Thumbs Up: Capable of light off-roading, yet still comfortable on-road.
Thumbs Down: Improved CVT is still a CVT, no automatic transmission options.
Buy This Car If: You live where winter and dirt roads are a fact of life, but don’t need an SUV.
It’s hard to believe, but the Subaru Outback has been with us now for nearly 20 years. Launched in 1994 as an all-wheel-drive wagon with SUV looks, the Outback has evolved over the past two decades to become a mainstay family vehicle in parts of the country saddled with winter weather, dirt roads or both. The Outback has grown larger and more luxurious over the years, with some versions clearly pushing into what would have been luxury territory just a few years back.
It’s gotten a bit soft in styling, too, with a rounded front that’s new for 2013 and likely helps improve aerodynamics. It also makes the car a bit less distinctive than earlier versions, although we’d be the first to point out that very few consumers shop Subaru for class-leading exterior design. While the Outback may not set the bar higher for all-wheel-drive wagon styling, it’s easy enough on the eyes and unlikely to offend anyone.
Up front, off-road styling cues pioneered on the original Outback are still present and accounted for. The fascia lower, for example, is painted silver to look like a skid plate, while the driving lights remain oversized for off-road use. There’s plenty of ground clearance, too, meaning that deep snow and mild off-roading (call it soft-roading) are no trouble for this particular grocery-getter.
In profile, Subaru’s ruggedized body cladding stands out, as do subtle styling touches like the metallic side mirror caps and door handles. There’s an Audi-esque look to the rear, especially around the C-pillar, subtle spoiler and taillights, but it stops short of being a copy and looks good on the Outback. We’re not sure about the somewhat goofy wheel arches, which seem narrower and taller than on Outbacks past. That may allow for greater wheel articulation, but they make the car look a bit odd on profile. We don’t think the six-spoke wheels help, either, but that’s a completely subjective thing.
Subaru carries its beefed-up styling to the rear as well. The lower fascia matches the black body cladding used on the rest of the car, and its upswept lines allow for a serious departure angle for off-pavement driving. Even the bumper top is ruggedized to prevent scratches while loading and unloading cargo, another sign that the Outback is a good choice for drivers who don’t pamper their cars.
Inside, we’d call the dash styling a bit busy. There’s dark simulated-wood trim separating a black plastic crash pad from a black plastic dash lower, yet the center stack and console are trimmed in oddly-bright silver plastic. A large infotainment screen dominates the center stack top, and below are knobs and buttons for audio, navigation and HVAC inputs. Atop the center stack is the driver information display, which has us wondering exactly what the “information” toggles on the steering wheel are for. Everything is functional, but it’s a long way from being clear and even further from being elegant. If you’re coming to the Outback from another vehicle, expect to spend a few days getting used to the control layout (and don’t even get us started on the odd location and reverse-operation of the electric parking brake).
Instruments get the job done, although we’d have preferred a driver information display between the tachometer and the speedometer. The “MPG gauge” atop the panel is an annoying distraction that provides no useful information. Does anyone NOT know that fuel economy decreases when you step on the gas, and increases when you lift off?
Front seats were better than we remembered and wrapped in rich brown ventilated leather. The driver gets a 10-way powered seat, while the passenger makes due with a four-way powered seat, but both front chairs come heated for winter comfort. If you prefer cloth over leather, stout fabric upholstery is still available in both base and Premium trims.
Rear seats also get ventilated leather seating surfaces, and they recline for passenger comfort. The Outback delivers a surprising amount of both head and leg room in the back, and we doubt anyone will object to its second-row accommodations. While the rear seat includes three seat belts, think of it as suitable for two adults or three children.
Our Subaru-supplied Outback Limited came powered by the automaker’s 2.5-liter boxer-four engine. It’s good for 173 horsepower and 174 pound feet of torque, which would be plenty if it were mated to a six-speed manual (available on lower-trim models) or six-speed automatic transmission. Sadly, the only transmission offered in Limited trim is a CVT, and to be honest it’s not one of the better ones we’ve driven. Subaru says it’s improved for 2013, but we fail to see where; step on the gas, and the CVT seems to produce more noise than forward motion. Lift off, and it abruptly changes ratios, like what you’d expect from a five-speed automatic. Under steady-state driving, it’s fine, but under acceleration (or in city traffic) it’s lacking. CVTs deliver better fuel economy, however, and the one in the Outback helps it achieve an EPA-estimated 30 mpg highway and 24 mpg city. In mostly city driving, we saw an indicated 24.9 mpg.
On the road, the Outback serves up confident handling and decent ride comfort. Although it’s relatively tall, it never feels like a high center of gravity vehicle, which is praise for the Outback’s suspension tuning. Behind the wheel, the Outback feels like a mainstream (non-luxury) sedan, albeit one with better-than-average line of sight. We didn’t have the chance to take it to the mountains or to the beach, but we’ve got plenty of bad-weather seat-time driving earlier Outback models, and they’ve never failed to get us from point A to point B safely. While there isn’t much “sport” in the Outback, we don’t find them as tedious behind the wheel as most crossovers, and if given the choice between a Subaru Outback and, say, a Nissan Rogue, we’ll snag the keys to the Outback.
It’s worth pointing out that Subaru also builds the Outback with a larger 3.6-liter boxer-six engine, rated at 256 horsepower and 247 pound-feet of torque and mated to a conventional five-speed automatic. We’d pass on this offering, as it adds significantly to the purchase price and has a hefty appetite for gas.
Despite the shortcomings pointed out, we’d still seriously consider a Subaru Outback if we needed all-weather family transportation. We’d go a trim level down from our Limited press fleet tester, though, opting instead for an Outback Premium with cloth seats and a six speed manual transmission. If you’re in the market for a compact crossover, you may want to throw the Subaru Outback into the mix as well.
Base price on our Subaru-supplied Outback 2.5i Limited tester was $29,890, including a destination charge of $795. Option Package 23 (keyless entry and pushbutton start; driver’s seat memory; power moonroof; voice activated navigation system; harman/kardon audio system; auto-dimming rearview mirror with Homelink; SiriusXM satellite radio; Bluetooth phone connectivity and audio streaming; rear view camera; 17-inch alloy wheels; metallic trim door handles and mirror caps; rear bumper cover; leather trimmed seats and matte-finish woodgrain trim) added $3,645 to the price, which totaled $33,535.
For comparison, a similarly equipped Toyota Venza XLE Premium would list for $35,470, while a comparably equipped Nissan Rogue SV AWD with the SL package would sticker at $31,435.