SISTERS, OR – This charmingly artsy town of 2,200 people, named for three mountains within clear view, is the ideal place for Subaru to market its vehicles, nearly all of them coming standard with all-wheel drive.
So how does Subaru do in this ruggedly remote part of the Pacific Northwest?
The question is quickly answered from any street corner, where at least one Subaru of any age will be spotted. It’s shocking to find out residents here travel a half-hour (in good weather) to the nearest Subaru showroom.
Welcome to Subie Land, the perfect place to stop for a robust and fragrant cup of coffee while test-driving the new fifth-generation Outback CUV.
How popular is this ute named for Australian vastness? In 2013, at the end of its lifecycle, the fourth-generation model nearly outpaced the all-new Forester for the brand’s U.S. sales crown (118,049 deliveries).
In context of WardsAuto’s Midsize CUV segment, the previous Outback continued playing with high-volume brands in 2013, closely trailing the Ford Edge, Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot and Nissan Rogue and outselling the Dodge Journey, Nissan Murano, Hyundai Santa Fe, Kia Sorento, Toyota Venza and GMC Terrain.
Subaru, the quirky niche brand? Think again, at least in this vehicle sector.
The new Outback will not disappoint legions of Subaru loyalists. It comes with two capable engines, smooth and efficient CVTs, appealing but evolutionary design and a clean, roomy and stylish interior with a completely redesigned and user-friendly telematics interface that addresses a disappointing shortfall of recent Subarus.
Subaru's All-New Flagship
The Outback, which is larger than the Forester and XV Crosstrek CUVs, shares flagship status with its platform mate, the Legacy sedan, which also has been redesigned.
The larger Tribeca CUV represented the automaker’s only weak link until production ended in January. A 3-row replacement is in the works and should arrive by 2018.
For the Outback, Subaru carried over what worked in the previous model and fixed what didn’t.
On the powertrain front, about 80% of buyers are expected to pick the 2.5L naturally aspirated boxer engine, the same take-rate as with the previous generation.
The 4-cyl. has been significantly improved, with 80% fresh content including a new block, heads, pistons, intake manifold, exhaust-gas recirculation cooler and re-engineered valvetrain for better breathing.
Although the engine makes more power and is lighter, quieter and more fuel-efficient, the automaker resists labeling it all-new.
The H-4 gets the job done, with 175 hp and 174 lb.-ft. (236 Nm) of torque, but no one will buy the 4-cyl. Outback for its thrust and passing power. Despite their edgy, adventurous lifestyles, Subaru buyers, ironically, must be very conservative drivers.
The benchmarks among midsize naturally aspirated 4-cyl. gasoline engines remain Honda’s 2.4L (a Ward’s 10 Best Engines winner) and Mazda’s 2.5L, both recently engineered and employing direct fuel injection.
Subaru Embracing Direct Injection, Finally
Meanwhile, Subaru’s engines, including the Outback’s optional 256-hp 3.6L 6-cyl. boxer, continue to employ conventional port fuel injection. However, Subaru recently announced plans to introduce direct injection on all engines in the near future. It’s welcome news.
The automaker is among the last to embrace direct injection, and customers should count on more power and torque and reduced fuel consumption when the migration occurs.
The only available transmission is Subaru’s Lineartronic CVT (the 6-cyl. is paired with a high-torque version), which has been improved with new friction-reduction measures for better sound qualities and fuel efficiency.
First impressions of the transmission are wholly positive, void of the wavy, noisy rubber-band sensation that can make CVTs downright annoying.
Cruise along at highway speed with the 4-cyl. engine running at 2,000 rpm and power will be transferred smoothly to the wheels through the transmission’s highest gear ratios.
Stab the accelerator to pass on a 2-lane road, and the engine quickly will race to 4,500 rpm while the CVT kicks down the equivalent of three or four virtual gears. The wind-up is fast and efficient, without excessive transmission noise.
Subaru 4-cyl. boxer engines have had a particular exhaust and induction sound that made them perhaps too raucous for some shoppers but endearing for longtime customers. Either way, the new engine is significantly quieter, perhaps due to improved damping and the addition of an acoustic windshield.
Manual shifting is possible with optional paddles mounted to the steering wheel, but few customers will ever use them.
6-Cyl. Better, But Thirstier
The 3.6L 6-cyl. boxer, standard on the high-end Limited trim level, is the obvious choice for someone needing more punch, especially for towing or hauling lots of gear on undulating terrain such as this. Both engines run on regular unleaded fuel.
As expected, the 6-cyl. is thirstier, rated by the EPA at 20/27 mpg (11.7-8.7 L/100 km) city/highway. That compares with 25/33 (9.4-7.1 L/100 km) for the 4-cyl. Our test drives, though not particularly aggressive, fell well short of the bogies.
But hats off to Subaru for topping the fuel economy (at least on paper) of the 2.5L 4-cyl. in the front-wheel-drive Mazda CX-5, a smaller, less-capable competitor.
There are compelling mechanical reasons to buy the Outback, particularly Active Torque Vectoring (adopted from the rally-worthy STI) for better grip side-to-side and X-Mode, which debuted on the Forester and modulates throttle inputs for the sake of better traction and augments electronic stability control on slippery and rough surfaces.
The system enables automated creeping down steep grades, without a foot even touching the brakes. Go ahead, trust the technology. It works, based on extensive driving on challenging, rocky off-road trails here. In general, the Outback takes to the trail like a hound dog.
Active grille shutters allow air to cool the engine bay when operating temperatures require it, but close whenever possible to improve aerodynamics.
Electric-power steering is installed for the first time and responsible for a fuel-economy gain of 2 mpg (0.8 km/L).
Safety technologies are plentiful, including seat-mounted airbags that raise the knees at impact and prevent occupants from sliding underneath seatbelts.
Optional active safety devices include blind-spot detection, adaptive cruise control, lane-change assist and rear cross traffic alert.
EyeSight, Subaru’s dual-camera system that watches the road ahead and will lock up the brakes for an inattentive driver to prevent a collision, is optional and has been improved for extended peripheral and forward range.
The feature debuted a few years ago in the Legacy and achieved a 7.5% take-rate last year. In 2015, the figure is expected to reach 30.3%.
Outstanding Interior, Telematics System
The Outback interior is welcoming, upscale and accommodating, and the rugged floor mats are designed for the active lifestyle.
Build quality of the pre-production models driven generally is good, except for the occasional gap where the A-pillar trim meets the headliner.
The new cabin’s highlight is a standard 6.2-in. (16-cm) high-resolution multi-function touchscreen (a 7-in. [18-cm] display is optional) that represents a serious upgrade to Subaru’s infotainment offerings.
The brand’s vehicles have taken a rap for infotainment systems that generally look and feel like a generation behind other automakers.
But the new screen is wholly contemporary, appearing to float on a clear sheet of glass that seems closer to the driver and brighter. In addition, the fussy little buttons of the past have been replaced by capacitive touch switches that work well.
Of course, there’s smartphone integration with Pandora and iHeart radio, hands-free phone connectivity, stock listings and weather reports.
The Outback got significantly bigger when the fourth generation launched in 2010. That trend continues with the latest iteration, growing 2 ins. (5 cm) wider and 1.6 ins. (4 cm) longer. Ground clearance is class-leading, at 8.7 ins. (23 cm), Subaru says.
When the first Outback was introduced in 1995, Subaru considered it the vehicle that created the massively popular utility vehicle as we know it today. In that time, Outback sales have approached a half-million.
Five generations later, the automaker continues blazing new trails.
Expect the new Outback, on sale now, to proliferate like timber in Central Oregon.
'15 Subaru Outback Specifications
|Vehicle type||Five-door, 5-passenger midsize CUV|
|Engine||2.5L DOHC all-aluminum horizontally opposed 4-cyl. boxer|
|Power (SAE net)||175 hp @ 5,800 rpm|
|Torque||174 lb.-ft. (236 Nm) @ 4,000 rpm|
|Bore x stroke (mm)||94 x 90|
|Wheelbase||108.1 ins. (2,746 mm)|
|Overall length||189.6 ins. (4,816 mm)|
|Overall width||72.4 ins. (1,839 mm)|
|Overall height||66.1 ins. (1,679 mm)|
|Curb weight||3,593 lbs. (1,630 kg)|
|Base price||$24,895 (plus $850 destination charge)|
|Fuel economy||25/33 mpg (9.4-7.1 L/100 km)|
|Competition||Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Edge, Honda CR-V, Hyundai Santa Fe Sport, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Kia Sorento, Mazda CX-5, Toyota Venza|
|Fans of last generation will rejoice||Styling won’t draw Subie newbies|
|Big improvements for 4-cyl. boxer||Merely adequate for passing|
|Spacious cabin, updated telematics||Real-world mpg not outstanding|