2015 Subaru Outback Review | Driving

2015 Subaru Outback review photo
Subaru has long laid claim to originating the sport-utility wagon, which is what the Outback was termed when it was first introduced 20 years ago. A jacked-up Legacy wagon and fitted with an abundance of body cladding as well as off-road tires, it was as much a brilliant stroke of luck in the face of limited resources as well as an indication of the Japanese automaker’s ingenuity: cognizant of the explosive strength of the SUV segment, it provided a more civilized, suburban-oriented alternative.
This theme hasn’t changed much for the Outback over the past two decades. The new 2015 version has arrived, improved in many areas but by no means a revolutionary redesign, and Subaru is still singing what has become a familiar refrain, that of an adventure-ready mid-sized sport-ute alternative that provides car-like handling with the versatility of a wagon/SUV.
The basics are rather familiar. With a choice of 2.5-litre four-cylinder and 3.6L six-cylinder boxer engines — both with numerous upgraded parts — the fifth-generation Outback comes standard with symmetrical all-wheel drive and a six-speed manual transmission. The optional Lineartronic continuously variable transmission (CVT) is standard in all but the base 2.5i and is now the tranny du jour for the six-cylinder, replacing the previous model’s 5-speed automatic. Subaru does claim improvements in fuel economy for both engines, further detailing enhancements such as lighter weight and quieter operation for the 175-horsepower 2.5L four. A reduction in friction within the CVT contributes to greater fuel efficiency when mated with the 256-hp six-cylinder. (2.5i CVT models are estimated at 8.1 litres per 100 kilometres in the city, 6.0 L/100 km on the highway and 7.1 L/100 km combined. The two six-cylinder models have estimated fuel economy ratings of 10.6 L/100 km city, 7.3 L/100 km highway and 9.1 L/100 km combined.) The addition of an active grille shutter on 2.5i trims helps reduce wind resistance when closed, which also enhances fuel economy.
And the PZEV (Partial Zero Emission Vehicle) option, which Subaru first introduced a half-dozen years ago, is still optional on the base 2.5i model only – although not being promoted heavily. (PZEV vehicles comply with California’s Super Ultra-Low Emission Vehicle tailpipe standards and eliminate fuel system evaporative emissions. Compared with an average new, gasoline-powered vehicle, Subaru says PZEV cars have 90% cleaner exhaust emissions.)
2015 Subaru Outback interior photo
External revisions are subtle to all but the Subaru cognoscenti, yet the wagon has grown slightly larger, more comfortable and more capable in Subaru’s mission to cater to its North American audience. The front face has been cleaned up through the use of a “nose cone” front bumper that combines the grille into one smooth piece. An aluminum hood reduces weight over the front wheels while also improving steering response. The front windshield is more raked – pulled forward 50 millimetres at the base. Combined with higher seating hip points, new front partition windows and door-mounted side view mirrors, visibility is improved all around. There is also an 11% decrease in drag compared with the 2014 model.
All models are equipped with Incline Start Assist and an electronic Hill Holder system that holds the Outback in place until the driver uses the gas pedal, a feature that was put to good use while navigating the sharply inclined streets of St. John’s.
The morning drive had us hugging the coastline in a 3.6 Touring. A smooth engine, the six-cylinder displayed ample power for the hillier sections as well as merging on to the TransCanada Highway. Cabin noise was well damped, with only a slight amount of wind and tire noise — which could be easily masked by turning on the audio system. The four was almost as impressive, obviously not as responsive as the six-cylinder yet never failing to answer the call when the gas pedal was given a prod. Subaru says zero-to-100-km/h times are about a second faster for the 2.5L than last year.
The Outback’s adventuring abilities were given a true test on a couple of nasty little off-road courses – not quite the Rubicon but far more gnarly than a cottage trail. Both provided little challenge to the Outback’s 220-millimetre ground clearance and its excellent X-Mode system, which reconfigures engine control, the AWD system and the braking system to keep speed in check on steep descents. Torsional and bending stiffness have been greatly improved in the new model – squeaks, rattles and any other unwanted noise was blissfully absent during the torture test.
2015 Subaru Outback hatchback photo
General on-road performance is now far more car-like, with the new, quick-ratio electric power steering rack, chassis weight reduction (through increased use of aluminum components) and changes to the suspension system all contributing to a more relaxing drive. The new Outback is appreciably quieter, too, thanks to a new acoustic windshield, liquid-filled engine mounts, thicker panels in key locations (floor, toeboard, rear wheel apron and inner fenders) and the greater use of foam insulation and floor damping material.
Cabin-wise, the interior is still more functional than luxurious, but the seats are larger and comfortable and there’s thicker, soft-touch cushioning for the armrests and centre console. Controls are simple to find and easy to use. The cabin itself sees gains in rear-seat legroom — six-footers should have no problem occupying the back row. The trunk area has been enlarged to 35.5 cu. ft., up appreciably from 30.3 cu. ft. in the 2014 model. Standard 60/40 split-folding rear seats expand cargo-carrying capacity even further. And, backing up into tight spaces is easier as the Outback now comes standard with a rear-view camera, which has also been located closer to the centre of the wagon for more natural imaging.
2015 Subaru Outback review photo
What was once a novel idea, complete with Crocodile Dundee lending an Aussie credence to the Outback name, is now a mature and instantly recognized product within Subaru’s stable. It isn’t hip or hot, but it is revamped, extensively improved in more ways than I can detail in this space and a far more pleasant vehicle to drive, while still maintaining all of its functionality. The previous-generation Outback was good enough to win the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada’s Canadian Utility Vehicle of the Year for 2010. I’d be careful about betting against the 2015 model to repeat.
The new Outback arrives in dealerships later this month with the four-cylinder models available in 2.5i, 2.5i Touring and 2.5i Limited trim lines, while the six-cylinder models include the 3.6R Touring and 3.6R Limited. Pricing starts at $27,995 for the manual-equipped 2.5i and tops out at $40,095 for the 3.6 Limited with Technology Package.