1. What’s new for 2015?
A redesigned but scarcely different-looking generation of a deceptively roomy and decidedly accomplished midsize crossover. Outback was present at the creation, debuting for 1996 as an all-wheel-drive wagon based on Subaru’s compact Legacy sedan. It was arguably the first crossover and has grown in size and capability with succeeding redesigns. The ’15 is the roomiest, most powerful, most luxurious yet. It’s fractionally longer in wheelbase and overall length than the 2010-2014 version, 2.2 inches taller and, depending on trim, 150-200 pounds heavier. Its four- and six-cylinder engines are basically unchanged, yet fuel economy improves.
Outback again seats five and competes with crossovers that have a more conventional-SUV profile, such as the Chevrolet Equinox and Ford Edge. It matches many bulkier rivals for usable cargo and passenger space, and beats most for off-road ability. It’s also cross-shopped with wagon-y premium-brand crossovers like the Volvo XC70 and Audi allroad, Subaru buyers demonstrating an eye for value over badge prestige. Even with a new body that’s more aerodynamic and more aggressively styled, the redesigned Outback still looks much like an elevated station wagon. That does little for its macho image but lots for handling and garage-ability.
2. How much does it cost and what sort of deal can I expect?
A little less than some primary competitors and you can anticipate knocking up to $1,800 or so off the base price — and maybe wrangling a low-interest loan.
The lineup begins with a trio of four-cylinder “2.5i” models. The base 2.5i starts at $25,745, the volume-selling 2.5i Premium at $27,845, the top-line 2.5i Limited at $30,845. The flagship six-cylinder 3.6R comes only as a Limited and begins at $33,845. (All these base prices include Subaru’s $850 destination fee.)
Every trim has all-wheel drive (AWD) and the 2.5i grades are priced roughly on par with two-wheel-drive versions of key rivals. Similarly, the 3.6R begins slightly below most six-cylinder AWD competitors. With every factory option it tops out at $36,835, still several thousand dollars under most rival flagships.
Despite strong demand – sales up 23 percent through the first quarter of 2015 – discounts are available. Buying service TrueCar.com reports transaction prices trending some 5 percent below base prices. That’s level with the Edge, for example, though not as deep as the 7.7-percent below-base average TrueCar sites for the Equinox. As of spring 2015, Subaru was offering finance rates as low as 1.5 percent to qualified Outback buyers.
3. When will the next big change be?
Expect a minor freshening for model-year 2019 to tweak styling details and maybe juggle some equipment. The next all-new Outback is likely as a 2020 or ’21.
4. What options or trim level is best for me?
See below for our engine recommendations, but if you’re shopping at the four-cylinder level, the best value is a 2.5i Premium with the $2,195 Moonroof & Power Rear Gate & Navigation System package. The Base model isn’t eligible for this option, which includes the convenience of a power liftgate – a first for this vehicle – and Subaru’s improved navigation with a 7-inch swipe/pinch/scroll dashboard screen.
If you’re among the growing number of drivers who welcome assistance, consider the $1,695 Eyesight & Blind Spot Detection & Power Rear Gate package. Its main attraction is the automaker’s stereo-camera setup housed in a binnacle behind the windshield. It facilitates adaptive cruise control, lane-departure, blind- spot, and front-collision warning, plus front-collision-mitigating automatic braking. O’backs so equipped also get steering-linked fog lamps.
Base models have a 6.2-inch dashboard info screen, Bluetooth with full smartphone integration, and a rearview camera. Moving to the Premium level replaces their 17-inch steel wheels with 17-inch alloys, upgrades to dual-zone automatic climate control, heated front seats and mirrors, and a windshield-wiper de-icer.
The 2.5i and 3.6R Limiteds build on that to create the toniest Outbacks ever. Standard features include perforated leather upholstery, power front seats with driver’s memory, heated rear seats, 18-inch alloys, the power liftgate, and blind-spot and rear-cross-traffic detection. The 3.6R also has xenon headlamps.
The moonroof/ navigation/EyeSight package costs $2,990 on Limiteds and includes keyless entry with pushbutton ignition. Ordering the package on a 2.5i Limited results in a $33,835 sticker price, a number that would compel us to go for a 3.6R.
5. What engine do you recommend?
The four-cylinder if you’ve got a light foot, the six if you’ve an appetite for acceleration. An updated version of the previous 2.5-liter, the four gains 2 horsepower, for 175, but repeats at 174 pound-feet of torque. It supplies the 3,600-pound 2.5i range with enough verve off the line and in passing situations to suit more than 80 percent of buyers.
The 3.6-liter six returns with 256 ponies and 247 pound-feet of torque, sufficient to offset the R’s extra 200 pounds and furnish performance better than most any conventionally configured crossover with similar power. Both engines now link with a continuously variable transmission with steering-wheel paddleshifters and six simulated gear ratios. (The four is no longer offered with a manual gearbox and the CVT replaces an antiquated 5-speed automatic in 3.6Rs.)
Both engines run smoothly enough to minimize annoyance from the drone CVTs extract during rapid acceleration. And every Outback again comes with the automaker’s highly developed AWD system. They’re nigh unstoppable in snow and are now fortified with Subaru’s X-Mode electronic traction technology. We guarantee the tenacious off-road performance will exceed your expectations. On the downside, tow ratings are lower than average, at 2,700 pounds with four-cylinder and 3,000 with six.
6. How is the fuel economy?
Exceptional for 2.5i models, OK with the 3.6R. EPA ratings for both improve by 2 mpg city-highway combined. At 28 mpg, a 2.5i essentially matches the mileage of a typical front-wheel-drive midsize car and tops those of virtually every midsize crossover that isn’t a diesel or a hybrid. At 22 mpg combined, the 3.6R is merely midpack in this class.
7. How does it handle?
Overall, nothing in this competitive set feels more agile. The roofline is about 3 inches lower than that of most conventional crossovers and the automaker’s horizontally opposed engine design helps pancake the powertrain, further reducing the center of gravity compared to taller rivals. The happy consequence is fine maneuverability. These Subies won’t hang with an allroad or, say, a BMW X5 on a twisty road. But no direct competitor feels lighter on its feet. And off-road, those boxer engines and a smart suspension design help provide 8.7 inches of ground clearance, second in class only to the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Toyota 4Runner.
8. Are the controls easy to use?
Yes, though the layout is strictly Squaresville — literally. No organic sculpture for this Subaru, just blocky buttons and big dials set in rectangular housings. It’s a throwback you’ll find refreshingly simple or disappointingly simple-minded. Control markings and placement are without mystery and the grouping of electric-parking-brake, hill-ascent, and X-Mode actuators on the center-console is nicely presented. It’s all set against backgrounds of piano-black plastic and a couple interpretations of imitation brushed metal; add the Limiteds’ fake wood accents and you’re looking at an aesthetic challenge.
9. Is it comfortable?
Very. The doorways are wide and although you don’t have to climb up, there is more step-in height than you might expect. The front buckets and rear bench are generously padded and provide excellent headroom and legroom. This redesign elevates them slightly and although the seating position still isn’t as high as in a conventional crossover, it’s taller than a car’s. The ’15 has greater glass area for an airier cabin with improved outward visibility. Additional sound deadening makes it quieter. And more soft-touch materials make it feel richer.
The relatively squat roofline prohibits loading some unwieldy items you might in a taller crossover. But the 35.5 cubic feet of cargo volume behind the rear seat and 73.3 cubic feet with it folded still exceeds that of many five-seaters in the class, including the Equinox, Grand Cherokee, Hyundai Santa Fe Sport, and Volkswagen Touareg.
10. What about safety?
Crash-test ratings tell a reassuring story. The ’15 Outback earns the maximum five stars for overall occupant protection under the government’s 5-Star Safety Ratings system. In more demanding testing by the insurance-industry-sponsored Insurance Institute for Highway Safety it achieves the highest possible rating of “good” for crashworthiness. Outbacks equipped with the EyeSight system merit the Institute’s coveted “Top Safety Pick+” award reserved for vehicles with front-collision-mitigating automatic braking.
11. How’s the reliability and resale value?
Too soon to tell for reliability but resale value should be strong. Given the loyalty of long-term owners, the Subaru brand surprisingly rates just below the industry average for dependability in the most recent study by consumer-survey firm J.D. Power. The ’15 Outback itself hasn’t been out long enough to establish a reliability record, but owners of the ’14 model polled by Power graded it above average for initial quality, and the firm rates it above average for predicted reliability.
Come trade-in time, little in the competitive set returns more of your original investment. Analytics firm ALG projects the ’15 Outback will retain 37 percent of its base price after five years, good enough to win its Residual Value Award for Best Midsize Utility with two rows of seats. The Outback placed ahead of the Santa Fe Sport and Toyota Venza in ALG’s study.
12. Is it better than the competition?
Even its maker calls Outback a “sport-utility wagon” but we say it’s a legit alternative to any mainstream midsize five-seat crossover. We also maintain it’s preferable to most if you appreciate stuff like brilliant packaging, good road manners, and overachieving AWD.