First introduced in 1994, the Subaru Outback is a high-riding, midsize 4-door wagon. It comes standard with all-wheel drive, four or six-cylinder power and competes most directly with the Audi A4 Allroad, Buick Regal Sportback, and Volvo V60 Cross Country. Of course, potential Outback buyers may be considering compact to midsize crossovers like the Chevrolet Equinox, Honda CR-V, Toyota Rav4 and Subaru's own Forester as well.
Outback trim levels include 2.5i, 2.5i Premium, 2.5i/3.6R Limited and 2.5i/3.6R Touring. Base prices range from $25,895 to $38,690. The 2.5i models are powered by a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine that delivers 175 horsepower. 3.6R models get a 3.6-liter 6-cylinder engine that makes 256 horsepower. Both engines mate to a continuously variable transmission and deliver power to all four wheels through Subaru's Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive. Maximum towing capacity is 2700 pounds.
Changes for 2018 include revised front and rear styling, new STARLINK 6.5-inch and 8-inch infotainment systems featuring Apple Car Play and Android Auto support and interior material and feature upgrades. Subaru's EyeSight Drive Assist Technology is standard across the model lineup. In addition, Subaru also offers adaptive cruise control, pre-collision braking, lane-departure warning, cross-traffic alert and blind-spot detection.
Subaru's four- and six-cylinder engines in the Outback are "Boxer" designs, meaning the cylinders are horizontally opposed. Sometimes called a flat engine, the Boxer design allows the engine to sit lower in the chassis and is generally more inherently balanced than a typical V6 or V8. The only mainstream automakers to currently offer flat engines are Subaru and Porsche. (Toyota does offer a flat four in the 86, but that's a Subaru design.)
The 4-cylinder 2.5i engine provides acceptable acceleration in the 3,700-pound Outback. When necessary the engine/CVT combo will push the Outback from 0 to 60 MPH in about 10 seconds. That's near the bottom of the class. Worse yet, the ever-so-smooth CVT dulls passing response somewhat. Thankfully, there is a more powerful 6-cylinder engine option for those who need it.
On the plus side, the 2.5i engine is very fuel efficient. EPA ratings are 25 MPG city, 32 MPG highway and 28 MPG overall. Even more impressive is the Outback's real-world fuel economy that easily matches or exceeds the EPA's numbers. In routine suburban commuting, it's easy to top 30 MPG -- approaching 35 MPG overall if you throw in a mix of gentle highway cruising. Plus, the Outback's large 18.5-gallon fuel tank means a driving range that approaches 600 miles. The engine runs fine on regular-grade gasoline.
Subaru's Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive comes standard on all models. It requires no input from the driver and works seamlessly to send power to the wheels with the most grip. In addition to traction control, off-road capability is boosted with hill-descent control, hill-holder and X-Mode, which optimizes all powertrain components to reduce wheelspin on extremely slippery surfaces. In the wild, Subaru's all-wheel-drive system performs very well on and off road. Add to that 8.7 inches of ground clearance, and the Outback is considerably more capable off road than most competitors.
From a driver's perspective the Outback isn't the most exciting car. The softly sprung, long-travel suspension is tuned for on-road comfort and off-road control meaning there's little road feel and only adequate dry-road grip. The suspension does an excellent job of filtering out harsh impacts but sometimes bounds and bounces on rough roads. The steering, while quick enough, lacks any sort of road feel and imparts little feedback. Brakes have good stopping power and an easy-to-modulate pedal, making smooth stops a breeze.
Interior noise levels are a bit higher than expected. The culprit is mostly wind noise as the engine and tires are well muted. This is perhaps due to the standard roof rack, tall build or largish side-view mirrors. Subaru claims some changes were made for 2018 to reduce wind noise.
The Outback shares an interior with the Subaru Legacy sedan. The design is fresh and modern and places function ahead of form with materials and finishes that are a cut above the class average. That means drivers face a large twin-dial setup that's readable and augmented by a small programmable information screen. The center stack places large AC vents up top, where they can do the most good. Below is a large touch-screen display for the infotainment system and then dials and buttons for the climate control. All-in-all, a solid and usable design that's pleasing to the eye and easy to operate day or night. The addition of Android Auto and Apple Car Play support for 2018 is a welcome plus.
The overstuffed front seats are very comfortable and offer good support for long-haul commuting. They are not deeply contoured and the leather can grow slippery when the road gets a bit twisty. The rear seats are quite comfortable as well. Font seat head and leg room are class leading. In back, the rear seats offer good head and leg room for three average-size adults, though the middle rider might feel a bit pinched. Entry and exit is easy thanks to a "just right" step in height and large door openings.
Being a wagon gives the outback a leg up on many hatchback competitors in that it has a cavernous cargo hold. Total capacity is 73.3 cubic feet, but even with the rear seats in use there's 35.5 cubic feet. The hatch opening is large and there's power assist if you so wish. Interior storage is just average with a few open and covered bins throughout. It would be nice if there were a little more room in the center-stack console area to hold your phone when connected with Android Auto or Apple Car Play.
Bottom Line -- Subaru's Outback is the original high-built all-wheel-drive wagon. It makes just as much sense today as it did when it was introduced in 1994. Outback offers versatility, good cargo and passenger room, go-anywhere all-wheel drive, and above-average fuel economy for the class. Shortcomings include a vehicle that isn't very dynamically stimulating from behind the wheel and a bit more wind noise than some will like. Overall, it's hard to top the Outback's blend of utility and frugality and the reasonable starting price certainly makes it even more appealing.