The 2014 Subaru Outback won't win many stoplight drag races in its four-cylinder form, but that's not how most owners define "performance" for the capable, durable crossover utility vehicle. Instead, they prize its ability to cope with a wide variety of road surfaces--from paved highways to rutted, muddy mountain tracks strewn with stones--and its reputation for longevity. The Outback's acceleration is competitive, and its roadholding and handling are surprisingly good for this large a car, but that's not really what owners look for.
The 2.5-liter flat-four base engine was new last year, and it's an all-new design for Subaru--which only launches a new engine every 20 years or so. It's rated at 173 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque, marginally better than its similarly-sized predecessor. But the torque comes over a much wider range of engine speeds, and the new engine has been designed for a notable boost in fuel efficiency. Most buyers will opt for Subaru's Lineartronic continuously variable transmission (CVT), but a six-speed manual gearbox is also available on low-end models--a rarity for any mid-size wagon or utility vehicle.
Responsive under hard acceleration and unobtrusive during normal operation, the Subaru CVT is one of the best offered on any car today. It boosts gas-mileage ratings substantially over earlier Outback powertrains, but its biggest benefit is that it's simply not as annoying as CVTs from some other makers. It comes standard with paddle shifters that let the driver "shift" up and down through six simulated fixed "gear" ratios, just like a multi-speed automatic. Otherwise, even on full-throttle takeoffs, while it will rev the engine to its most powerful speed--around 5500 rpm--it manages to apply enough power while doing so that drivers don't get the "all-noise-no-acceleration" sensation of lesser CVTs. Subaru has kept the engine noise from being obtrusive and loud, and we'd point other makers to Subaru for lessons on how to make CVTs palatable. Level highway cruising is accomplished with engine speeds as low as 2000 rpm.
The result is EPA ratings for the four-cylinder/CVT combination of 26 mpg combined (24 mpg city, 30 mpg highway). If you opt for the rarer six-speed manual gearbox, the combined rating falls to 24 mpg (21 mpg city, 28 mpg highway).
The only other powertrain option for the 2014 Outback is the long-unchanged 3.6R model, with a 256-hp flat-six engine displacing 3.6 liters. It's offered only with a five-speed automatic transmission, and it's quiet, smooth, and powerful. If you really do care about stoplight drag races, this is the engine to pick--but you'll pay the price in low fuel efficiency. The EPA rates this combination at just 20 mpg combined (18 mpg city, 25 mpg highway), which is lower than most competing mid-size utilities with optional or standard six-cylinder engines.
Despite its high ground clearance and tall stature, the Outback has always handled more like a car than a crossover, due to the low center of gravity provided by its boxer engines and its light weight. On-road behavior was improved last year by a retuned suspension and some structural stiffening added to the body, which managed to reduce body roll at the same time it made the ride smoother and the cornering slightly more agile. One of the few competing vehicles that matches the Outback for nimble handling is the new 2013 Ford Escape--a compact crossover that's admittedly one car class smaller than the mid-size Outback. The feel of the Outback's steering is only average, but the roadholding compensates for that--and Subaru has fitted sturdy all-weather tires to handle a wide range of road surfaces and climates, so they're not optimized for maximum grip.
With 8.7 inches of ground clearance--more even than competitors like the macho Jeep Grand Cherokee--the Subaru is almost unparalleled in off-road agility. It won't necessarily cross the Rubicon Trail like a trail-rated Jeep Wrangler, but it's far more capable than many all-wheel-drive crossovers targeted at suburban families whose idea of off-roading doesn't stretch much beyond gravel roads or muddy lacrosse fields. The Outback is both practical and deft on a huge variety of terrain, from deep snow to rutted, muddy mountain trails. The combination of ground clearance, long suspension travel, a stiff body structure, and electronically controlled all-wheel drive will power the car steadily up slippery hills and through muddy forests that may leave other, more glamorous crossovers stuck at the side of the road. While it'll never match a V-8 pickup on acceleration, under some circumstances, the Outback will even keep pace with all-wheel-drive pickup trucks.