When Subaru debuted the first Outback in 1994, little did it know that over a decade later it would become one of its best selling models. In fact, nobody could have guessed that Subaru would unknowingly create a niche so unique that only it had the recipe for long-term success. Other manufacturers have tried to compete for market share, but with limited success. In an industry known for its cutthroat competition, such longstanding class dominance is a rarity.
But even over two decades later, the same question still remains: Is it a crossover or a wagon on stilts? However it’s defined—it’s spelled v-e-r-s-a-t-i-l-e. Yes folks, this wonder wagon has more ground clearance (8.7-inches to be exact) than many SUVs for legitimate off-road prowess, gets great fuel mileage for its size, and has the versatility of a Swiss Army Knife. Sure, it’s not going to win any races nor will the valet proudly flaunt it in the front row with the Italian thoroughbreds, but if function, safety and versatility trump form in your book, the 2015 Subaru Outback just might be your cup of fair trade, organic green tea.
The new 2015 model is the fifth generation of the sturdy Outback and it features a revised chassis, new sheetmetal, an updated 2.5-liter four cylinder motor, CVT transmissions and plenty of technology and luxury enhancements throughout. Overall length has been increased by just under 1-inch, the roof height was raised 2.2-inches and the wheelbase has also been slightly stretched; there’s also equal parts more interior space.
Speaking of stretched, it was, well, a stretch for many to consider the outgoing model attractive with its bug-like headlights and rounded yet angular front fascia. And while the 2015 is more conservative than daring, the updated front fascia, revised rearend and reduced acreage of plastic cladding helps bolster its curb appeal– testers unanimously thought our 2.5i Limited look great. Up front, redesigned projector beam headlights with Hawkeye LED accents bring contemporary style alongside an equally elegant redesigned grille, front bumper and aluminum hood.
Though less extreme, the redesigned rear bumper and LED taillights also bring home the organic biscuits for more of that granola-styled goodness Subaru fans have grown to crave. Those that opt for the top-tier Limited models are rewarded with stylish 18-inch wheels and other exterior tidbits like adaptive fog-lights that react to steering-wheel angle, as well as available fender cladding and color-matched door guards that only add to the suburbia-meets-serengeti style.
Technology makes the car safer
If there’s one attribute Subaru touts as aggressively as the Outback’s ruggedness, it would be its safety. The outgoing model might have earned an IIHS Top Safety Pick+ award last year, but it did so without acing the test. It only garnered four stars (out of five) in the difficult-to-pass, small overlap frontal impact test due to too much cabin intrusion. A stiffer chassis would have better preserved the integrity of the cockpit—therefore, the score.
Ask and so you shall receive. The Outback has a stiffer chassis for 2015 thanks to copious amounts of high-strength steel that increased torsional rigidity by 59 percent and bending resistance by 39 percent. Although high-strength steel is light and strong, curb weight has increased by roughly 175 pounds. All that safety naturally translated into a better 5-star rating on the small overlap frontal impact test, and as expected, another coveted Top Safety Pick+ award—but this time, with perfect scores across the board.
But a sturdy chassis and a plethora of airbags alone aren’t going to earn the “+” nomenclature; that little doohickey is only affixed to the title if the vehicle has a forward collision avoidance feature. For Subaru, it’s called EyeSight and it uses a pair of forward-facing cameras mounted near the rear view mirror. It surveys the road and can notify drivers of impending doom just before applying the brakes to avoid it. It works at speed differentials up to 30 mph (up from 19 mph on last year’s model) and along with the Adaptive Cruise, it greatly decreases the chance of landing under the mindless commuter yapping on their phone in front of you. The outgoing model had EyeSight, but the 2015 model has a wider field of view and now has brake-light detection, among other improvements.
Other new technology-rich safety bits include lane-change assist, rear cross-traffic alert, incline start assist, blind-spot monitoring, rear back-up camera, traction control and a myriad of other safety features.
Much like the upscale exterior treatment, Subaru went to considerable lengths to bolster the interior ambiance as well. Interior surfaces are made from better materials—with more soft-touch features replacing hard plastic, nicely finished faux wood trim, softer optional leather seats and available front and rear seat heaters. Subaru also spent ample time cutting down NVH with more insulation, a windshield made from acoustic glass, and liquid-filled motor mounts.
The gauge cluster is also redesigned with large and legible analog speedometer and tachometers along with a greater digital display for all pertinent info. The dated NAV unit of old is replaced with a contemporary touch-screen unit that is seamless in design and elegantly finished. Standard models come with a 6.2-inch version while Premium and Limited models get a larger 7.0-inch monitor. Bluetooth and handsfree action is flawless, and the Nav interface is quick to respond and is laser accurate. Our tester’s optional 576-watt, 12-speaker Harman Kardon stereo with it’s Greenedge amp sounded superb without sucking too much juice—Subaru says it's mean and green, and we can vouch for the former.
The Warm Ivory Leather inside our Wilderness Green Metallic test car was soft as a baby’s...nevermind, and equally comfortable. The 10-way adjustable power seats for both driver and passenger can accommodate just about any body-type with blissful comfort—the reclinable rear seats and ample legroom make trips with five adults a simple affair.
The Outback is powered by two engines: A base, revised 2.5-liter 4-cylinder boxer engine that makes 175hp and 174 lb-ft, or an optional a 3.6-liter flat 6-cylinder engine—a'la a Porsche—that is good for 256hp and 247 lb-ft.
Although the power figures of the new 2.5 engine are similar to the unit in the 2014 model (it made 173hp and 174 lb-ft), Subaru says that more than 80 percent of the engine is new in an effort to improve efficiency. Among the many revisions, new cylinder heads and pistons bump compression to 10.3:1 (up from 10:1) while still allowing it to operate on 87-octane fuel. Said improvements also bump fuel economy to 25 mpg city and 33 mpg highway, up from the 2014 model’s 24 city and 30 mpg highway figures.
Nearly 80-percent of customers will opt for the 2.5 according to Subaru, and in normal driving conditions it’s more than adequate at navigating the urban jungle, merging onto the highway, or tackling a dirt road en route to your desired destination.
It would never be considered overpowered, but in most situations it's more than sufficient, as its flat torque curve and well programmed CVT transmission (more on that later) work well to maximize its torque-rich character. Subaru claims a 0-60 time of 9.2 seconds, down from the 2014 model's 10.1. Like we said, it's not going to win any races, but it has more than enough poke for normal driving situations and has performance on par with the competition.
For those that want more oomph, the available flat-six engine might not get the fuel economy of the smaller four-banger, but it's a silky smooth alternative that offers more punch in the way of a low eight second dash to 60 mph. The six engine's fuel economy is now 20 mpg city and 27 highway—up from 18 city and 25 highway for the outgoing model.
Both motors are connected to CVT transmissions: the 2.5 receiving a revised unit and the 3.6 earning its first variation of the box—a high-torque version that replaces the outgoing traditional 5-speed automatic.
Both units come with programming that mimics 6 stepped gears for a more natural feel under normal driving conditions, but floor the gas and the traditional rubber-band like CVT nature shows its face. Unless you're a diehard CVT opponent, Subaru has done an excellent job of programming out the buzz often associated with CVTs as a result of the sustained high RPM under acceleration. And nobody can argue with the efficiency of a CVT. Honestly, in the world of CVTs, only Honda comes close to the seamlessness of the slushbox in the Outback.
When car meets SUV
If ever a vehicle had a longstanding identity crisis that was in no way a negative reflection of its character or capabilities, the Outback would be it. It was riding high and blurring the line between station wagon and SUV long before crossovers and CUVs were invented, and still does to this day. Truthfully, so long as your expectations are in tune with its design parameters, the Outback strikes a great balance between off-road capabilities and on-road driving dynamics.
How so? For starters, it can four-wheel with the best of them on all but the most serious of trails thanks to its unique torque-vectoring AWD system. Will it go where a Jeep with lockers and 44s can go? No. Then again, the Jeep is anything but civil anywhere else. For camping, off-road exploring, inclimate weather drudging or trips in the snow, few cars ooze confidence like the Outback, and all without having to lock differentials or make the anxiety-inducing decision between 4-Hi and 4-Low.
It's also got the carrying capacity of an SUV with 73.3 cubic feet of cargo capacity with the rear seats folded down—the new power liftgate makes hardware-store runs all the more easier with the poke of a button. Should your vacations require copious amounts of extra gear, the Outback is also quite capable when it comes to towing. In fact, the 2.5 is rated to tow 2700 pounds, while the 3.6 betters that figure to 3000 pounds.
Ok, so it has many attributes traditionally reserved for SUVs, but what about its car-like qualities?
As for its on-road manners, other than slightly more body roll during quick transitions than your average sedan, ride quality is superb and steering response is more BMW-like that you'd expect. The increased ride height also produces a commanding view of the road and the body is high enough that parking blocks and curbs aren't tall enough to hammer the bumpers or door-bottoms like on your garden variety sedan.
In short, it has the utility of an SUV with the driving dynamics and fuel economy of a car—some call that having their cake and eating it too.
Tails from the trails
As fate would have it, my folks were in the market for a new crossover and it only took one test drive in a 2015 2.5i Limited to seal the proverbial deal. A quick search for the highest rated Subaru dealers in the Bay Area revealed that Diablo Subaru of Walnut Creek, CA received top marks on the sales floor and in the service department.
It only took one phone call to salesman Moe Jammal and General Manager, Scott McCallister for my folks to decide on a full-boat Wilderness Green Metallic 2.5i Limited using the Subaru VIP Program (more on that in the next article). As any Subaru fan in the Bay Area can attest to, Diablo Subaru of Walnut Creek has been the go-to shop for over three decades thanks to a belief that customer service should come first. After dealing with numerous dealers for different journalism endeavors, it was nice to visit a no-pressure dealer full of capable and knowledgeable folks that not only sell Subarus, but also drive them—some of which have been with the marquee for several decades themselves.
As for my folks’ first Subaru, they decided to order one just the way they wanted it—with every option, save for the bigger motor. And after an 8-week hiatus while their car was carefully built at the Lafayette, Indiana plant and then shipped out to the West Coast, they took delivery of their very own 2015 Outback. Which brings us to now, the beginning of our longterm test report where we’ll chronicle the buying experience and the first year of ownership with the newly released wonder wagon.
We’ve got some epic trips planned and plenty of sites to see, tons of miles to cover and lots of information to report. For now, we’re packing up and headed to the high desert for our first on- and off-road trip. Stay tuned, we’ll share our cheers and jeers with Subaru’s ever-popular Outback. Until next time, happy trails.