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2021 Subaru Outback Test Drive Review
Tough, economical, and slow, the Outback is the ultimate non-luxury wagon.
The Outback, like any Subaru, is an old soul in a young person’s body. It embraces a rosier past of automotive history, back when cars were just cars and drivers were concerned only with driving. It’s conservative, unhip to fashion, and slow. Yet the 2021 Outback—a raised, all-wheel drive (AWD) station wagon like the first 1995 model—has all of today’s essentials and extra technology. Subaru just skips the fripperies and focuses on what people really need: Generous space, go-anywhere capability, reliability, low cost, high resale, and safety. It’s not all that innovative or stylish, but a Subaru Outback tackles the everyday banalities of life as few other cars can.
Look and Feel
The Outback was redesigned for the 2020 model year. Not that you’d have noticed—a modern Subaru feels as familiar and comfortable as a 10-year-old Subaru. The analog gauges have the same typefaces, colors, and spacing. The steering wheel has its spokes—now with more buttons—in the same shapes and angles. The seats have a similar form. But unlike the smaller 2021 Subaru Crosstrek, which has a stale dashboard from the 2009 recession, the Outback’s interior is fresher. That’s if you skip the base trim, which sets two 7-inch touchscreens in the center stack in matte plastic and splits them with a row of buttons. They’re ugly placeholders for the 11.6-inch portrait display that was meant to be here. Standard on Premium and above trim levels, this display is bright, sharp, and sits flush against polished black plastic and a handful of physical buttons. Chrome trim flows around the screen, and on upper trims, contrasting leatherette wraps around the chrome. It floats neatly above a couple of USB ports and a parking brake switch. Behind that are a thick PRNDL shifter and two cupholders. Nothing more, nothing less.
Quality is evident, which cannot be said of pre-2015 Outback models. Window switches, padding on the dash, and surface materials all feel substantial. Limited and Touring trims with two-tone brown or beige leather upholstery and contrast stitching do a decent impression of a luxury car. Our test car, an Onyx Edition XT, swapped the leather for gray and black StarTex, a soft and water-resistant synthetic that promises easier cleaning and greater durability. This, combined with lime green contrast stitching on the seats and lower dash, is Subaru gone wild. It’s like a dad letting loose on weekends, when his pressed, collared shirt goes untucked. But he’s still wearing a belt.
On the outside, the Outback wears its gray cladding high on its wheel arches, sills, and bumpers, because it's better to scratch plastic than paint. The styling remains smooth and plain, tall but not towering, with enough length to give the impression of balance and stability. There are a few chrome flourishes on the window trim and bracket-shaped LED running lights. Changes are few for 2021. A new brown paint, Brilliant Bronze Metallic, is available on the Premium trim. Adaptive LED headlights are now standard. The biggest standout feature is something Subaru and its buyers will no longer admit: This is a lifted wagon. That’s why it’s a great alternative to a typical crossover or SUV. It’s also why the Outback hasn’t changed appearance since Paul Hogan was in the Subaru commercials.
As cars have become larger and heavier, Subaru has refused to adjust the Outback’s engine output for inflation. In 2021, this 2.5-liter flat-four is making nearly the same power as it did in the 1990s, but without the quicker gearing of a manual or conventional automatic transmission. The Outback in base trim weighs a minimum of 3,635 pounds. Now add four adults, luggage, bikes on the back, more cargo on the roof, and a few more options. Now ask a four-cylinder engine with 182 horsepower to move 4,500 pounds in a reasonable amount of time. The results are as predictable as they are pathetic. With 176 pound-feet of torque and a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that cannot adjust to this engine’s thin power band, the Outback is brutally slow and noisy as it tackles the highway, hills, and normal life on the road.
The only saving grace for this antiquated powertrain is throwing it out, which Subaru does if you order the XT, available on the Limited, Touring, and Onyx Edition. This 2.4-liter flat-four is turbocharged, with up to 14.5 psi of boost on regular-grade gas. The results are night and day: 260 hp, 277 lb-ft of torque at a low 2,000 rpm, and a newfound capability to keep up with traffic. This engine is quieter and smoother than the 2.5-liter and even more powerful and refined than the older 3.6-liter flat-six it replaced.
The Outback was never about speed, nor should it be. But safety and capability go hand in hand. The Outback is too large a vehicle to use an underpowered engine. While the XT is restricted to the top trim levels and adds thousands of dollars to the price, the returns are worth the money. Fuel economy on the turbo XT suffers mildly to the base engine, at an EPA-estimated 23 mpg city and 30 mpg highway compared to 26 mpg city and 33 mpg highway. When weighed down, expect the 2.5 will burn at least as much fuel, if not more, than the turbo XT.
The Outback’s squishy handling and imprecise steering are forgiven since it’s built to be a long-distance cruiser. Under these circumstances, the Outback’s ride comfort and tranquil behavior are fantastic with either engine. Long-travel springs and high 8.7 inches of ground clearance let the Outback charge through rough roads, especially when there are no roads left.
Subaru’s electronically-variable AWD is legendary. Unlike many competitors that primarily drive the front wheels and then drive the rear wheels after the vehicle is already slipping, the Outback is more proactive. It always drives all four wheels and reacts quicker to vary the torque split. Activating X-Mode optimizes the throttle, CVT ratio, stability control, and torque split for tougher road conditions, while the Onyx Edition adds two more driving modes for snow and mud. Regardless, when equipped with the proper seasonal tires, an Outback is basically unstoppable and more proficient off-road than most wannabe crossovers and SUVs. Subaru is a longtime rally car champion and its continuing success in that grueling motorsport shows up on the road, in the Outback.
Form and Function
Reconsider the Outback’s ground clearance: Its underside is further off the ground than a Chevrolet Tahoe, a Ford F-150, and any number of real trucks. That means an Outback can go anywhere they do, and possibly further, without the drawbacks of being a huge, oversized vehicle. But the Outback is plenty big inside, where it can hold 76 cubic feet of cargo with the rear seats folded and has a substantial 33 cubic feet of cargo space with them raised. The cargo area is wide, flat, and free of any oddly-shaped cutouts or intrusive wheel arches.
Headroom and legroom are ample in all four outboard seating positions, and those seats are comfortable and supportive. Outward visibility is superb in every direction, thanks to thin pillars, a low shoulder height, and lots of glass. Many modern cars with sloped roofs and slinky silhouettes choose, on purpose, to sacrifice the driver’s vision for style. The Outback has blind-spot radar and ultrasonic parking sensors, but they’re a supplement rather than a necessity.
Storage is another plus. In addition to large map pockets and bottle holders in each door, the front center console has a handy pocket on either side plus a small shelf on the passenger-side dash. They’re perfect for stashing loose items you’ll want to retrieve quickly, like toll transponders.
Downsides: Push-button start and rear climate vents are standard only on Limited and above trims. Push-button start with keyless access is an option for the Premium, but the rear vents aren’t. In this way, Subaru is more like BMW—charging extra for essential features that should be standard. Subaru’s little moonroof doesn’t come cheap, either. The Outback bundles it with other options like navigation that cost thousands of dollars.
A power driver’s seat, dual-zone climate, and rear USB ports are standard on Premium and above. A hands-free power tailgate is optional on Premium and standard on higher trims. Only the Onyx Edition XT comes with a full-size spare alloy wheel and tire; others have a steel wheel on a doughnut.
But the Outback’s best feature has to be the standard roof rails and integrated crossbars. On any other SUV, you have to buy the crossbars separately and install them when needed. On the Outback, they sit flush within the rails and can be swiveled and locked in place within seconds. Not only is this a money-saver, but it’s also just brilliant engineering.
The oversized 11.6-inch touchscreen does complicate the climate controls, as only driver and passenger temperature are outside the screen as buttons. Controls for the heated seats are also within the screen, which hampers usability. The icons are large and the screen is generally responsive. Plus, the big screen makes it easier to adjust vehicle settings and scroll through stereo presets.
Like all Subaru models, the Outback’s infotainment system looks about a decade old—think graphics and typefaces similar to the Nintendo Wii instead of the PlayStation 5. The central screen in the instrument panel is worse. Unfortunately, this user interface masks the modern tech underneath and brings the Outback down a few notches. For example, the Outback’s adaptive cruise control has four settings that change how the car responds to changes in traffic speed. This is fantastic—but finding it and changing it is a bear. However, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto come standard, and the optional navigation is more modern-looking than the rest of the system. But do yourself a favor and do not order the base model with the dual-screen setup. The single large screen, for all its flaws, is more cohesive, useful, and attractive.
Subaru EyeSight is standard on all trims. That includes adaptive cruise, lane-keep assist, and forward automatic emergency braking. The system offers good semi-automated control on marked highways. However, it relies on two forward-looking cameras and does not supplement them with forward-facing radar. When their view is blocked or impeded, such as around tighter curves, EyeSight’s impressive functionality is degraded compared to other systems that use both camera and radar.
The 2021 Outback rides on a chassis that is stronger and stiffer than previous models. A driver’s knee airbag and passenger seat-cushion airbag are standard. More driver assists are also available on specific trims. Blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert is optional on Premium and standard on all higher trims. Rear emergency braking is optional on the Onyx Edition XT but standard on the Limited 2.5 and both versions of the Touring. A driver-attention monitor is standard only on the Limited XT and both versions of the Touring; it is optional on the Limited 2.5 model.
The Outback was a 2020 the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) "Top Safety Pick+," an award that is tougher for automakers to earn than in years past. The 2020 Outback, which is identical to the 2021 Outback, earned the top “Good” ratings in all six crash tests and for headlights, plus the top “Superior” rating for its forward emergency braking, activated by vehicles and pedestrians.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) evaluated the 2021 Outback in three crash tests and a rollover test. The car scored an overall five stars, but with four stars for the front passenger in a frontal crash and four stars for the rollover test.
The Outback owns the segment it created in 1995. It is a roomy, rugged, and comfortable wagon that can easily take to sand, dirt, and most any road that’s unpaved or unplowed. Lower trims are missing essential convenience features. Therefore, it’s best to avoid the base and Premium trims despite their sub-$30,000 starting prices. Our Onyx Edition XT was $38,040 with destination. That’s at the top of the Outback hierarchy. Only the Limited XT and Touring XT cost more (max price with all options is 41 grand with destination). At the upper end, you might consider a compact luxury SUV but won’t have as much space or capability as this Subaru. You certainly won’t be more comfortable or have more fuel-efficient engines. For those reasons—and the high resale value, especially in the Subaru country that is New England—the Outback is a superb value, even if you choose the super-slow engine.
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