Subaru Outback — New and improved

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The Outback, the best-selling Subaru through the first 11 months of 2014, debuted in 1994 as a derivative of the second-generation mid-sized Legacy, making Subaru one of the first automakers to turn the out-of-favor station wagon into an SUV of sorts adding side body cladding — a SUV styling statement of the '90s — and raising the suspension to go with its standard all-wheel drive format. Call it a crossover if you wish, but it has come to epitomize the rugged all-weather go-anywhere modern version of the station wagon.

The newest Outback very effectively advances the brand with increased passenger and cargo space, better gas mileage, upgraded interior materials, more intuitive controls, and an abundance of standard and optional safety features.

Subaru has added about an inch to the overall length and two inches to the width, increasing interior space by three cubic feet. Some of that increase has been added to rear-seat passenger room — legroom and rear hip room have been increased an inch to 38.1 inches and 55 inches respectively. That's a big deal with the Outback, which has always been slightly short of passenger space compared to competitors. The bottom line — there’s no problem getting comfortable in the back seat.

What Subaru hasn't done is mess with the styling. The Japanese company has played it extremely safe with exterior design. Without viewing a fourth-generation 2014 Outback next to a 2015 model, it's difficult to tell them apart. The new Outback carries the newest version of the Subaru grille and gets a number of other facial touches. And the windshield is more raked, pulled forward two inches at the base. The remainder of the vehicle has been for all practical purposes left alone.

Although the horsepower and torque ratings of the two available engines have not changed, Subaru says the engines have been completely redesigned to reduce weight and improve fuel efficiency. The base engine continues to be a 2.5-liter horizontally opposed (boxer) four-cylinder making 175 horsepower and 174 pound-feet of torque. The 3.6-liter six-cylinder engine continues with 256 horsepower and 247 pound-feet of torque. The 2.5-liter picks up two miles per gallon combined, now rated at a solid 25 mpg city, 33 highway and 28 combined. The six-cylinder also jumps two mpg, from 22 to 24 mpg combined.

The biggest outward change has been the addition of a continuously variable transmission in six cylinder. Both engines are now outfitted with a CVT that has been engineered with six "gears" to give the feel of a conventional shifter by using shift paddles.

The new Outback provides a more engaging driving experience with its revised suspension tuning and surprisingly precise steering. At the same time, the ride is luxury plush and the interior is as quiet as any mainstream mid-sized crossover we've encountered.

Subaru has also enhanced the Outback's rugged off-road demeanor with a standard feature Subaru calls X-Mode. When engaged by a switch on the console, X-Mode optimizes engine output and CVT ratio position, increases all-wheel drive engagement and uses enhanced control logic for the Vehicle Dynamics Control (VDC) system to reduce individual wheel spin. Engaging X-Mode also activates the new hill descent control.

The big question, will the four-cylinder engine be adequate for your needs or will you be compelled to move to the more expensive and less fuel-friendly six? We think most people will be satisfied with the 2.5 as highway speeds can be reasonably accomplished if the car is not loaded down with cargo and people.

The interior has been upgraded with more soft-touch materials and additional standard features. The instrument panel is highlighted by two binocular-style gauge pods with a useful center LCD information display. The base model now features a 6.2-inch touchscreen interface for audio and entertainment functions. A 7-inch screen comes standard on the upper trim levels. The large center stack features easy-to-use controls.

Another new Subaru product is “EyeSight,” available on higher trim models. It bundles numerous safety features including blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, adaptive cruise control, a lane-departure warning system, and/or a pedestrian/front collision-warning and -mitigation system with brake intervention.

The Outback comes in four trim levels — 2.5i, 2.5i Premium, 2.5i Limited and 3.6R Limited. Starting at $25,745, the Outback has an impressive list of standard equipment including full power accessories, cruise control, air conditioning, tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, rearview camera and a full range of safety equipment. The six-cylinder starts at $33,845 with all major options included. Our 2.5i Premium test car with a handful of options including a power liftgate and moonroof carried a bottom line of $29,480.

Base price: $25,745; as driven, $29,480
Engine: 2.5-liter flat four cylinder
Horsepower: 175 @ 5,800 rpm
Torque: 174 foot-pounds @ 4,000 rpm
Transmission: continuously variable
Drive: all-wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 108.1 inches
Length: 189.6 inches
Curb weight: 3,633 pounds
Turning circle: 36.1 feet
Luggage capacity: 35.5 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 73.3 cubic feet
Towing capacity: 2,700 pounds
Fuel capacity: 18.2 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 33 highway, 25 city
0-60: 9.2 seconds (Motor Trend)
Also consider: Kia Sorento, Audi Allroad, Volvo XC70

The Good
• All-wheel drive standard
• Fuel-efficient engines
• Spacious, well-appointed interior
• Off-road capable

The Bad
• Towing, hauling capacity limited with four-cylinders

The Ugly
• Six-cylinder engine gets CVT