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2015 Subaru Outback Test Drive Review
Other crossover SUVs might offer the same utility as the 2015 Subaru Outback, but it’ll be tough to find one of equal capability in a variety of driving situations.
Redesigned for 2015, the Subaru Outback is bigger and better than ever before. You might not necessarily need its standard all-wheel drive, but the Outback offers so much more in a package that doesn’t penalize buyers in terms of fuel economy.
Look and Feel
Out of 10
As recently as a decade ago, owning a Subaru Outback meant that people assumed you lived in New England or the Rocky Mountains and had a closetful of tweed sport coats with worn leather elbow patches. That’s because Subarus were known mostly for their all-wheel-drive systems, which meant denizens of warmer regions pretty much discounted the eminently practical yet rather esoteric Legacy-based wagon.
The obvious station wagon look and proportions didn’t help in an SUV-crazy American market. It also didn’t help that, at the time, the Outback suffered from a cramped interior, hard-to-decipher controls and learn-to-love-it styling. Yet people who overlooked these traits found the Outback to be a useful, reliable, safe and affordable vehicle that scoffed at severe weather.
Fast-forward 10 years, and amid a boom in crossover SUV sales, the Outback is no longer esoteric. Although it remains based on the Legacy sedan, the redesigned 2015 Subaru Outback is now mainstream and quite handsome, with a rugged and sporty look that few people can fault. It’s bigger than ever, too, its interior as appealing as any family sedan's.
Nevertheless, this latest 2015 Outback retains some of its quirky flavor, and while other crossovers might offer the same utility as this Subaru, it’s tough to find one of equal capability in a variety of driving situations.
If you decide the Subaru Outback makes sense, you’ll choose between four flavors. The least-expensive Outback 2.5i comes with basic 17-inch steel wheels with wheel covers, but this model does include a rear-view camera, Bluetooth connectivity, a touchscreen interface for the climate control and audio systems, and a roof rack with crossbars.
Next up is the 2.5i Premium, which upgrades you to 17-inch alloy wheels, an 8-way power driver’s seat, heated front seats, fog lamps and a dual-zone automatic climate control system. Get the 2.5i Limited trim level for 18-inch alloy wheels, a power liftgate, heated rear seats, active fog lights that point in the direction you’re steering, a blind-spot detection system, a rear cross-traffic detection system, and lane-change assist technology.
For more enthusiastic acceleration, there’s the 3.6R Limited, equipped with a 6-cylinder engine. It includes all of the 2.5i Limited’s features and is distinguished by a set of Xenon headlamps.
My test model for the week was the Outback 2.5i Limited, painted Wilderness Green and equipped with all the frills, including a power moonroof, keyless access with push-button ignition, a navigation system and Subaru’s EyeSight suite of safety technologies, bringing the sticker price to $34,135. Note, though, that this also included Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (PZEV) equipment, a $300 requirement in my neck of the so-called woods.
Out of 10
It’s always amusing to see drivers of vehicles like a Land Rover Range Rover or a Jeep Wrangler drive their boulder bashers gingerly over rough blacktop and speed bumps or refuse to park their pristine machines in an unpaved lot. But it’s never surprising to see a dirt-encrusted and dust-covered Subaru Outback clambering up a steep hill strewn with rocks and obstacles.
That’s because the rough-and-tumble Outback, with its remarkably generous 8.7 inches of ground clearance and a toughened suspension, has far more off-road capability than you’d ever expect and can handle much more than mere slippery surfaces. During my time driving on roads yet to be coated with asphalt, the Outback’s suspension felt sure and stout, never bottoming out and soaking up the ruts and roughness with a shrug.
On pavement the Outback also excelled, offering a supple ride on imperfect urban pavement while resisting body roll in corners and excessive body motion on undulating surfaces. Its fade-free brakes and precise steering also boosted this driver’s confidence with every turn on my test loop. Much of the credit goes to the 59 percent increase in torsional stiffness that Subaru says it has built into the new Outback, as compared to the previous generation model. What that translates to is greater athleticism and impressively dynamic performance, whether on rough, twisty or unpaved roads.
It is with disappointment, then, that I must announce that all is not well in Outback-land. The standard 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine is merely acceptable in terms of power, offering 175 hp fed to all four wheels through a continuously variable transmission (CVT). While the Outback supplies decent part-throttle acceleration from a stop, mid-range response is anemic and requires extra vigilance when merging onto highways. Subaru says that the Outback 2.5i ought to accelerate to 60 mph in about 9.3 seconds, which seems like a lifetime, especially at altitude. It also reflects the level of advance planning that’s necessary when trying to pass slower vehicles.
To add salt to this wound, I averaged just 23.7 mpg during my week behind the wheel, far lower than the Outback’s EPA rating of 28 mpg in combined driving. Compared to other crossover SUVs of about the same size, this is a decent result. But compared to the expectation set by those apparently inflated fuel-economy ratings, this represents disappointment.
Yes, there’s a much more powerful, and also less efficient, 256-hp 3.6-liter 6-cylinder engine available in the Outback 3.6R. I think, however, that Subaru needs to consider a turbocharged 4-cylinder option, perhaps employing the same engine that’s installed in the fun-to-drive Forester 2.0XT and base WRX. My bet is that this solution would prove more fuel-efficient and would far better complement the Outback’s personality.
Form and Function
Out of 10
It used to be that in order to get the Outback’s capability and reliability, you would have to compromise in terms of interior features and space. With this redesign, that is no longer the case, and from cabin materials to all the fun stuff that Subaru supplies in the Outback, this car is equal to or better than any vehicle in the crossover class.
Slip into the Outback 2.5i Limited’s comfortable and supportive driver’s seat and you’re surrounded by upscale materials in an appealing 2-tone design treatment, from the supple leather upholstery to the impressive new touchscreen infotainment system. Everything is assembled with care with little to criticize in the way of fit and finish.
Subaru has increased both passenger and cargo space in the new Outback. While exterior dimensions are essentially the same as last year, the latest Outback’s rear accommodations are more spacious than before, offering more shoulder, leg and head room and, depending on the size of your passengers, three-abreast seating.
Subaru also expanded cargo room, and the Outback now offers 35.5 cubic feet of space with the rear seat up and 73.3 with the rear seat folded down. Maximizing cargo space is made easier thanks to handy seatback releases located on the sides of the cargo area.
The driver’s seat is quite comfortable, providing just the right amount of bolstering and firmness. The front passenger seat lacks a height adjuster, but unlike most cars suffering this oversight, the Outback’s right front chair is mounted high enough that this omission wasn’t a big deal.
Subaru also excels at making vehicles with great outward visibility, and this Outback is no different thanks to slim windshield pillars, wide windows and an upright driving position, all contributing to give you a very good sense of your surroundings.
Out of 10
With the 2015 Outback, Subaru does an admirable job of creating an infotainment system that the Average Joe can easily learn to use. Called Starlink, this interface manages Bluetooth smartphone connectivity, allowing the driver to make hands-free calls, to stream music, and to access a variety of mobile apps. Fans of old-school music delivery can even play those shiny discs known as CDs.
My 2.5i Limited test vehicle included an excellent Harman Kardon audio system with awesome range. And for those in need of extra distractions, the Aha Radio app lets you access your Facebook and Twitter accounts and provides access to news feeds, weather reports, local gas prices and more. Now, if only it let me take BuzzFeed quizzes whilst whistling down the road.
The Outback’s available navigation system is controlled via touchscreen, and in a nod to an Apple-addled world, you can swipe, pinch and enlarge the map as if it were rendered on an iPad. Although the 7-inch screen isn’t the biggest on the market, the simple interface, crisp graphics, stylish look and ability to resist fingerprints represent vast improvements over previous Subaru efforts and other automakers in general.
Out of 10
More than almost every other car manufacturer, safety is ingrained in Subaru’s DNA, so it’s not too surprising that my Outback 2.5i Limited was bristling with active and passive protective features.
Designed to help prevent a collision, if possible, Subaru’s EyeSight system is an option for Premium and Limited trim levels. Refined for use in this new Outback, EyeSight uses two cameras mounted on the windshield to survey the road ahead. If it detects a dangerous situation, it gives the driver a warning. If it deems that the driver’s actions are insufficient to avert an accident, it takes matters into its own hands and will brake the car to a full stop, if necessary. Of course, success rates are dependent upon how fast you’re traveling relative to the threat ahead, but EyeSight provides an appreciated safety net and proves more intuitive and smoother in operation than you may expect. Working in conjunction with an advanced cruise control system, EyeSight definitely gives you greater peace of mind.
New for 2015, the Outback’s Rear Vehicle Detection System is optional for Premium models and standard on Limited models. This technology includes a blind-spot detection system, rear cross-traffic alert and a lane-change assist system, items that I think are important and useful enough to be mandated on every new vehicle.
Finally, just in case the Outback’s active safety features aren’t enough to avoid a crash, Subaru builds every one of its vehicles around what it calls a ring-shaped reinforcement frame, which is a strong structural cage that absorbs and deflects crash energy away from the vehicle’s cabin and its occupants.
Does it work? Although the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hasn’t tested the new Outback just yet, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) wasted no time ramming the car into its various barriers. As a result, the new Outback gets a Top Safety Pick rating for all models, while versions equipped with EyeSight technology receive a Top Safety Pick+ rating.
So, umm, yeah. It works.
Out of 10
From a cost-effectiveness standpoint, the 2015 Outback rates as average. Sales are on fire, and Subaru is selling every single one it can build, which means dealers don’t require rebates or big discounts to move the metal. Aside from low-rate short-term financing and lease deals, you’re not going to get a bargain on a 2015 Outback.
Furthermore, you’re not going to get the kind of gas mileage you’re promised, if my experience is any indication. Over time, the Outback is expected to retain a big chunk of its original value, according to ALG, but this benefit is offset by what Consumer Reports describes as average owner costs. Plus, Consumer Reports and J.D. Power disagree about the Outback’s historical performance in terms of reliability, the former finding the 2005-2009 models mechanically troublesome, the latter determining any Outback built in the past decade to be average at worst.
If there’s any area where Subaru can improve the Outback, aside from finding a way to extract more power from the standard 4-cylinder engine, it’s with regard to overall cost effectiveness.
Liz Kim has worked within the world of cars for 15 years, at various points reviewing and writing about, or analyzing and marketing, everything automotive. It’s no wonder that she married a fellow automotive journalist. Liz can be found examining and assessing the latest vehicles when she’s not busy keeping the peace between, and the schedule for, her two young daughters.