Where many manufacturers have wavered with the coming and going of wagons in and out of their lineups, Subaru has stood firm with its iconic all-wheel-drive wagon, the Outback.
The 2014 Outback may not woo you with the most innovative features or dazzling luxury finishes, but this tried-and-true wagon will carry you and your family dutifully through any condition you can throw at it.
The Subaru Outback is not just another test car for me; it's a trip down memory lane. I used to own an Outback and brought both my daughters home from the hospital in it. I had chosen the Outback for its safe feel, low center of gravity and ability to handle mixed Rocky Mountain weather conditions without batting an eye, but its massive hump in the center of the backseat back then made it impossible to install a third child-safety seat, which locked me out of carpooling when my girls started school. This frustration birthed my career quest for the quintessential mom-mobile a decade ago.
I'm happy to announce that in the past ten years, I've eliminated all chunky, ribbed turtleneck sweaters from my wardrobe, and Subaru has done away with the massive center hump in the backseat. Win-win.
The 2014 Outback comes in four styles, including the 2.5i, 2.5i Premium, 2.5i Limited and a 3.6R Limited (which is the one I drove). See them all side by side here.
The Outback has some updates for the 2014 model year, including a revised continuously variable automatic transmission, options for Premium and Limited models that include EyeSight driver assistance technology, an optional backup camera, and Aha internet radio smartphone integration packaged with the optional navigation system. There's an optional alloy wheel package on the 2.5i model. Check out 2014 and 2013 versions side by side here.
If you're in the market for a solid family-hauling wagon but Subaru just doesn't fit the bill for you, you may also want to consider the Honda Crosstour and Toyota Venza. See them compared with the Outback here.
Exterior & Styling
The 2014 Outback fit right in here in Colorado. You see them in the city, freshly waxed and reflecting the skyline; in the burbs, carrying a load of school kids; and in the mountains, caked with ice and snow. It presents a nice mix of functional SUV qualities (8.7 inches of ground clearance and a large and usable cargo space) with a fairly refined carlike look that you wouldn't be embarrassed to park with a valet.
Despite its SUV-like ground clearance, somehow the Outback still provides a manageable step-in height, making it easy for kids and grandparents alike to step in without having to engage their rock-climbing skills. However, the low roofline does require a slight duck to get in without hitting your head.
How It Drives
The Outback 3.6R Limited I drove features a five-speed automatic transmission along with the standard all-wheel drive. I had plenty of power both around town and getting up to speed quickly on the highway.
I was a little surprised by the bounciness of the Outback over even small bumps on the highway; rather than damping them out immediately, the Outback exhibited a noticeable recovery bounce.
Cornering in the Outback — whether at speed on highway off-ramps or on the slow, twisty roads on the way to my girls' school — felt confident and solidly planted. I was happy to see that the main thing that attracted me to the Outback for my own family so many years ago has most certainty endured.
The Outback 3.6R Limited sports a 256-horsepower, 3.6-liter six-cylinder engine that gets an EPA-estimated 17/25/20 mpg city/highway/combined. For a vast improvement in fuel consumption — though at the cost of acceleration — you can opt into any of the 2.5i models with their 173-hp, 2.5-liter four-cylinder and continuously variable automatic transmission. These models get an EPA-estimated 24/30/26 mpg city/highway/combined. A six-speed manual transmission, available on base and Premium trim levels, gets an estimated 22/29/24 mpg.
My family and I were pleasantly surprised by how spacious and roomy the Outback felt, even with all five of us packed in. My girls (a modern mix including my 9-year-old stepdaughter along with my "babies," who are now 11 and 13), had plenty of backseat legroom (37.8 inches). This is a tad more than the Honda Crosstour's 37.4 inches of rear legroom, but if you really want to stretch out, the Venza has the most legroom, with 39.1 inches. The Venza also wins in terms of hip room for those who regularly pack three kids in or need to squeeze in multiple child-safety seats.
The rear seat's bottom cushion is virtually flat, making the center seat quite a usable position for a child or car seat. However, the center rear seat belt extends down from the roofline and tends to cut high and uncomfortably across a child's neck, not to mention the slight rear visibility distraction this causes. Why not just install the seat belt into the seatback, Subaru?
Kids in the back can stay comfortably cool or warm with their own air vents at the back of the center console. The center armrest in the backseat folds down to provide two cupholders, and both the front and rear doors have additional storage pockets.
The interior of my Outback was equipped with the standard finishes, which looked and felt a little cheap for my taste. I noticed some scratches already appearing on the faux brushed-aluminum trim pieces adorning the center control panel. An optional Special Appearance Package is available for the more discriminating consumer and includes saddle brown leather-trimmed seats (which would hopefully hide more dirt, as the black on my test car seemed to illuminate every speck) and a matte wood-grain-patterned interior trim finish.
Ergonomics & Electronics
My test car did not come with the optional navigation system and its corresponding 7-inch touch-screen display. The standard 4.3-inch screen in my tester seemed antiquated. It was hard to navigate through menus, and the backup camera's tiny image on this screen felt like a mean joke. Is that a child behind my neighbor's garden gnome?
While the front two seats were heated in my test car (standard on all but the base trim), the amount of heat they produced was on the wimpy side. My husband commented that if he'd purchased this car, he'd return it solely for the fact that the seats didn't get hot enough to actually warm his backside. That might be a bit of an overreaction, but you get the idea.
Cargo & Storage
There's a load of cargo space in the Outback that's perfect for families who evolve from hauling double strollers to hockey gear or massive dance competition rolling garment bags with pop-up closet racks. (Yep — they exist. Save me!)
The rear seats split 65/35 and fold flat easily for a maximum cargo volume of 71.3 cubic feet. The Outback is the winner of the bunch, with the Venza just behind at 70.2 cubic feet and the Crosstour offering just 51.3 cubic feet of maximum cargo capacity.
The 2014 Outback is an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick Plus — the organization's highest honor. It received the highest rating of good in the moderate overlap frontal crash test, as well as the side, roof-strength and head-restraints-and-seats tests. It received a slightly lower rating of acceptable in the small overlap front test, but only two models in the Midsize Moderately Priced Cars category, the Honda Accord sedan and Chevy Malibu, earned the good rating in this test. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also performed crash tests on the Outback, which earned an overall score of five out of five stars.
Families installing child-safety seats with the Outback's Latch system will be pleased with access to the lower anchors. They're concealed within covered slits in the seat bight, yet are fairly easy to access without incurring bodily injury. Older children in booster seats will be happy with the seat belt buckles in the two outboard seating positions. They're on solid bases, making them easy for children with small hands and developing fine motor skills to buckle on their own.
The center seating position is a different story. There's that shoulder belt extending down from the roofline, and the center seat belt buckle receptor is on a flimsy base that's harder to buckle. The optional EyeSight system was not included on my test car, so I didn't have an opportunity to try it out myself, but that option package includes additional safety features such as adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning and pre-collision braking with pedestrian detection. IIHS rates these features superior, making the Outback and Subaru Legacy the only models in the class rated so highly in this area. We only wish these active-safety features weren't tied to non-safety features in expensive option packages. Safety features should be a la carte.
See all the Outback's standard safety features listed here.
Value in Its Class
The Subaru Outback is one of those vehicles that will continue to have a loyal cult following, especially as each version improves a little bit. Sure, when you boil it down it might be falling behind other progressive brands in terms of the speed of evolution of interior niceties and modern electronic conveniences, but the Outback remains the strong, silent type that will get you where you're going come rain, snow or sun — without the brash and overly brute, aggressive qualities of a typical SUV.