The 2015 Subaru Outback is a capable hauler, and where previous versions lagged with droning highway manners, a utilitarian interior and cramped interior space, this version improves on — if not solves — those shortcomings.
The Subaru Outback holds a unique position in the market. It's arguably a station wagon, but it handles off-road driving better than some SUVs. It's one of the more expensive vehicles Subaru makes, but some of its charm lies in its function-over-form, non-luxury styling. It also has a loyal buying base, so any changes have to walk a fine line, lest Subaru upsets the faithful.
The highlights of the 2015 redesign include updated exterior styling, interior refinements, a new drivetrain and improved fuel economy. Compare specs of the 2014 and 2015 models here.
The Outback competes with crossovers such as the Ford Edge, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Hyundai Santa Fe Sport. See relevant specs compared side by side here.
The Outback is available in 2.5i Standard, 2.5i Premium and 2.5i Limited trims with a 175-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, and in 3.6R Limited trim with a 256-hp, 3.6-liter six-cylinder. All versions now use a continuously variable automatic transmission.
For 2015, four-cylinder models get an estimated 25/33/28 mpg city/highway/combined, compared with the previous four-cylinder CVT's 24/30/26 mpg estimate. Six-cylinder models are now rated 20/27/22 mpg, up from 17/25/20 mpg when the car was equipped with a five-speed automatic.
Subaru sells more 2.5i Premium versions of the Outback than any other. I tested that version, as well as a 3.6R Limited, over a mix of rural highways, gravel roads and off-road terrain.
Exterior & Styling
The Outback's exterior changes are subtle but pay off in a big way. First — and to my eye, best — Subaru toned down the previous Outback's chunky, rugged body cladding.
Where the previous generation always looked like a mish-mash to me — as if the car were made of LEGOs with cladding clicked on after the fact — this version looks more sleek and integrated. The change is most evident on Outbacks painted in lighter colors. The new look is a good look.
The 2015 Outback also gets the larger, trapezoidal grille that other new Subarus wear, along with restyled headlights. The base of the windshield has been moved forward 2 inches, and the side mirrors were moved down to the door from the windshield pillar.
Overall, the car looks smoother, leaner and not as thrown-together as the previous version. With its roof rails, tall ride height and wagon body style, it still looks like a Subaru, but one where the automaker took some extra time to tie all the styling elements together.
How It Drives
The four-cylinder offers modest power, but the CVT provides a quicker response than some of the eight- and nine-speed transmissions that are popping up all over the market. The responsiveness is nice, but it won't blow anybody away. It's adequate for passing at highway speeds as long as you have time to make the pass.
However, you will hear a lot of noise from the engine, along with a pronounced whine from the transmission, especially when pushed. While cruising, however, the engine and transmission are unobtrusive; there's no steady drone or whine that's sometimes common with four-cylinder/CVT combinations.
The six-cylinder engine is the star of the show, but it's not all about using that extra horsepower to go faster. True, the six-cylinder Outback easily passes on the highway and accelerates away from stop signs with more purpose than the four, but the biggest benefit is heard rather than felt: Because the engine doesn't have to strain to move the weight of the Outback, it's noticeably quieter. That helps the otherwise rugged Outback better compete with European luxury wagons in terms of interior noise and general refinement. The transmission whine that pops up in four-cylinder versions is also much more muted in the six-cylinder model.
There's nothing wrong with the four-cylinder — it's adequate — but if I wanted a more comfortable vehicle, I'd opt for the six-cylinder.
All Outbacks benefit from a quicker steering ratio for 2015. This pays off not only at higher speeds or when you want to make fast steering changes, but also when moving through parking lots. It just takes less movement of the wheel to turn the car.
Subaru said it made this generation of the Outback stiffer, and the car feels predictable, tending toward understeer when pushed hard into turns. The net result of both the steering and chassis changes is a car that inspires confidence — if not necessarily sporty driving — both on twisty roads and off-road.
Despite the stiffness, the Outback offers a fairly comfortable ride. It tends toward the stiffer side of the scale, but it deals easily with pavement expansion joints, and the rolling/pitching/undulating sections of my off-road driving didn't create the bucking or fore-and-aft rolling that some vehicles can. The best praise I can give is that after a solid day of driving in mixed conditions, I was less tired and beat up than in most other cars I've driven — even when those other drives were confined to pavement.
The preceding Outback's cabin had a very utilitarian feel, but Subaru dressed it up for this generation; it's more than competitive for the non-luxury class. There's new leather; two new, larger multimedia screens (6.2 inches on 2.5i models and 7 inches on uplevel versions); and the center storage bin has been redesigned to hold tablets as large as an iPad.
The door armrests and center armrest have thicker cushioning and offer a nice, soft feel that makes longer drives easier on your elbows. The steering wheel also has a good, solid feel to it, and the dashboard is padded to the touch.
The standard cloth seats feel supportive and have a nice texture, so I wouldn't find it necessary to get the leather for either appearance's or comfort's sake.
The new look and materials still err on the side of function over form, but all-in-all, the changes have made the Outback's cabin more comfortable and prettier.
Subaru also bumped up the Outback's interior to create more shoulder room, more front and rear hip room, and more rear legroom, resulting in slightly more passenger room overall and a bit more cargo space.
I'm about 6 feet 2 inches tall, and I can say there's a good amount of legroom in the back. (I sat back there both with the seat where I had it when I drove and also run all the way back to the limit.) My knees were slightly elevated, but nowhere near as much as in many other vehicles on the market, so I think even I'd be comfortable on a longer trip.
The previous-generation Outback stood out to me for its great visibility. If anything, the 2015 improves in this area, most notably by positioning the mirrors down on the door instead of up on the A-pillar. In place of a mirror mount there's now a glass section, and while it's not huge, it's still nice to have, especially when driving off-road. Subaru has long been involved as a sponsor and participant in a variety of outdoor pursuits, from rallying to cross-country skiing and biking. The Outback continues to offer a variety of amenities to make those pursuits easier, as well as a couple of significant new touches.
An ongoing feature is Subaru's roof rails that have integrated, swing-into-place crossbars. When you need the crossbars, swing them into place. When you don't, swing them back into the rails, cutting down on mileage-sapping drag and wind noise.
What's new is that for 2015, Subaru redesigned the doorsill area to provide a larger footpad to stand on while you adjust — or attach things to — those roof rails. A nice touch, whether your feet are dainty or enormous.
Also, Subaru offers PIN access on the rear of Outback Limited trims so that runners, swimmers and others can lock their keys in the car and use the PIN to open the doors. Not having to carry keys is a nice feature, but it would be nicer if it were standard across more trim levels.
Ergonomics & Electronics
For 2015, all Outbacks have a standard backup camera. Screens vary based on trim level, with a 6.2-inch screen on the base model and a 7-inch screen with tablet-like touch, swipe and pinch controls on uplevel trims.
The screen responded quickly to my touch and didn't seem to suffer noticeable lag. The tablet-like controls weren't as quick as a tablet, so I'm not sure how much I'd use them in daily driving.
In addition, there are touch-sensitive capacitive buttons on either side of the screen that control various menu items. These also respond quickly, but because there's no sensation that you've pressed a button, you have to look at the buttons or the screen to judge whether anything happens. As we say whenever we run into these "buttons," traditional mechanical push buttons would be better.
Speaking of buttons, the steering wheel is loaded with them, but I felt it was fairly easy to differentiate between them with my fingers while driving. That carries through to the rest of the (mechanical) knobs and buttons: They generally feel solid, not like they were picked from the bin of cheapest parts. You're also not forced to do too many adjustments through the touch-screen if you don't want to. I find the Outback specifically, and Subarus in general, to be among the least complicated cars on the market, ergonomically speaking. The 2015 model continues that trend.
Cargo & Storage
The Outback's cargo area has grown slightly, to 35.5 cubic feet of space behind the rear seats, up from 34.3 cubic feet. Fold the standard 60/40-split backseat down to create 73.3 cubic feet, up from 71.3. There are also new release levers, so one tug folds the spring-tensioned seat flat. It's well-done and, if I had my way, would be mandatory on all cars.
There's also a power liftgate that's standard on the highest, Limited, trim and available on the Premium trim. It can be set to open to a specific height, in case you're on the shorter side or need the liftgate to open low enough that it doesn't clunk into your garage ceiling or whatever you're carrying on the roof.
As of publication, the 2015 Subaru Outback had not been crash-tested by either the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Safety features include a backup camera, side curtain airbags that deploy when a rollover is imminent, and cabin and exterior lights that automatically turn on when the driver approaches the car.
Newly available features include a blind spot warning system, rear cross-traffic alert and Subaru's EyeSight system. EyeSight uses cameras to provide adaptive cruise control, automated pre-collision braking and lane departure warning. For 2015, those EyeSight camera housings are slightly smaller than before, but they're still rather conspicuous on either side of the rearview mirror.
For a list of safety features, click here.
Value in Its Class
The Subaru Outback is a wagon, but because of its off-road utility, high ground clearance and standard all-wheel drive, it lines up better against SUVs and crossovers. Among SUVs, the Outback differentiates itself by offering all-wheel drive standard, where it can run as an extra-cost option on many other SUVs. For example, the Ford Edge, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Hyundai Santa Fe Sport all come standard with two-wheel drive. The Outback is more than $1,000 cheaper than the least-expensive all-wheel-drive version of its competitors. (See a comparison among base all-wheel-drive trims here.)
Mileage is an area where the Outback also excels, as both its four-cylinder (EPA-rated at 28 mpg combined) and its six-cylinder (22 mpg) beat the most efficient gas-powered versions of its all-wheel-drive competitors: The 2014 Ford Edge and 2014 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport both rate 21 mpg combined, while the 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee gets 19 mpg.
Tellingly, substituting front-wheel drive doesn't put all the Subaru's competitors ahead of the all-wheel-drive-only Outback four-cylinder. With front-wheel drive, two of the Edge's three available engines are rated 21 and 22 mpg combined, but the third gets 24 mpg. The Santa Fe Sport gets 22 or 23 mpg, and the Grand Cherokee gets 17 or 20 mpg with gasoline (a diesel version is rated 25 mpg combined with rear-wheel drive and 24 mpg with four-wheel drive).
(Note that a redesigned 2015 Ford Edge will hit showrooms early in 2015 and is expected to have higher mileage than the current, 2014 model.)
Ease of carrying cargo is the Outback's final — and I'd argue biggest — strength. Despite the car's 8.7-inch ground clearance, the cargo area is easy to load things into because the load floor isn't too high off the ground. And the larger doorsill step is always welcome when putting something on the roof.
So, yes — with a price that's competitive with other crossovers, the Outback offers better mileage and greater utility. But, as always, there is a catch.
The Outback has made strides in terms of comfort and quality of cabin materials, but it's still not as refined as it could be. It lacks that last little bit of interior quality and overall refinement that sets the best apart from the very good. With this redesign, it's now better able to complete with European wagon competitors from Volkswagen, Audi, Volvo and BMW, but I don't see it being able to pull in many of those buyers based on its interior.
Subaru owners might not care about this, though, preferring instead to focus on utility. In that way, the Outback doesn't disappoint. But if Subaru wants to continue to grow, a focus on the last little details will help it greatly.
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