The Subaru Outback delivers all-wheel drive for all-weather and light off-road capability and looks quite unlike the herds of crossover SUVs.
Last redesigned for the 2015 model year, the model line this year offers a new 2017 Subaru Outback Touring model that features Java Brown leather upholstery with contrasting ivory stitching and Brilliant Brown exterior paint. Subaru also has added rear object detection with automatic emergency braking to 2017 Outback models. Otherwise, little has changed for the 2017 model year.
Boasting 8.7 inches ground clearance, comparable to many full-fledged SUVs, the Outback is something of an outlier. Little-changed in basic structure since its 1996 debut, but steadily refined, it’s a noble if eccentric car-based vehicle among a slew of lookalike crossovers. Subaru’s all-wheel-drive system, assisted by an X-mode off-road program, demonstrates its greatest talents after the pavement ends.
Two horizontally opposed (flat) engines are offered. Based on our test drives, we think the standard 2.5-liter four-cylinder, developing 175 horsepower, is adequate for most owners, unless they anticipate regular treks up mountain roads. It’s also quite frugal, scoring an EPA-rated 28 mpg Combined city/highway.
Smoother-operating than the four, the 3.6-liter six-cylinder engine generates 256 horsepower and won’t run out of steam in steep terrain. Fuel economy isn’t an asset for the bigger, more costly engine, however, with an EPA-rated 22 mpg Combined.
Both engines mate with an outstanding continuously variable transmission (CVT). We consider it among the top CVTs, possibly the best.
Outbacks are among the safest cars out there, backed up by crash testing. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has given it five-star scores. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave Outback Good ratings across the board, naming it a Top Safety Pick+ if equipped with optional active-safety technology.
All Outbacks include a rearview camera, as well as front seat-cushion airbags. Subaru’s reasonably-priced EyeSight system is among the best active-safety groups, adding adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, and lane-departure warning. EyeSight systems may also be equipped with active lane control, blind-spot monitoring, and rear cross-traffic alert. Options include a moonroof and navigation system.
The 2017 Subaru Outback comes in six trim levels, each with all-wheel drive: Outback 2.5i ($26,520) includes cloth upholstery, hill-descent control, hill-start assist, four-speaker audio with CD player, Bluetooth, rearview camera, air conditioning, keyless entry, roof rails, and 17-inch steel wheels. Starlink infotainment has a 6.2-inch single-touch gesture display.
Outback 2.5i Premium ($28,570) adds dual-zone climate control, an All-Weather package, 10-way power driver’s seat, leather-wrapped steering wheel, 7-inch touchscreen with multi-touch gesture controls, electro-luminescent instrument panel, six-speaker audio, and 17-inch alloy wheels.
Outback 2.5i Limited ($33,265) gets perforated leather-trimmed seat upholstery, heated power front seats, heated rear seats, woodgrain trim, 18-inch alloy wheels, Harman Kardon 12-speaker 576-watt audio, and a power liftgate with memory. Safety features include blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and reverse automatic braking. Outback 2.5i Touring ($36,870) adds special trim, machined-finish 18-inch wheels.
Outback 3.6R Limited ($35,870) and Outback 3.6R Touring ($39,070) move up to the six-cylinder engine, adding high-intensity-discharge low-beam headlights and dual stainless-steel exhaust tips.
Outback is related to the Legacy sedan, though they share no sheetmetal. Handsome in an offbeat way, the wagon is easily recognizable as the Subaru Outback.
The 2015 redesign gave the wagon a more rakish, sweptback profile, but SUV overtones can be seen in its blunt front and upright grille. Active grille shutters help boost fuel-efficiency. Lower-body cladding gives the bodysides a rather rakish, emphatic aura.
Functionality meets a modest dose of style within the Outback’s cabin. An upright center stack reaches into a huge dashboard. Upper trim levels get tasteful wood trim, but underneath, they’re essentially dressed-up variants of the standard model.
Materials aren’t as luxury-minded as some comparable vehicles, but fit and finish are significantly better than in the past. Even so, the tendency toward lower-budget cabin development is evident. Some hard materials can be found, and control buttons might feel plastic-like. Subaru’s focus is on engineering, not luxurious interiors.
Even though it qualifies as midsize, seating space and cargo areas are substantial. At 38.1 inches, back-seat legroom falls around the middle for competitive models. Liftover height is relatively low, promising easier cargo loading. Cargo space totals 35.5 cubic feet.
Off-road prowess and all-wheel-drive traction might attract initial attention to the Outback, but its smooth ride could seal the deal. Performance and gas mileage depend on the engine choice.
With the four-cylinder engine, a 3,500-pound Outback can feel overtaxed. Even so, unless you expect to be trudging up steep mountain roads, the smaller engine should suffice. Horizontally opposed engines aren’t inherently thrifty, so even the four-cylinder isn’t so frugal if pushed hard. The four-cylinder is EPA-rated at 25/32 mpg City/Highway, or 28 mpg Combined.
More capable of coping with demanding upgrades, the six-cylinder engine is EPA-rated at a less-tempting 20/27 mpg City/Highway, or 22 mpg Combined. The 3.6-liter develops 247 pound-feet of torque, from as low as 2000 rpm all the way to 6000 rpm, helping to avoid running out of energy when worked hard. Six-cylinder Outbacks have a heavier steering feel.
CVTs tend to be sluggish, but Subaru’s version deserves a prize for impressive performance. Six simulated steps provide ratios like the physical gears within a normal transmission. Paddle shifters on upper trim levels can help the 2.5-liter engine when the going gets tougher. Subarus are quite popular in mountainous regions, though with the four-cylinder, a heavier foot on the accelerator might be needed fairly often.
Four-cylinder Outbacks can tow up to 2,700 pounds, versus 3,000 pounds for the 3.6-liter six-cylinder. All Outbacks are fairly quiet, emitting little more than a mild growl.
All-weather capability and along-the-trail prowess intensify performance credibility. Active torque vectoring promises improved control of individual wheels on certain low-traction surfaces.
X-Mode comes into play at lower speeds, making the gas pedal less touchy and altering the shift pattern. Ventilated all-disc brakes perform well, with little nosedive.
Visibility is good, but window positions and a rather tall body could make backing up and parking a bit challenging.
Today’s Outback is substantially more refined than its predecessors, led by a quieter cabin. In terms of quality and comfort, the wagon is competitive with models that cost far more. In upper trim levels, what used to be a rugged, essentially modest wagon has evolved into a near-luxury contender.
Driving impressions by Aaron Cole, The Car Connection. James M. Flammang contributed to this report.