190 inches long, it's easy enough to park, and unlike some vehicles this size, there's no attempt to wedge a third-row seat in back. Instead, the emphasis is gear; Outback buyers are outdoor types (far more likely to venture beyond where the pavement ends, on the way to kayaking or mountain climbing, for instance), and so with space for up to five adults and gear, assisted by the nifty 'convertible' roof rack, the Outback does what many SUVs are intended to do—only with a better ride, more nimble handling, and better fuel efficiency.
At first glance, from the outside, you might see the new Outback as a bit larger than the outgoing model; but it's virtually the same size, and its down to the visual tricks played by a series of design tweaks—each relatively minor in its own right. The new model has a little less body cladding for the side of the body, and the wheel wells themselves less flared than those of the outgoing model; Subaru officials note that gives the Outback a more elegant look, which we'd agree with. But somehow visually, when you combine it all with the somewhat more SUV-like grille and but in conjunction with the moved-back mirrors, more sculpted body sides, and more blunt front end, it plays some proportional tricks
Inside, the new Outback is also an evolution rather than a radical rethink, but we see it as uncontroversially better in every respect. Subaru has lost the upright, 'winged' look of the previous instrument panel and instead gone with more of a squared-off, high-end-audio look at the middle, with smooth, organic curves to the trim elsewhere and the corners pushed outward even more. With additional upgrades to the seats and the quality of the trims, the 2015 Outback is definitely stepping further upmarket.
Powertrain offerings, performance hardware, and the layout of the Outback are all going to be familiar to those who have considered this model before (or owned one). Across the lineup, you have a choice between 2.5i and 3.6R models. The Outback 2.5i models come with a 175-horsepower, 2.5-liter horizontally opposed (‘flat’ or ‘boxer’) four-cylinder engine—the new FB-Series version—while the 3.6R models get a 3.6-liter boxer six, making 256 hp and 247 pound-feet of torque. 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. And a new X-Mode system, aimed at lower-speed driving in challenging conditions where traction might be limited, helps the Outback's systems maintain composure—aided by Hill Descent Control, a Hill Holder mode, and a special logic for the stability control and all-wheel drive systems.
All versions of the Outback now have a Lineartronic continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). Engineers have gone to extremes—we’re talking serious extremes—to hide the fact that you’re driving a CVT, and the 'motorboat'-like sounds and rubber-band sensations they can sometimes bring. The programming with this one has it being a great pretender, most of the time following ratios all the way up the range and shifting as if it were a somewhat relaxed automatic transmission. Ride and handling are better than ever, too. Former versions of the Outback ended up involving some pretty pronounced tradeoffs in ride and handling in order to achieve that off-the-pavement toughness; finally, for 2015, we feel like the Outback doesn’t involve as much of a sacrifice in its on-the-road role in order to achieve that toughness.
Trail prowess and all-weather ability have always been the flip side of the Outback’s performance appeal, and they get a step better in the new Outback, as it inherits the Enhanced Active AWD system and new X-Mode from the Subaru Forester. Active torque vectoring allows better control of individual wheels in some low-traction surfaces, and some wheelspin to help power through low-traction situations like snow or mud. The Outback maintains 8.7 inches of ground clearance—more than some taller crossovers with more rugged profiles.
To provide a general impression of what it's like to drive the Outback: It still feels as if you're in a mid-size car, jacked up a few more inches. The driving position remains more relaxed and carlike, and even though you have more ground clearance versus many serious-looking SUVs, you don't sit quite as upright or high up (it's an ideal height for getting in and out, really). You sit behind the steering wheel, rather than up and almost over it, as in those upright SUVs. We found the front seats of the Outback to be a little more comfortable than before (thanks to just a little more thigh length in the cushions, we were told); meanwhile, the upholstery has been upgraded across the model line (Limited models get some impressive perforated leather), and models with heated seats now have warmers for the length of the back area as well as the lower cushion. In back, expect plenty of space for adults; legroom isn't abundant, but there should be enough for most passengers, and thanks to that additional width this is a vehicle where you can do three-across in back without feeling too crammed-in.
The Outback's cargo floor is relatively low and easy to get to; very few people will have trouble lifting the hatch with one arm either, although in Limited models you get a power liftgate with memory height settings. Seatback release levers for all models are now back in the cargo area, and flipping the rear seatbacks forward is an easy, one-arm task.
The Outback has a great reputation for safety, and with five-star federal ratings plus top 'good' crash-test results from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) and its Top Safety Pick+ nod, it's one of the most solid safety picks on the market. A rearview camera system is now included, and Subaru's EyeSight suite of active-safety systems (top-rated by the IIHS) is available on most of the model line. 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, as is Cross Traffic Detection and a new Subaru Rear Vehicle Detection System (standard on the Limited model) that 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. And newly available Steering Responsive Fog Lights can independently activate a left of right fog light in the direction of a turn. With downsized camera hardware, an increase range, and new features like Cross Traffic Detection, the system can effectivly warn you of hazards and brake you to a stop, to help avoid an accident.
The 2015 Subaru Outback offers a lot of value in 2.5i and 2.5i Premium forms; Limited models offer even more, although they push the Outback up against rival models from Audi and Volvo. If you go for a four-cylinder 2.5i, the 2015 Subaru Outback is offered in three different models: standard, Premium, and Limited. These three trims add progressively more equipment—and stepping up to each respective one involves a rather large step up in price. The 3.6R adds a six-cylinder engine, but it's only offered in top Limited form.
Premium models include a power driver’s seat, dual-zone climate control, heated front seats, heated side mirrors, a windshield de-icer, leather steering-wheel trim, fog lamps, and an upgraded entertainment system. Limited models add perforated leather upholstery plus memory settings for the driver’s seat, a power front passenger seat, and a power rear tailgate (an Outback first). Limited models step up to 18-inch alloy wheels.
Our pick of the lineup, though is the 2.5i Premium, where you get heated seats, upgraded infotainment, dual-zone climate control, and more, for $27,845—or $29,540 with EyeSight, as part of a $1,695 option package. Unfortunately, the power rear tailgate—an unnecessary piece of kit as we see it—is mandatory if you want EyeSight, which we do highly recommend.