In 1995, Subaru carved a whole new category for itself by essentially raising the ride height and ground clearance of their all-wheel-drive Legacy station wagon. To complete the package, they gave it some SUV styling cues such as large fog lamps and extra tough looking body cladding. And so the first sport-utility wagon was born.
Yes, others may argue that strictly speaking, the AMC Eagle wagons pre-dated the Outback by 17 years. However, Subaru was first to successfully plant the idea into the minds of consumers enmasse. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Outback was Subaru’s clever effort to capitalize on surging consumer demand for SUVs without the engineering expense needed to design a whole new vehicle. This was time and money that Subaru frankly couldn’t afford to spend.
The idea was simple. SUVs of the day were based on pickup truck platforms, rough riding, and heavy on fuel usage. Subaru of America’s agency, Temerlin & McClain, hedged their bets on Australian Actor, Paul Hogan, star of “Crocodile Dundee” to help bolster up the Outback’s image as rough (but not rough riding) and tough.
The $20+ million dollar campaign at the time represented an effort to show off the Outback as the perfect vehicle for those who wanted to take their vehicles on the occasional light off-road trail to go mountain biking without sacrificing the ride, comfort, or fuel economy of a passenger car.
And you know what? It worked.
20 years later, the Outback is still a success and in fact now in its fifth generation.
A lot of things have changed in two decades. The Subaru Legacy wagon upon which the Outback was spawned is no longer produced. There are almost a countless number of entries in the crossover space that Subaru has helped to create. Also, Subaru itself has a compact SUV, the Forester, which has sold well in and of itself.
However, for those looking for a sport utility wagon in the non-luxury market, there is pretty much only one contender. The original player. The Subaru Outback.
Let’s take a closer look at our Outback 2.5 Limited model.
Compared to its processor, the Outback has grown in every dimension. Not wanting to ruin a good thing, the designers not exceeded any growth by 0.7 of an inch. After all, the original Outback did established a template for many competitive crossover models that followed.
The new front look, complete with the Subaru hexagonal grille and headlights, is in line with the corporate template and there is a new shape to the lower grille and fog light surrounds. I think that overall it is an improvement, as I was never a fan of the upswept eyeliner look of the previous generation Outback’s headlamps.
Other changes are more subtle, such as a windshield that is more raked, pulled 2 inches forward at the base. This new windshield angle, higher seating hip points, new front windows, and repositioned wing mirrors are designed to help with visibility.
What you also won’t see behind the hexagonal grille is a new active shutter system on the Outback 2.5i that helps to improve fuel economy by reducing wind resistance when closed. More on this later.
Overall, the 0.2 inch increase in wheelbase, 0.6 inch increase in length, and 0.7 inch increase in width, though small, yield a roomier passenger cabin at 108.1 cu. Ft (up from 105.4 cu.ft).
The Outback continues with 8.7 inches of ground clearance, higher compared to some SUVs. Yet there is a low step-in height for easy entry and egress.
The Outback’s slightly raised ride height but low step-in makes it a great family vehicle as young kids can clamour into the back all by themselves without parental assistance.
Playing to its outdoorsy character, there are new step-style door sills that now allow one to stand firmly on the door jams when securing objects to the roof rails with their integrated retractable crossbars and tie downs.
Being a small company, Subaru hasn’t always had the resources to invest in creating the prettiest interiors. However, latest Outback brings Subaru inline with big players Toyota and Honda.
There are still some hard plastic surfaces, but the dash and most of the door panels are soft touch materials. Nicely grained plastic has also been clever disguised to look like metal trim along the width of the dashboard.
Overall, the interior feels well constructed, albeit a bit unremarkable. It should age well in time and I have no doubt that it will still look presentable after years of service.
Subaru’s infotainment systems haven’t always been with the times but a much improved touch screen interface (which looks suspiciously similar to Toyota’s) finally makes an appearance.
There is a 6.2-inch base version, or the upgraded 7-inch version (with GPS satellite navigation) that my Limited trim Outback was fitted with. The latter offers multi-touch pinch and pull gestures, just like your iPad/iPhone, to accompany much improved user interface and satellite navigation graphics.
I am slightly concerned that the glossy plastic will easily show scratches over time, but it looked good when new anyway. Only time will tell.
For 2016, the higher end infotainment head unit also includes Siri compatibility for iPhone users, and a rather unique ability to buffer both AM/FM radio stations, and up to 30 minutes of SiriusXM satellite radio content simultaneously across 5 radio stations. Subaru now also includes 3 years of free map updates for vehicles equipped with the GPS head unit.
The Outback’s cargo area has been enlarged to 35.5 cu. ft. behind the rear seats, up from 34.3, while maximum capacity with the standard 60/40 split fold-down rear seatbacks folded is now 73.3 cu. ft., up from 71.3.
In addition, the load floor provided by the lowered seats now lays flatter, and new rear seatback release levers in the cargo area enhance convenience.
Speaking of the rear seats, they’re now even available with heating on the outboard positions and can recline.
With its tall greenhouse, even with the optional moonroof, there is a comfortable amount of space to transport your passengers that may shop at Big & Tall. And finally, for added convenience, a power tailgate is available for the first time ever.
Perhaps my only other criticism is that the front seat base cushions feel a little short. I’m of average height and build at 5’9″, but I still felt that there could’ve been more thigh support especially for longer drives.
In the past,, Subaru hasn’t really shouted far and loud about EyeSight, its adaptive cruise control and collision mitigation system. But it sure is doing that now.
This system is now available on both the mid-level “Touring” trim and my range-topping “Limited” model. Kudos to Subaru for even making it available on all of the models in their line-up, including their compact car contender, the Subaru Impreza.
The revised version of EyeSight is able to apply braking to mitigate a crash without driver input at higher speeds than before. It can also warn you of a vehicle approaching quickly from behind when you’re about to change lanes and, as before, includes adaptive cruise control.
Subaru has increased the number of distance settings from three to four and designed EyeSight-equipped models to intensify either the left or right fog light during turns in those directions.
One of my biggest pet peeves with these systems is that they can be too conservative even in their closest setting, leaving a large gap for other drivers to constantly cut in front of you in traffic. Compared to similar systems on the market, Subaru’s seems to be the best at being able to leave what I consider a reasonable gap between cars.
But yet, the company’s system was still able to score the highest in the US Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s new test program that rates the performance of crash prevention systems.
Ride and Drive
The Outback is one of the comfortable cruisers you can buy today. Its tall tire sidewalls translate into a cushy ride that is comfortable but certainly not sporty. You definitely won’t be mistaking it for a Subaru BRZ in the handling department.
Subaru’s engineers say that the taller sidewalls and slightly extra body lean are ok because of the grip that is still available thanks to the torque vectoring all-wheel-drive system.
Like other Subarus, the Outback carries on with a CVT but the latest Lineartronic programming is smarter than ever. Artificially programmed “steps” in the transmission can be manually selected with the steering wheel mounted flappy paddles and they simulate real gears quite convincingly.
The CVT’s pay off is better fuel consumption and smoothness in traffic. The downside? Mainly the occasion elastic-feeling response.
Romp on the throttle pedal hard enough and those “steps” will be selected automatically. However, some steeper uphill gradients will still leave the engine in a constant pitch of high revs and disproportionate forward motion, especially with the less powerful 175hp 4-cylinder engine fitted to my press car.
The 3.6R’s 256hp six-cylinder engine has a much more linear power delivery and top-end kick without sacrificing too much fuel economy. That would be my personal choice of engine.
Overall, the Outback’s on-road experience is what owners have come to expect and love. Road noise levels are low and the vehicle is sufficiently responsive, balanced, and easy to drive.
Over 20 years after its introduction, the Subaru Outback still offers a lot of what made it appealing in the first place.
You get the space of a family station wagon with the security of all-wheel-drive, but also a whole lot more. This includes many of the tech toys from European luxury SUVs without the high price tag, and arguably a general sense of invincibility without the brash image of a gas guzzling SUV.
What you don’t get, of course, is the posh badge to go with all of the accoutrements.
Subaru says that its extremely loyal Outback buyers demanded the same silhouette as the outgoing model but with a tad bit more luxury appointments, a dollop more refinement, and lower running costs in general. I think they’ve succeeded.
All of the above may seem like a lot to ask for, but Subaru has indeed delivered a better mousetrap. One that is a tad larger, a tad more aerodynamic, and a heck of a lot more advanced, all while sticking with their mantra of offering all-wheel-drive and boxer engines.
Sure, the Outback isn’t the sort of vehicle that you can grab the scruff of the neck and toss about with abandon like you can with a Forester or WRX, but there is plenty of grip, even when hustled, and you can easily attack a gritty, muddy, or snow-covered road with gusto with its 8.7 inch of ground clearance and Subaru’s latest permanent all-wheel-drive system.
If you’re looking for a crossover that makes a whole lot of sense practically and financially, the Subaru Outback should definitely be on your short list.