Thumbs Up: Crossover utility, car-like ride; model spans a variety of price points
Thumbs Down: Pseudo-luxury touches not needed, confusing infotainment interface
Buy This Car If: You live where it snows and don’t want an SUV or crossover
The Outback saved Subaru, at least in the United States. Back in 1995, American buyers wanted SUVs, not compact sedans and wagons. Gas was cheap and the SUV represented an American ideal: the ability to go anywhere, in any weather across (nearly) any terrain. So what if most SUV owners never traversed anything more rugged than a gravel parking lot; the very idea that they could represented freedom, and nothing is more American than that.
Subaru had been struggling to achieve success in the U.S. with their larger and semi-luxurious Legacy models, when when Subaru of America hit up a brilliant strategy: why not add an inch or so of suspension travel to a Legacy wagon, throw on a ruggedly styled front fascia (complete with oversize, mesh-encased driving lights) and spin it as an alternative to the SUV? Since Australian culture was popular in the U.S. at the time, the automaker settled on the Outback name and even hired Australian actor Paul Hogan to pitch the car.
Introduced in 1995, the Outback became a home run for Subaru, with sales soon exceeding forecast. The original Outback had a lot going for it: the styling was unlike anything else on the market, it was much more affordable than most SUVs and it offered buyers all-weather confidence, with even a bit of off-road capability if your expectations were modest. Original Outback models even had a “ruggedized” interior, complete with coarsely-textured but long-wearing seats, that seemed to repel any attempt to get them dirty.
My wife and I owned a first-gen Outback, and the car was bulletproof for the five years we had it. It slogged through Northeast winters without complaint, hauled us and the dog on cross-country trips and never saw the inside of a dealership or repair shop. It even tangled with a deer at speed, resulting in some $2,700 worth of bodywork and the origination of the phrase “meat grenade.”
Time moves on, and it’s been about ten years since I’ve driven a Subaru Outback. Like every other vehicle I can think of, the Outback has bulked up over the years, and the latest version can easily match the cargo hauling capabilities of most crossovers. There’s more legroom for front and rear passengers, too, and hauling five passengers in a 2011 Outback is far more comfortable than it was in a 1996 Outback. There’s even a six cylinder boxer engine available for those wanting more power than the 2.5-liter four offered.
The rugged styling theme continues, even on the newest Outback model. The off-road-style driving lights may be gone, but the lower front fascia is painted silver to look like a skid plate, even if it wouldn’t really survive heay-duty four-wheeling. Side sills are deeply embossed to give the car an armored-undercarriage look, but the rest of the car is more conventionally styled. Like the original, it wouldn’t look out of place parked by a mountain cabin, or at a five-star, jacket-and tie restaurant in the city.
Inside, the latest Outback is an entirely different animal than the one we owned. In fairness, lower models come without the luxury content, with a commensurately lower price. You can still get them with the original 2.5-liter boxer four, and that’s exactly where I’d shop if I were in the market for one. I’m just not a fan of the faux wood trim, which cheapens an otherwise nice package. Ditto for the small center-stack controls and supremely annoying infotainment system. I actually had to consult the manual to figure out how to change radio station pre-sets, and I never did figure out how to change the bass and treble settings. I did find an equalizer setting, where I could change frequency response by range, but who has the time to set up and dial in each variable? I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: all cars should have redundant and easily accessible controls for audio.
Those two gripes aside, the interior of the latest Outback is a nice place to spend time. The leather is stout, and a lot more comfortable than the sack-cloth interior in our old Outback. The additional legroom would make this version a far better choice for cross-country drives than the original, for both front and rear seat passengers. Since the Outback is targeted at those living in colder climates, front seats are heated (at least in leather-equipped models.
Rear seats recline for added comfort, which also gives taller passengers more headroom. That’s not to say that headroom is lacking, and only those much taller than six-feet will feel cramped in the back of the latest Outback. The rear seats fold flat, in a conventional 60/40 split, meaning that the Outback can be configured to haul an impressive array of swag.
If safety is a concern, the latest Outback is a “Top Safety Pick” from the IIHS, and scored a minimum of four stars in all government crash tests. It comes with all-wheel-drive, electronic stability control (including a rollover sensor system), antilock brakes with brake assist, traction control and full assortment of driver and passenger airbags. Throw on a set of winter tires, and the latest Outback will get you through the worst that mother nature has to offer, in as safe a manner as possible.
My Subaru-supplied press fleet car came with Subaru’s 3.6-liter boxer six engine, mated to a five-speed automatic transmission. It’s good for 256 horsepower and 246 ft-lb of torque, which really is overkill in a car like the Outback. The EPA rates it at 18 mpg city and 25 mpg highway, and I saw 19.2 in mostly city driving. The 3.6-liter engine adds a considerable amount of money to the Outback’s price (anywhere from $3,000 to $4,700, depending upon trim level) and the 2.5-liter four cylinder returns (slightly) better fuel economy. If it were me shopping for an Outback, I think I’d stick to a mid-level 2.5 Premium version and bank the money I saved.
On the road, the latest Outback drives like, well, a Subaru Outback. It’s relatively high seating position gives you a better view of the road ahead than you’d get in a typical sedan or wagon, and the sure-footed AWD traction means that you’ll never have to worry about wet roads. I’d stop short of calling the Outback fun to drive, since that’s really not the purpose of the car. It excels at getting driver, passenger and cargo from Point A to Point B in all kinds of weather, without complaint. In my experience, Subarus are built well and don’t ask for much in terms of care and feeding, so owning one is likely to be an inexpensive proposition.
The latest Outback has revitalized sales for Subaru, so I’m clearly not the only one who finds the Outback to have the right amount of content, value and versatility. On the low end, you can snap up an Outback with the 2.5-liter four and a six-speed manual for just under $24k. Max out the options on a 3.6R Limited, and crossing the $40k threshold is easy to do. That’s a decent range of price points, and with some six Outback models to choose from, there’s probably one that’s ideal for most buyers.
Base price on my Subaru-supplied 2011 Outback 3.6R Limited was $32,220, including a $725 destination charge. My press fleet car came equipped with the $2,995 Option Package 8 (power moonroof, navigation system, USB port, iPod port, rear camera, XM satellite radio, auto dimming mirror with Homelink transmitter, Bluetooth streaming audio) for a total sticker price of $35,215. For comparison, a similarly equipped Toyota RAV4 would sticker for $35,920, while a comparable Toyota Venza wagon would list for $38,070.