No longer a utilitarian wagon | It has a rare combination of luxury, capability, utility, performance and value.
Even as a diehard rear wheel drive fan, this time of year always gives me a slight itch for something a little more capable than a sports car on winter tires. Capability, however, generally comes with a compromise. Whether it’s fuel economy, comfort, performance or even cost, anything that can breeze through the worst of snow storms almost always requires some sacrifice. Happily though, Subaru has taken a bit of a different path with their very capable Outback; the marketing folks at Subaru call it an SUV alternative, and I’d say that’s pretty accurate. After recently driving a number of SUVs and CUVs, I wondered whether the Outback, which is really a mildly lifted AWD wagon, really could do everything the average family would expect from an SUV without compromising its car-like advantages.
To help answer my question, Subaru lent me a top-of-the-line 2015 Outback Limited 3.6R. In beautiful Lapis Blue Pearl on soft beige leather and riding on stylish 18” rims, my tester definitely looked more like a refined luxury cruiser than a capable adventure vehicle. So far, so good. Looking a little closer, the infamous Subaru Symmetrical AWD badging on the rear along with the hill descent and X-mode buttons prominent on the center console hint that there may be something more behind the luxurious matte finish wood trim and soft leather seats. While we’re on the subject, X-mode is a standard feature on all CVT transmission equipped Outbacks and alters the behaviour of the engine, AWD system and brakes to optimize their ability to tackle the toughest terrain and conditions. This further supports the idea that the Outback is a very capable vehicle both on and off the road.
On the road, the Outback absolutely glides along. There is literally zero road noise to be heard inside the car even when riding winter tires on dry highways – simply amazing. From inside the Outback, it rides and drives just like any other top-of-the-line family sedan; quiet, comfortable and with loads of room both in the front and rear seating areas. Steering is well-weighted, tight and responsive enough to get one’s heart racing through the twisties. I did find a tendency for understeer when pushed and the brake pedal is a little mushy for my liking, but those were the only two minor faults I could find in an otherwise very positive and engaging driving experience. There is a noteworthy solid and confident feeling to the way the Outback handles corners and bumps that can only attest to the fact that this is a very well-built car.
The 3.6L 6 cylinder boxer engine in my tester, while a bit of a mechanical rarity, did nothing but impress me all week with its sharp throttle response, extremely linear power curve and reasonable economy. Its generous 256hp offers a significant improvement in ‘seats of your pants’ feel over the 175hp offered by the 2.5L 4-cylinder also available in the Outback. The LinearTronic CVT transmission in my tester has been optimized to better deal with the high torque output of the 3.6L and is so good that it almost makes me want to take back all the things I’ve said about CVTs. The transmission does a great job maximizing the available power; so much so that I rarely felt compelled to pull on the paddle shifters, which also goes a long way to helping this Outback actually feel quite fast and even exciting to drive. I did debate this with some of my colleagues, but in my humble opinion, the 3.6L is worth every penny of the $3000 premium charged over the base 2.5L. This tester represents exactly how I would choose to configure an Outback for myself.
For all that smooth and responsive power, I only paid a small price at the pumps and averaged about 10.5L/100kms. To put things in perspective, a lot of my driving was in heavy traffic and in poor winter storm conditions. However in more favorable weather, I fared similarly in our 4-cylinder Santa Fe Sport long-term tester.
Although my test week didn’t allow me any chance to take the Outback off-road, after a few days of driving around on dry roads, our heaviest snowfall of the season thus far hit the GTA. Like many commuters, I was up and on the untouched side roads well before dawn on my commute in to the city. Equipped with a set of Bridgestone Blizzak WS-80s, my test car was absolutely unstoppable tackling 3ft snowplow drifts without even a hint of wheel spin. The storm continued all day and as I watched the snow accumulate from my office, my usual sinking “it’s going to be a long drive” feeling was replaced with a little spark of excitement to get the Outback back out of the underground garage and into its natural habitat once again. So I have to admit, as fun as a rear wheel drive car can be in the winter, there are few feelings better than knowing you’ve got the proper tools to get to your destination, no matter what mother nature throws your way – and there is little question in my mind that this Outback would get me through just about anything.
When the day ended and I arrived back at the car, I was reminded that the Outback is more than just an AWD monster. As the HID headlamps flickered to life, the warm seat heaters (both front and rear) and glow of the 7-inch multimedia screen controlling the 12-speaker 576-watt Harman Kardon stereo and navigation systems reminded me that this AWD monster is also a luxurious family wagon. Rounding out the feature set are some more utilitarian based luxuries, such as a power lift gate, split folding rear bench, and an integrated roof rack with innovative cross bars that swing out from the rails so they are always handy and never need to be installed. The only feature I was left wanting during my week with the car is a heated steering wheel; this vehicle is simply ideal for our Canadian winters, so I am sure a lot of drivers would appreciate warm hands.
With a feature set like the one in my $38,800 Limited tester, it’s only natural for the interior to be a pretty pleasant place. Overall, the interior feels very open and spacious and I adore the soft beige leather complemented by the matte finish woodgrain. However, interiors have not been a strong point for Subaru in the past. While the Outback shows that their designers are moving forward in leaps and bounds, there are some areas for improvement. Firstly, there are a few quirks with the overall dash layout, such as the fact that the clock is built into the climate control display – who’d think to look there for the time? Also, there are a few harsh plastic edges and while some of that is to be expected, a pet peeve of mine is when those edges appear on high-touch surfaces.
The Outback has come a very long way from its humble beginnings as a utilitarian wagon and has grown up to become a very impressive vehicle that I feel supports every aspect of Subaru’s claim as an SUV alternative for most families. Unless you need the towing and hauling capabilities of a true SUV, you owe it to yourself to spend some time behind the wheel of an Outback before purchasing your next SUV or CUV. It has a rare combination of luxury, capability, utility, performance and value that is seldom found anywhere else on the market.