Stand-pat Subaru: 2017 Outback to see little change. Why that’s OK

Last Update August 21st, 2016

2017 Subaru Outback

2017 Subaru Outback

What changes make the 2017 Subaru Outback different?

A new flagship model, autonomous braking to prevent a collision while backing up, and automatic high-beam-headlight dimming. They update an underrated five-passenger midsize crossover that continues with four- and six-cylinder engines and standard all-wheel drive (AWD). The Japanese automaker nods to the dark-trim trend with the new flagship Touring model with its deep-gray grille and wheels and black side cladding. With exclusive ivory-stitched Java Brown leather upholstery, the new model is upscale without bruising Subaru’s prudent sensibilities. Along with the previous flagship Limited grade, it comes with sensors to detect objects behind and automatically stop the Outback to avoid a collision. To its EyeSight safety system Subaru adds High-beam Assist, which automatically turns on the high beams to illuminate dark roads and off to accommodate oncoming traffic.

Why should I buy a 2017?

Because you want a rational substitute for a bulkier crossover. Many rivals look more like tough SUVs, but precious few actually match Outback’s off-road prowess. And despite a truncated roofline by midsize-crossover standards, headroom is generous by any measure and combines with great legroom to transport four adults in unassailable comfort. Similarly, cargo volume exceeds the likes of the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Nissan Murano. The comparatively squat profile is evidence of a relatively low center of gravity, which contributes to carlike stability. Fuel economy ratings are among best in class. Resale value and safety ratings are excellent. And with Subaru Active Torque Split AWD standard, every Outback provides fantastic traction and good handling in the snow. The lineup consists of four-cylinder models under the 2.5i banner and available in Base, Premium, Limited, and Touring trim. Six-cylinder offerings wear a 3.6R badge and come in the Limited and Touring levels.

Read our 2018 Subaru Outback preview for the latest info.

Should I wait for the 2018 model instead?

If you’re in the market for an Outback today, you probably shouldn’t. A midcycle refresh is expected for model-year 2019, with the next full redesign likely for model-year ’20. That gives the ’17 Outback two seasons to look current and three before potential major changes to its structure, styling, features, even engines. The ’18 would likely be available at clearance-sale prices to make room for the revamped ‘19s. But its initial prices will be higher, it probably won’t differ mechanically or have more features, and its styling will have a shorter shelf life than the 2017 model’s.

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Is the 2017 styling different?

Little beyond the fillips gilding the Touring edition, which include exclusive body-colored door handles and silver-finish roof rails, in addition to those already mentioned. The only other change is to the Base 2.5i model; it trades 17-inch steel rims with plastic wheel covers for classier 17-inch alloys. No matter the model, every Outback looks more like an inflated station wagon than a faux-truck SUV. Yes, this crossover shares its basic structure and mechanical bits with Subaru’s Legacy midsize sedan. But don’t be fooled; Outback’s 8.7 inches of ground clearance are exceeded in this class only by the overtly off-road-oriented Grand Cherokee and Toyota 4Runner.

Visual differences among Outback trims are undramatic. Premium models build on the Base version with fog lamps, body colored instead of black mirrors, and dark tint privacy glass. Limiteds and Touring have 18-inch alloys, side mirrors with integrated turn signals, a front bumper under-guard and, inside, perforated leather upholstery and matte-finish woodgrain. The Touring’s cabin is further dressed with silver accents and gloss-black control bezels. All models have roof rails with innovative integrated retractable crossbars and tie downs.

Any mechanical changes?

No. The 2.5i line returns with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine of 170 horsepower and 174 pound-feet of torque. A few rivals also offer four-cylinder engines, but typically limit them to front-wheel-drive models. Even with AWD standard, Outback’s four provides adequate acceleration, abetted by the Subaru’s relatively light 3,600-pound curb weight. The 3.6R versions keep a 3.6-liter six-cylinder with 256 horsepower and 247 pound-feet of torque. The sixes in most rivals have more power and torque; so do the growing number of turbocharged four-cylinders making their way into this class. But Outbacks are lighter than comparably equipped crossovers by a couple hundred pounds more, so 3.6R versions furnish satisfying get-up-and-go.

Both engines employ Subaru’s space-saving “boxer” layout with horizontally opposed cylinders. And both link to a continuously variable transmission (CVT). A CVT performs the duties of a conventional automatic transmission but without stepped gear ratios. Subaru fits this CVT with steering-wheel paddle shifters, affording drivers a semblance of manual-type gear control. Throttle response from low speed isn’t as sharp as with a good conventional automatic. But this CVT works well enough and delivers the weight-saving efficiencies that are compelling other manufacturers to plan CVTs for many of their future crossovers.

Every Subaru save the rear-wheel-drive BRZ sports car comes standard with an AWD system tailored to its price point and market segment. Outback’s system is bolstered by torque vectoring, which helps handling by shuffling power laterally as well as longitudinally, and by the automaker’s X-Mode programming, which enhances off-road grip and control. It’s a sophisticated setup capable of taking an Outback through terrain that would frighten the vast majority of its owners and shame many truckier-looking rivals.

Does fuel economy improve?

No. Absent mechanical changes, EPA ratings are unchanged and the ’17 Outback continues with above-average fuel efficiency versus competitors of similar power. Credit goes in part to the CVT, aerodynamic advantages of a body shaped more like that of a car than a truck, and on 2.5i models, active grille shutters that close automatically to reduce wind resistance. The 2.5i line again rates 25/32/28 mpg city/highway/combined and the 3.6R 20/27/22 mpg.

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Does it have new features?

Yes. A heated steering wheel – a first for Outback – is standard on the Touring model. And the already-noted automatic reverse braking and high-beam assist further augment the automaker’s EyeSight safety system.

Subaru bolstered it with lane-maintaining automatic steering for model-year 2016, upgrading the system’s already laudable suite of driver aids. Optional on Premium and Limited and standard on Touring, EyeSight includes adaptive cruise control to maintain a set distance from traffic ahead, steering-linked fog lamps, and autonomous emergency forward braking. Designed to automatically stop the crossover to prevent a frontal collision, that last item earns EyeSight-equipped Outbacks coveted Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) Top Safety Pick+ status. Ordering EyeSight on a 2.5i Premium adds blind-spot detection with rear cross-traffic alert, which is standard on the Limited and Touring.

The list of returning standard and optional equipment is quite comprehensive. Highlights include the automaker’s Starlink connectivity platform, standard on every model. The Base 2.5i grade has a version that uses a 6.2-inch dashboard touchscreen for integration of smartphone mapping and entertainment apps, plus Bluetooth linking. The other models get a 7-inch screen with Starlink upgraded to include pinch-and-swipe control and hands-free SMS text messaging. Optional on Premium and Limited and standard on Touring is imbedded GPS navigation, as well as a moonroof. A power liftgate is standard on Limited and Touring and optional on the Premium. The convenience of keyless access with pushbutton ignition is optional on the Limited and standard on Touring.

Are 2017 prices be different?

They increase marginally. Base prices in this review include Subaru’s $875 destination fee. Starting at $26,520 the 2.5i Base model and $28,570 2.5i Premium represent some of the least expensive ways to get into an AWD crossover this size. Every ’17 Outback comes with standard features expected in this class, such as a rearview camera and power windows, locks, and mirrors. Premium-trim standards include the aforementioned convenience and connectivity items, plus heated front seats, mirrors, and windshield-wiper de-icer; dual-zone automatic climate control; leather-wrapped steering wheel, and a power driver’s seat. The 2.5i Limited includes the aforementioned features, as well as a power passenger seat, heated rear seats, blind spot detection with rear cross-traffic alert. Staring at $33,265, it’s perhaps the best all-around Outback value, particularly when equipped with EyeSight (see below). At $36,870, the 2.5i Touring comes fully equipped but is still pricey for a midsize crossover with a modest four-cylinder engine.

The 3.6R Limited and Touring models have dual exhausts and xenon low-beam headlamps but otherwise mirror the equipment of their 2.5i counterparts. The 3.6R Limited starts at $35,870. The 3.6R Touring is priced at $39,070, thousands less than the flagship version of any other crossover in its competitive set, though most of those rivals have far more powerful engines.

Subaru groups options fairly simply. None are available on the 2.5i Base model. The 2.5i Premium offers a package that includes a moonroof, power liftgate, and an automatic-dimming rearview compass mirror with Homlink remote controls for $1,695. It’s also available with EyeSight and the power liftgate for $1,995, or with EyeSight, the moonroof and power liftgate, and GPS navigation for $3,590. The sole 2.5i Limited option bundles EyeSight with reverse automatic braking, navigation, and xenon headlamps for $1,995. The 3.6R Limited’s only option consists of Eyesight with auto-reverse braking, navigation, and automatic high-beams for $1,595.

When will it come out?

Release date for the 2017 Outback was in late May 2016.

The Outback is better than the….

Chevrolet Equinox, an aged design getting an all-new replacement for model-year 2018; Hyundai Santa Fe Sport, a more conventional crossover that uses its space far less efficiently; and Nissan Murano, bigger outside, smaller inside than Outback, sacrifices some function for fashion.

The Outback is not as good as the…

Jeep Grand Cherokee, which covers a broader spectrum of luxury, performance, and off-road capabilities; Ford Edge, spacious and sportier than the Outback; and Mazda CX-9, a new-age rival for price and handling, and has a small third-row seat.

What change would make it better?

Continued development of the CVT to quell the engine droning during acceleration characteristically triggered by such transmissions. It’s especially pronounced with the 2.5-liter, which itself would benefit from an upgrade to the efficiencies of direct fuel injection.

Read More about the Latest Models

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]