The Subaru Outback is all-new for 2015. The 2015 Subaru Outback isn’t much bigger than its predecessor, just over a half-inch longer and wider, on a wheelbase that’s been stretched less than a quarter-inch. But there’s more room within, and the additional width and conservative restyling combine to give it a more substantial appearance.
And there is indeed substance to vindicate the fresh appearance. The 2015 Outback gets a higher percentage of high-strength hot-stamped steel in the unit body, increasing structural rigidity by substantial margins: 59 percent torsional, 35 percent longitudinal.
Not only does this contribute to good all-around road manners, it’s also a plus for absorbing punishment on rugged dirt tracks. Augmenting the Outback’s off-road usefulness is a seamless four-wheel drive system and lots of ground clearance: 8.7 inches. That matches the ground clearance of the Jeep Cherokee, allowing the Outback to better traverse rough terrain.
As with the previous generation, the 2015 Outback offers two engine choices, a 175-horsepower four-cylinder and a 256-horsepower six-cylinder. Both are boxer designs, with the cylinders opposed to each other in a horizontal plane, and both offer lots of torque, a useful trait when driving at slower speeds over lumpy terrain. Unlike the previous generation, there is no manual transmission option; both engines are paired with continuously variable transmissions, or CVTs.
Subaru has programmed the CVT with artificial shift points, operable via the paddle shifters mounted on the steering wheel. While it doesn’t provide the sense of driver engagement that goes with a stick shift, it does diminish some of the annoying slipping clutch trait that’s been a longtime drawback of CVTs. Indeed, the Outback feels more like a car with a regular automatic than does the latest Honda CR-V, which has a CVT with much more of that slipping sensation.
The stiffer structure of the 2015 Outback is heavier than that of the fourth-generation version, and acceleration with the 2.5-liter flat-four in a Premium trim level model was deliberate, a 2-horsepower gain and improved torque curve versus the previous generation notwithstanding. In other words, this latest Outback is no quicker than before.
On the other hand, fuel economy ratings are improved. The 2015 Subaru Outback 2.5i achieves an EPA-estimated 25/33 mpg City/Highway. We averaged 28 mpg in four days of touring around Oregon in a 2015 Outback 2.5i Premium with the four-cylinder engine, and that included some high country. The Outback’s pavement manners are hard to fault, and its off-road performance is impressive.
Beyond that, the 2015 Outback is than before. Though the exterior dimensional increases are fractional, there’s more space inside for passengers and cargo. Interior noise has been reduced, infotainment elements have improved, as have safety features. The result is that there is more quiet to go along with the increased smoothness.
Visually, there are still ties to the Legacy sedan, the Outback’s genetic forebear. But the 2015 Outback has evolved far beyond its first generation beginnings as a Legacy station wagon with a little extra ground clearance.
Subaru characterizes the Outback’s new skin as more muscular, but it takes an experienced eye to readily spot the distinctions between the latest edition and the preceding generation. This is not a bad thing, given the Outback’s owner loyalty index; 60 percent of its buyers return for another, according to Subaru, an indication that the company is doing something right.
But familiar doesn’t mean same old, same old. The side mirrors sport turn signal repeaters, the revised front fascia is available with xenon HID headlights, the rear liftgate offers power operation with a memory pre-set for height, and the roof rack cross rails have a nifty stowaway feature, folding into the side rails when not in use.
Although not strictly classifiable as exterior features, the Outback’s safety systems merit mention here. The first is an upgrade on Subaru’s Eyesight system, monitoring driver response to the closing rate on the vehicle ahead in urban slow and go traffic. If the vehicle ahead stops, and the camera-based system sensors decide the driver isn’t going to respond, it can stop the car short of collision, at speeds up to 30 mph. Very impressive.
The new Outback is also up to date in terms lane departure warning, rear cross traffic alert, and blind spot detection with the ability to track the speed differential of overtaking traffic.
Also, the Outback’s stronger structure includes improved crashworthiness, in particular its performance in narrow angle frontal collisions. Subarus have an exceptional record of top safety pick ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and the narrow angle collision rating is a key component.
Roomier is always good news in any new vehicle, and it’s good news in the Outback. The design team has made the most of the modest dimensional increases, adding 2 cubic feet to cargo capacity, which increases to 73.3 with the rear seats folded flat. And passenger volume improves by 2.7 cubic feet.
Like so many new vehicles coming along these days, the Outback’s interior materials are of higher quality, with soft touch surfaces on the dash and door panels and welcome padding on the armrests.
The fourth-generation Outback lagged its competitors in terms of telematics and dashboard displays, but the new one closes the gap with improved instrumentation, a new 6.2-inch color touch screen in the center stack, an optional 7.0-inch screen that’s home for the optional navigation system, and a standard rear view camera. The bigger screen includes swiping and scrolling gesture response, text messaging, and voice command for various functions.
Other new features include heated rear seats and integrated door sill steps that make it easier to access gear stowed on the roof rails.
The Subaru Outback is intended to serve active couples or active couples with one or two kids in a variety of operating situations, paved or otherwise. The elements that make the Outback so capable on dirt trails (lots of ground clearance, generous suspension travel) limit its pavement responses. Direction changes are relaxed, the electric power steering is a little numb on center (though the ratio is quicker than in the previous generation, and better than many similar systems); there’s a fair amount of body roll in hard cornering; and the 2.5-liter engine won’t cause face distortion at full throttle.
On the other hand, ride quality is supple, interior noise levels are exceptionally low, and if the Outback isn’t sporty it’s thoroughly competent. Moreover, when the pavement ends, it motors to the head of the class. The Outback isn’t the kind of severe off-roader you’d saddle up for rock-crawling on the Rubicon Trail. But it can tackle just about anything else, taking its crew to places where you can see just about the entire universe at night and the trout will be biting.
The 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder is rated at 175 horsepower at 5800 rpm and 174 pound-feet of torque at 4000 rpm and gets an EPA-estimated 25/33 mpg City/Highway, or 28 mpg Combined.
The 3.6-liter DOHC 24-valve horizontally opposed six-cylinder is rated at 256 horsepower at 6000 rpm, 247 pound-feet of torque 4400 rpm and gets an EPA-estimated 20/27 mpg City/Highway, or 22 mpg Combined.
All Outbacks come with the CVT continuously variable transmission, with paddle shift manual mode and 6-speed simulated shifting. All-wheel drive is standard on all models.
The fifth-generation Subaru Outback adds a number of refinements that enhance its appeal for all-around use. Interior noise is down, there’s more room inside, telematics move closer to contemporary standards, and dynamics are improved thanks to extensive chassis enhancements. The fun-to-drive index is modest in ordinary pavement driving, but off pavement the Outback is a bulldog, capable of getting to those remote areas where traffic noise is nil and the impact of industrialized America is all but absent.
Tony Swan filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after his test drive of the Outback outside Portland, Oregon.