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2016 Subaru Outback Test Drive Review
Pack some people aboard, load the cargo area with provisions, head into the mountains, and it becomes painfully obvious that the Subaru Outback really needs a turbocharger.
Look and Feel
Form and Function
Some automobiles are themselves objects of passion. Others are designed to facilitate the pursuit of passions. For example, BMWs are known as the Ultimate Driving Machines. Along the same lines, the 2016 Subaru Outback could be called the Ultimate Thriving Machine, because that’s what you can do when you own one.
Look and Feel
Through February of 2016, El Nino had failed to deliver the deluge of winter rain and snowstorms forecast for drought-stricken California. While this is a devastating blow to the state, it also proved a devastating blow to my 2016 Subaru Outback review.
Twenty years ago, the Subaru Outback earned my respect and won my admiration. I lived in Colorado then, back when Chipotle was still a local Denver delicacy. My first-ever review of this jacked-up station wagon with SUV styling cues came during a Rocky Mountain blizzard, and I never forgot how that ’96 Outback plowed through the white stuff like it wasn’t even there.
Fast-forward a couple of decades, and I scheduled my test of a 2016 Outback during what was supposed to be the thick of El Nino’s effect on California. Drenching rains, we were promised. Mountains of snow, the experts predicted. Mudslides, coastal erosion, and falling rocks, oh my!
In Mammoth Lakes, it was 55 degrees and sunny the entire final weekend of February, my kids sledding on what soaking-wet snow remained, my wife marveling at how mostly frozen June Lake groaned and crackled and popped as the morning sun began warming the ice on our final morning before returning to Los Angeles. She, during her first 42 years on the planet, had never seen or stepped upon a frozen lake before this trip.
Not that the Wardlaw clan didn’t find a way to have some fun with the Outback. Behind our rented cabin, a slushy forest trail demonstrated that I’ve apparently forgotten how to drive in the snow, so perhaps it was for the best that El Nino had instead proved to be El Nada. We barreled down dirt paths near Mono Lake, too, exploring places most crossover SUVs wouldn’t dare tread, coating the Subaru in a fine layer of dust to lend legitimacy to its adventuresome appearance.
By the end of this test, we’d racked up nearly 1,000 miles, and the Subaru Outback had once again proven itself to be the perfect family car for most people, most of the time. You can get one for as little as $25,845, or you can spend as much as $37,335 for the top-of-the-line 3.6R model with every factory-installed option. Subaru dealerships also offer a lengthy menu of accessories for this car, most of them useful to the weekend-warrior types who are typically drawn to the Outback.
My test vehicle was the Outback 2.5i Premium, painted Twilight Blue and equipped with Warm Ivory cloth seating. It had the top option package, which installs a power sunroof, a power rear liftgate, a navigation system, and a blind-spot warning system with rear cross-traffic alert. This upgrade also includes Subaru’s EyeSight safety suite, adding forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking, a lane-departure warning system, and steering-responsive fog lights that illuminate when the car is turning in order to help the driver better see around dark corners. To this, Subaru added a Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (PZEV) emissions system, bringing the grand total to $32,035.
From a styling perspective, the only thing I didn’t like about my test car was the plain 17-inch aluminum wheel design. The 2.5i Premium and the 3.6R have more attractive 18-inch wheels with a machined finish.
With that said, design does not sell the Outback. Is it ugly? No. Is it gotta-have-it-gorgeous? Not even close. Call the design purposeful, with gray cladding all around its lower perimeter, corrugated in places for an extra-rugged look, and its signature oversized fog lights lighting the way on cloudy days. There’s a good joke to be made about the Outback’s huge roof rack, too, though you’ll need to rely upon your own imagination to make it.
Inside, the Outback is more appealing. Equipped with tan cloth seats, my test car took on an upscale 2-tone appearance, one supported by fabric-wrapped windshield pillars, tastefully textured surfaces, and metallic trim. Although it looks upscale, the Outback is far from delicate, proving it can take the abuse of a family road trip.
Most Outbacks have a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine making 175 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 174 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. Those are not impressive figures for a 5-passenger vehicle weighing a minimum of 3,593 pounds.
Witness the miracle of the continuously variable transmission! Also known as a CVT, the one in the Subaru Outback is programmed to sound and feel like a regular automatic thanks to simulated gear changes. More important, the CVT helps to keep the engine in the thick of its power band, in turn making the car feel relatively responsive despite its unimpressive power figures.
Closer to sea level, with just one person aboard, the Outback 2.5i feels sprightly. It accelerates in satisfactory fashion, and the taut suspension, engaging steering, and responsive brakes make the car fun to fling about in both the city and the suburbs.
Pack some people aboard, load the cargo area with provisions, head into the mountains, and it becomes painfully obvious that the Outback really needs a turbocharger. Thinner atmosphere does the car no favors, and a turbo would resolve that.
This is why I would buy the Outback 3.6R, even though it comes only with Limited trim and is the most expensive model in the lineup. The optional 3.6-liter 6-cylinder engine makes 256 horsepower and 247 lb-ft of torque, and while this engine costs more in terms of purchase price and fuel consumed, based on some past experience driving the Outback 3.6R, it is a more satisfying engine.
Both engines are paired with a standard torque-vectoring all-wheel-drive (AWD) system that continuously distributes torque based on wheel slippage, steering angle, and vehicle yaw rate. An X-Mode button on the center console is designed to further limit wheel slip and activates a hill descent control system that regulates speed when going down a hill so the driver can concentrate on steering.
Both the 4-cylinder and 6-cylinder engines employ horizontally opposed cylinder construction, which means that the pistons fire laterally, outward toward the sides of the car, rather than in a vertical or V-shaped motion. Such engine designs are known as “boxer” engines for how the pistons jab outward, or “flat” engines because they’re not as tall as inline- or V-type engines.
So why is this a big deal? First, it helps keep a car’s center of gravity low, which is why Porsche employs this type of engine design. Second, it allows Subaru to raise vehicles like the Outback, Crosstrek, and Forester higher off the ground without destroying their handling. All three of these models supply 8.7 inches of ground clearance, which allows them to go places most crossover SUVs can’t.
That ground clearance is also one reason Subarus are such champions in a snowstorm.
The downside to these types of engines is a grumble and vibration that some people might not enjoy. Personally, I like the engine note and the thrum felt through the steering wheel. It gives any Subaru a distinctive character and represents yet another reason to love one.
Form and Function
Functionality is the name of the Subaru Outback’s game. Still, this crossover supplies only so much interior room, so it holds no more than five people and 35.5 cubic feet of cargo at the same time. That’s why this model comes with such a substantial roof rack, and why Subaru dealers offer so many attachments for it.
Here’s what we packed behind the rear seats for our trip: 2 full-size suitcases, 2 medium-size duffel bags, 2 small children’s suitcases, a box of snow toys, 2 sleds, a Scrabble game, and miscellaneous coats, snow pants, and gloves (see related photos).
If you don’t need to haul passengers, you can fold the Outback’s 60/40-split folding rear seat backs to create 73.3 cubic feet of space. Given how perfect the Outback is for ski outings, the seat ought to be a 40/20/40-split folding design. Then again, that’s the point of the roof rack.
Interior quality impresses, though the silver metallic trim doesn’t look quite right with the tan interior. Premium trim includes cloth seating, and on days when humidity levels are low, it generates static electricity, so prepare for an occasionally shocking ownership experience.
The cloth upholstery isn’t spill- or stain-resistant, either, another oversight on Subaru’s part given the abuse to which this car lends itself. With that said, the Outback’s Warm Ivory interior cleaned up easily following our family road trip, despite regular exposure to wet and dirty boots worn by my children. I was extra vigilant about restricting drinks, though, other than water.
Comfort is excellent, front and rear, and because the Outback sits up so high off the pavement, it's easy to get into and out of this car. Two things were missing from my test car. Rear air vents were absent, which resulted in complaints from the kids about excess warmth during unseasonably hot Los Angeles weather. A front passenger’s seat height adjuster was also missing in action, prompting complaints from my wife.
For the most part, the Outback’s control layout is simple to understand and to use, if imperfect. Mostly, our gripes are related to the infotainment system, and they're covered in greater detail below.
During our road trip, I realized that the buttons related to the Outback’s safety technologies, the ones located on the lower left portion of the dashboard, the ones I complain about in the video review, require the driver to push and hold them for a few seconds before they’ll actually deactivate a feature. That’s smart. That way, the driver cannot accidentally shut them off.
I’m a big fan of Subaru’s Starlink infotainment system. I like the way it looks, I like the inclusion of power/volume and tuning knobs, I like the primary function buttons on either side of the display screen, and I like how the screen resists fingerprints. Pairing a smartphone to this thoroughly modern infotainment system is also simple and straightforward, making it easy to make calls, to receive calls, and to stream music.
What I don’t like, and what drove us a little nutty during our entire road trip, is the lack of an “Audio” button. As Saturday Night Live’s Seth and Amy might say: Really, Subaru? I need to choose “Home,” and then “Audio” every single time I want to access the radio station pre-sets, or change the audio source? Really?
Even when using the optional split-screen display, which shows the current audio selection and the map, the pre-sets are not shown on the screen. During our trip, we used “Home,” “Map,” and “Apps” on a regular basis. We never touched “Info” or the seek-function buttons on the right side of the screen. Perhaps “Info” could be replaced with “Audio.”
We also had trouble finding our lodging destination (Double Eagle Resort near June Lake) using the voice recognition system and point-of-interest menu. Ultimately, we needed to pull over and futz with the screen to input the destination. Siri and a connected navigation solution would have been so much easier.
“Subaru” is synonymous with “safety.” For decades, the company has built its products around an architecture called a Ring-shaped Reinforcement Frame, which is engineered to deflect crash energy away from the people riding in the vehicle. Over the past two decades, this approach has produced some of the safest vehicles on the market.
As for the 2016 Outback, it earns the highest possible crash-test ratings. In federal testing, it gets a 5-star rating in every assessment, save for a 4-star rollover resistance rating, which is common for crossover SUVs. In tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), the Outback earns the top rating of Good in every assessment, combined with a Superior rating for front crash prevention when equipped with EyeSight technology.
The only way the Outback could do better would be to turn it back into a Subaru Legacy station wagon with a lower center of gravity, one that could earn a 5-star rollover resistance rating just like the Legacy sedan does. Note, however, that the IIHS rates the Outback’s child seat LATCH anchor system as Marginal, indicating that they are somewhat difficult to use. I would agree with that, as I struggled a bit to install my daughter’s forward-facing child seat.
In order to obtain all the driver-assistance and collision-avoidance technologies that Subaru offers for the Outback, the price of admission is a 2.5i Premium model outfitted exactly like my test car. First, with an active subscription to Starlink services, owners benefit from automatic collision notification, SOS emergency services, and a remote vehicle locator. Where Subaru can improve this offering is by providing features that are useful to parents of teen drivers, such as speed, curfew, and boundary smartphone alerts.
Separately, Subaru’s EyeSight safety technologies use a stereo camera system mounted at the top of the windshield on either side of the rear-view mirror. They power the adaptive cruise, forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, and lane-keeping assist systems. In other Subaru models that I’ve evaluated, driving into direct sunlight can sometimes blind the cameras, temporarily disabling these systems. I did not experience that problem with this test vehicle.
What I did notice is that the adaptive cruise control helpfully beeps when it acquires a vehicle ahead and when it disengages from a vehicle ahead. For example, if you’re cruising at 75 mph and catch up to someone going 72 mph, the system beeps and begins slowing to match the speed of the vehicle ahead. Signal a lane change and start moving over, and the system beeps again to confirm that it is disengaging from that vehicle in order to overtake it. These subtle confirmations, and the refined manner in which the cruise control operates, help to make driving longer distances a pleasure.
Standard for Limited models and optional for the Outback 2.5i Premium, a blind-spot warning system with rear cross-traffic alert works beautifully. The blind-spot warning illuminates on the side mirrors to indicate when another vehicle is in the Outback’s blind spot, and then flashes and emits a warning tone if the driver signals a lane change.
The Subaru Outback represents remarkable value. Where else can you get this level of safety combined with this level of practicality, wrapped in a package boasting an impressive track record for reliability and the ability to go almost anywhere at almost any time, all at this price?
Plus, Subaru wins awards for its models’ residual value, and the Outback earns an award for its class. This means that Subarus, and specifically the Outback, are still worth a good chunk of change when you’re ready to sell.
Where my test vehicle came up short is with regard to fuel economy. The EPA says the 2.5i model should get 28 mpg in combined driving, yet I averaged 27.5 mpg despite spending lots of time on the highway. Is this disappointing? Only when comparing to EPA estimates. Compared to other 5-passenger crossover SUVs, 27.5 mpg is almost miraculous.
Given the Outback’s ability to retain its value over time, Subaru offers attractive lease deals for this model. Low-rate financing is also frequently available. However, because this is a popular model and Subaru is having no trouble selling Outbacks, rebates are non-existent. Your best deal is likely to represent invoice price, if you can negotiate that large a discount.
Even if Subaru dealers aren’t giving Outbacks away, you’re likely to feel like you’re getting more than you’re paying for when you buy one. The Subaru Outback is a brilliant automotive tool, an affordable vehicle designed to make your life easier while preserving cash that can be spent having the kind of fun it facilitates. And that’s why I call the Outback the Ultimate Thriving Machine.
Christian Wardlaw has nearly two decades of experience reviewing cars, and has served in editorial leadership roles with Edmunds, Autobytel, and J.D. Power and Associates. Chris prefers to focus on the cars people actually buy rather than the cars about which people dream, and emphasizes the importance of fuel economy and safety as much as how much fun a car is to drive. Chris is married to an automotive journalist, is the father of four daughters, and lives in Southern California.
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