Republished: 01/14/2015 (Original Date: 07/01/2014)
Mike Monticello, Road Test Editor
The Outback is the off-road-worthy wagon version of Subaru's Legacy sedan. This new fifth generation of the Outback impresses with not just an abundance of utility, but a newfound level of class within the spacious cabin. It's a cold-weather climate favorite with virtually no true competition at its price point. And, unlike crossover SUVs, the Outback drives exactly like what it is: a station wagon.
What Is It?
The redesigned 2015 Subaru Outback is a midsize crossover wagon. It has a higher stance than most cars to give it some off-road ability, yet it has a lower roof height than most SUVs. All-wheel drive is standard on all models.
For this redesign the wheelbase was extended by 0.2 inch, with overall length up by 0.6 inch and width increased by 0.7 inch versus the outgoing car. It's similar in size to a Volvo XC70, but about 10 inches longer than a Honda CR-V or Toyota RAV4. Although the 2015 Subaru Outback hasn't grown much on the outside, overall interior volume has increased from 105.4 cubic feet to 108.1.
Two horizontally opposed engines (also known as "boxers") are available, a 2.5-liter four-cylinder rated at 175 horsepower (with a hold-onto-your-hat, 2-hp increase) and a 3.6-liter 6-cylinder rated at 256 hp. Both are paired with a continuously variable transmission (CVT) with standard steering-wheel paddle shifters.
What Body Styles and Trim Levels Does It Come in?
The base model is called the 2.5i and it starts at $25,745 (including $850 destination), $400 more than last year's model. The next step up is the volume-selling 2.5i Premium that begins at $27,845 (a $200 increase). It features upgrades like dual-zone climate control, a 10-way power driver seat, leather-wrapped steering wheel, a 7-inch high-resolution infotainment screen, satellite radio, dual USB ports and a six-speaker audio system.
The 2.5i Limited begins at $30,845. It adds perforated leather seats, 18-inch alloy wheels, a 12-speaker/576-watt Harman Kardon sound system, heated rear seats, blind-spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert and a power tailgate. At the top of the range is the six-cylinder 3.6R Limited starting at $33,845.
How Does It Drive?
The previous-generation Outback had lost some of its nimble on-road nature. This version has a stiffer body and revised suspension tuning that has made it a competent handling wagon once again. The new electric-assist power steering is precise, has a quicker ratio and gives excellent driver feedback through corners. The plentiful suspension travel endows the Outback with a plush ride. The all-season tires are reasonably quiet, aside from some tire slap over surface changes. We also noticed some extra wind rustling from the new door-mounted side mirrors.
No one will call the 2.5i Limited "quick." We managed a 0-60-mph time of 9.6 seconds in our testing, which is 0.2 second quicker than the old car. That translates to just enough power for safe highway merging, but load the thing up with people and gear and it's going to feel overwhelmed, especially if elevation gets thrown into the equation. Oddly, the throttle delivery is annoyingly abrupt with the four-cylinder, no doubt in an attempt to make it feel faster than it is.
The CVT is well tuned, and by that we mean Subaru engineers designed in stepped shifts that nearly simulate the upshifting of a traditional automatic transmission. Press the gas pedal to the floor and, yes, the engine will wind out to around 5,500 rpm. But unlike most CVTs it won't just hold the tachometer at max revs; it will instead "shift" to drop the revs back down just slightly. The six-cylinder gives more of the punch we crave, and if you live in a mountainous area you're going to want this larger, super-smooth engine.
Although the Outback is more of a station wagon than it is a tall and airy SUV, slim pillars give it superb outward visibility. The rear/side triangle-ish windows help greatly with lane changes, and a back-up camera with parking lines comes standard on all trim levels.
How Good Is It Off-Road?
In a word, capable. The suspension soaks up hard hits with ease, and the 8.7 inches of ground clearance is impressive. We put the Outback through its paces in a variety of off-road settings, including thick forest trails with big bumps, loose rocks, mud, sand and gravel roads. The speed with which you can bound over ruts without the Outback skittering off the intended path is admirable. It remained composed at all times, and surprisingly quiet, despite the harsh environment. And while the steering gave great feedback on pavement, somehow it was kickback-free off-road, even over unforgiving embedded rock sections.
We only scraped the front of the car once during all of our off-roading, at the bottom of a steep downhill while testing the Hill Descent control, a new standard feature for 2015. It's activated via the X-Mode button on the center console and uses engine braking to keep the Outback at a set speed on steep, loose or rocky downhills. Press the button, point the Outback downhill and as soon as you let off the brake, whatever speed you were going as you did so instantly becomes the set speed. All you need to do is steer, and it takes care of the rest. You can increase the set pace simply by pressing the gas pedal, or decrease it by stepping on the brake pedal.
How Is the Interior Comfort?
The new front seats have generous padding with excellent all-day comfort, but long-legged folks might wish for a bit more thigh support. We quite liked the soft, grippy cloth seats in the 2.5i Premium, not to mention the supple, perforated leather versions that come standard on the Limited model. Ultra-plush armrests abound throughout the car, a nice touch.
Even though the Outback is more of a carlike wagon than a top-heavy SUV, there's plenty of headroom up front and room for driver and passenger to spread out. But it's the rear seat that will surprise you. Not so much because of the abundant head- and legroom but rather it's the plentiful hiproom that stands out. Three adults can sit comfortably in back with no complaints.
There are 35.5 cubic feet of space behind the rear seat, which grows to 73.3 with the seatbacks dropped. New for this year are rear-seat fold-down levers in the cargo area.
Pretty much the entire interior is new, with a large center stack with easy-to-use controls. The climate control system is a mix of large buttons and knobs. We were only able to sample the higher-trim, 7-inch touchscreen (not the standard 6.2-incher), which gives you the ability to zoom in and out on the nav screen map by squeezing your fingers together or apart. There's also a handy cell phone slot on the center console.
Subaru upped the interior refinement ante with more soft-touch materials, most noticeably the entire dash and the window sills. Trim pieces have been improved, too, with a textured fake aluminum on lower models and surprisingly convincing fake wood on higher versions.
How Safe Is It?
All 2015 Subaru Outbacks come with a rearview camera that can be viewed via the center stack screen. All cars also get new front-seat cushion airbags to hold occupants in place in a front collision, instead of the traditional knee airbags. A new rollover sensor will deploy the side curtain airbags if it senses a rollover is about to happen.
Top-level Limited trims come with blind spot detection, lane change assist (detects fast-approaching vehicles in adjacent lanes) and rear cross-traffic alert. A new version of Subaru's Eyesight crash-mitigation system is also available on Premium and Limited cars. Via two cameras mounted high on the windshield, it integrates adaptive cruise control, pre-collision braking and lane-departure warning and has the ability to bring the car to a full stop if the driver does not react to an impending accident. The cameras have been improved with 40 percent greater range and viewing angle, yet are 15 percent smaller than before.
The U.S. government gave the 2015 Subaru Outback its top five-star overall rating, with five stars in the frontal and side crash tests and four stars for the rollover test. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rated the Outback at its highest "Good" level for all crash tests.
In our 60-0-mph panic-brake test, the 2015 Outback stopped in 123 feet, 7 feet shorter than the last four-cylinder Outback we tested. The car exhibits considerable nosedive when you apply full brakes, thanks to the plentiful suspension travel, but the brakes offer good modulation for easy lurch-free stops around town.
What Kind of Mileage Does It Deliver?
The revised CVT, wind-resistance-reducing active grille shutters and new-for-2015 electric-assist power steering all contribute to an improved EPA combined rating of 28 mpg (25 city/33 highway) on four-cylinder models. The previous car was rated at 26 mpg combined (21 city/28 highway). We averaged 28.9 mpg on our highway-heavy evaluation loop, although only 22.1 mpg overall during its entire stay with us.
The six-cylinder 3.6R Limited is rated to deliver 22 mpg in combined driving (20 city/27 highway).
What Are Its Closest Competitors?
With its roomy passenger and cargo space, mountain goat off-road ability and reasonable price, there are few direct competitors for the Outback.
The Honda CR-V stands as a good crossover SUV alternative to the Outback at a similar price with just slightly less interior room, but it isn't as capable off-road.
Similar situation with the Toyota RAV4: It's a fairly rugged SUV with solid performance, but as with the CR-V, it just can't dig through the dirt or snow like the Outback.
The Volvo XC70 is similar to the Outback in that it rides on a raised suspension for light off-roading and has a similar footprint. It gives the option of a 300-hp turbocharged engine, yet even the lower-horsepower front-wheel-drive base XC70 costs more than the top-of-the-line Outback 3.6R Limited.
The Audi Allroad, like the Volvo XC70 and Subaru Outback, has a taller ride height and looks the off-road part. But not only does it offer significantly less passenger and cargo space than the Subaru, it costs thousands more.
Why Should You Consider This Car?
This is the go-anywhere, do-anything wagon for those who aren't sold on the idea of high-riding SUVs. It's comfortable, quiet, gets competitive fuel mileage, handles well on pavement and can scurry along dirt roads with pretty much anything this side of a Jeep or Land Rover.
Why Should You Think Twice About This Car?
Although the CVT has been improved to act more like a traditional automatic transmission, the four-cylinder/CVT combo might prove too wimpy for some. The six-cylinder offers enthusiast-acceptable oomph, but fuel economy is far from stellar.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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