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2018 Subaru Outback Test Drive Review
Providing everything you need in a new vehicle, and nothing you don’t, the safe, affordable, and capable 2018 Subaru Outback is an excellent answer to the question of what to drive just about anywhere at just about any time.
One of the original “crossover” SUVs, the first Outback was a trim level for the 1995 Legacy station wagon. In 1996, in a stroke of sheer brilliance, Subaru jacked up the suspension, put some oversize fog lights up front, added white-letter tires, and called the Outback an SUV.
Remember, back then, the Ford Explorer was just igniting an American fervor for SUVs. But the Explorer was a truck, and it drove like one. By contrast, the Outback was a car, offering decent driving dynamics and good fuel economy in a package that also supplied all-wheel drive and lots of ground clearance.
Today, the Outback faces far more competitors than it did in the mid-1990s, yet it remains one of the best-selling SUVs in America. There is good reason for that, too.
Look and Feel
You don’t need to spend that much on a new 2018 Subaru Outback. Prices start at just $25,895 for the base model, and they all come with standard all-wheel drive (AWD) and a continuously variable transmission (CVT).
In addition to the base trim, Subaru also offers a 2.5i Premium for $27,995, a 2.5i Limited for $32,695, and a 2.5i Touring for $36,490. If you want 6-cylinder power, which I strongly recommend, the 3.6R Limited runs $35,395, while the fully loaded 3.6R Touring costs $38,690.
Depending on the trim level, Subaru offers a handful of factory-installed option packages. Additionally, the dealership can install a variety of accessories that are designed for the active-lifestyle types who are typically drawn to the Outback’s Swiss-Army-knife character.
My Crimson Red 2.5i Limited test vehicle had the factory-installed EyeSight option package, which adds the company’s sophisticated driver-assistance and collision-avoidance systems, as well as a navigation system. The total price for my review vehicle came to $34,780, plus $915 for destination and delivery charges.
From a design standpoint, the Subaru Outback recipe hasn’t changed since the mid-1990s. Take one Legacy station wagon, add SUV styling cues, raise the suspension, and you’ve got the Outback. The approach works. Last year, the Outback was the 10th best-selling SUV in America and Subaru’s top-selling vehicle, just ahead of the company’s smaller Forester.
For 2018, the Outback’s bumpers, lights, and grille are new, and the Limited trim has a new wheel design. Subaru also installs new side mirrors it says are designed to cut down on wind noise.
Do I like the styling? Sure, why not? I mean, this is a Subaru Outback. It’s a tool of convenience, not a stylish mode of transportation. Nobody is buying this vehicle for its looks. They’re buying it for its substance.
Similarly, the Outback’s interior is all about utility. Subaru has improved the cabin for 2018, layering on some extra sophistication in terms of the materials and how they look and feel. In particular, I like the exposed stitching and the dark, matte-look, fake wood trim.
But what you’ll notice most, especially if you’re familiar with the Outback, are the updates that produce a much quieter cabin. Comparatively speaking, this is the best of the long list of minor changes the company has made to this vehicle for the 2018 model year.
Any Outback with a 2.5i badge on its tailgate is equipped with a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine. It makes 175 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 174 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm. That simply isn’t enough for this vehicle.
Subaru does offer a 3.6-liter 6-cylinder engine with Limited and Touring trim, and that solves the problem thanks to 256 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 247 lb-ft of torque at 4,400 rpm. But that engine is still normally aspirated, which means it still falls victim to the thinner atmosphere common to the mountainous regions where the Outback is overwhelmingly popular.
What this vehicle needs is a turbocharged 4-cylinder engine. Something with a big, fat, juicy wad of torque stretched from, say, 2,000 rpm to 5,200 rpm. You know, like the engine Subaru bolts into the WRX. Using this same powerplant in the Outback would make the 6-cylinder engine obsolete, and it would give Subaru buyers in places like Denver, the Mile High City, an Outback that can accelerate out of its own way.
Here in California, where I moved almost 20 years ago after spending a few years living in Denver, the Outback 2.5i is acceptably powered. From a full stop, the car feels fairly responsive. From a rolling stop, not so much. And on several occasions I could not take advantage of holes in Los Angeles traffic simply because there wasn’t enough oomph from the engine.
At least the continuously variable transmission is agreeable most of the time, even sounding and feeling like a traditional automatic. Changes for 2018 make the CVT quieter than before, too. Additionally, engineers have tweaked the steering, suspension, and braking systems for more agreeable driving characteristics.
Frankly, I didn’t think this was necessary, though the lighter steering effort at lower speeds is nice. In fact, I think Subaru made a mistake with the suspension.
Yes, this was a taut-riding vehicle, and yes, many people prefer a softer ride quality. But the stiffer suspension lent the previous Outback a sense of athleticism and stability that it no longer possesses. Now, the Outback feels "Buick-tuned": too soft, too floaty, and too wallowy. At speed on uneven pavement, it lacks a sense of connectedness, especially over undulating surfaces.
This was particularly noticeable over bridges on various Los Angeles freeways. They’re not level to the main road surface, with shallow "ramps" leading up to them and dropping a car off on the other side. Especially when encountering these in gentle curves, the latest Outback wobbled about, something you don’t want to feel when you’re going 75 mph on a multi-lane freeway.
In other driving situations, the Outback’s ride and handling are agreeable, though the car displays less character than it did before. It also retains its off-roading capability, and during a brief drive on a trail, my test vehicle’s X-Mode traction system with Hill Descent Control, combined with a generous 8.7 inches of ground clearance, inspired plenty of confidence. If you’re looking for a midsize crossover SUV that can actually get pretty deep into the woods, and you don’t want a Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk, the Outback is one of the best candidates for the job.
In addition to the lack of power and the Buick-tuned suspension, my final complaint about the Outback pertains to fuel economy. The Outback 2.5i is rated to get 28 mpg in combined driving, while the more powerful Outback 3.6R is expected to get 22 mpg.
My test vehicle, a 2.5i, managed 21.9 mpg on my test loop. Last year, when I drove the Outback 3.6R on the same exact route, it returned 21.6 mpg. Granted, I encountered more red lights than usual in the city portion of my driving this time around, but this 4-cylinder engine obviously works harder in real-world driving than it does in EPA test-driving.
Form and Function
One of my favorite things about the Subaru Outback is how easy it is to get into and out of. The seating hip point is almost perfect, making it so that you can essentially slide right into and out of the driver’s seat.
The front passenger is not quite as lucky. Inexplicably, that seat doesn’t have a seat-height adjuster, so it sits lower in the vehicle. Still, compared to a typical sedan, it represents an improvement when it comes to entry and exit.
Both front seats are quite comfortable, as are the rear seats, which offer plenty of thigh support, legroom, and space for feet.
Cargo volume measures 35.5 cubic feet behind the back seat and 73.3 cubic feet with the back seat folded down. Those numbers are on par with the largest compact crossovers, but fall short of some midsize competitors. However, thanks to its cube-shaped layout, the space is quite usable for a family of four.
Subaru arranges the Outback’s controls in a simple, straightforward, no-nonsense manner. This year, a new steering wheel debuts, and it is a pleasure to grip and to use. New Starlink infotainment systems also debut for 2018, offering a larger standard display screen in base versions of the vehicle.
Starlink is a competitive infotainment system, especially when equipped with its larger 8-inch display screen.
This year, Subaru has improved it with faster start-up and response times, better voice-recognition capability, new on-screen applications, and over-the-air software updates that keep it current over time. Plus, Subaru says the screen works more like a smartphone's, providing a more natural interface for users.
The improvements in terms of how the system works are palpable, especially in terms of system start-up time. And that’s helpful if, like me, you have a steeply angled driveway that occasionally sends the available reverse automatic braking (RAB) system into seizures. The RAB Off button is on the screen, so faster Starlink start-up is potentially a genuine time saver for me.
Fortunately, the 2018 Outback’s redesigned rear bumper has relocated the RAB sensors so that, unless I’m in a big hurry, the car no longer slams on its own brakes at the bottom of my driveway. During my week with the car, it happened only twice, rather than every single time I tried to leave the house as the previous version of the RAB-equipped Outback did.
More than any other change Subaru has made to the 2018 Outback, this is the one I appreciate most.
Subaru is absolutely dedicated to your safety and means well with its reverse automatic braking system. It is just one of numerous safety technologies the company offers for the Outback.
Most are contained in the EyeSight suite of safety technologies that's available on every Outback except for the base trim. EyeSight functions are powered by a dual camera system located right behind the windshield, supplying everything from adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability to a lane-keeping assist system.
If EyeSight fails to prevent a collision, know that the Outback provides exceptional crash protection for its occupants. This vehicle gets 5-star ratings across the board from the federal government, except for rollover resistance, which rates 4 stars due to the Outback’s raised suspension. Furthermore, the Outback gets a Top Safety Pick+ rating from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
Given its low starting price and high levels of practicality, the Subaru Outback is a cost-effective solution to the problem of what to drive, especially if you live someplace where snowstorms are common or pavement is uncommon.
For the best value, I’d recommend the 2.5i Premium with the optional EyeSight package. However, if you want the 6-cylinder engine, you’ll need to choose the 3.6R Limited at a minimum. Still, that version’s sticker price is aligned with those of well-equipped midsize sedans and top-shelf compact crossovers.
Plus, Subaru frequently offers discounts for the Outback or low-rate financing for people with excellent credit. The deals aren’t always generous, but then Subaru has enjoyed significant increases in sales for years, and it doesn’t necessarily need to offer big markdowns to move the metal.
Despite its few flaws, I’m a big fan of the Subaru Outback. And I have been since 1996, when this vehicle first showed me exactly what it's capable of in the Utah desert and the Colorado Rockies. Speaking from experience with every generation of this vehicle since its inception, I can assure you that it goes places most other crossovers can’t, it is nothing short of brilliant in a blizzard, and it remains comfortable for hours behind the wheel.
As far as this 2018 Outback is concerned, it really needs only three improvements: a front passenger-seat height adjuster, more cargo space, and a turbocharged 4-cylinder engine. After all, if you’re going to get only 22 mpg from the Outback 2.5i’s underpowered engine, you might as well benefit from some extra horsepower and torque, am I right?
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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