What crossover can shame truckier-looking rivals? Subaru’s refreshed 2018 Outback can.

Last Updated: April 16, 2017.

What changes make the 2018 Subaru Outback different?

Revised styling, expanded safety features, and upgraded connectivity freshen one of America’s most underrated midsize crossovers. They’re the biggest changes to Subaru’s five-seat wagon since its model-year 2015 redesign and should sustain it until the next all-new version is launched, for model-year 2020. Outback continues with a choice of four- and six-cylinder engines and again comes standard with all-wheel drive (AWD).

The appearance revisions are subtle but effective — the ’18 Outback does look a little more rugged. Driver-assist enhancements are minor – steering-linked headlights are available, for example — but burnish the appeal of a vehicle that already earns top safety ratings. And faster-acting infotainment interfaces with larger touchscreens are a welcome boost to connectivity. The revamp should help sustain healthy demand even as Outback nears the end of its design generation. Indeed, a 14-percent sales increase in the first quarter of 2017 outperformed the midsize-crossover segment and helped Outback maintain its lead over the compact-sized Forester as Subaru’s bestselling vehicle.

Why should I buy a 2018?

Because the updates are incremental but strengthen Outback’s standing as a pleasantly rational substitute for a bulkier crossover. Even with this year’s revised styling, most competitors look more macho, but few match Outback’s off-road prowess. And despite a low roofline by midsize-crossover standards, headroom is plentiful and cargo volume exceeds the likes of the Nissan Murano and Jeep Grand Cherokee. 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 top notch. And with Subaru Active Torque Split AWD and sensible tires standard, every Outback has fantastic traction and handles great in the snow.

The 2018 lineup is unchanged. Four-cylinder models are again grouped under the 2.5i banner and come in Base, Premium, Limited, and Touring trim. Six-cylinder offerings again wear the 3.6R badge and come in the Limited and Touring grades.

Should I wait for the 2019 model instead?

You probably shouldn’t. It’ll be a near mirror image of the ’18, but will almost certainly cost more. And with the redesigned 2020 model in the works, the ’19 would have just one season to look current before Outback gets a new body and structure and next-gen features and powertrains. On the upside, the ’19 would likely be available at clearance-sale prices to make room for the all-new ‘20s.

Is the styling different?

Yes, although it’s within the bounds of a traditional midcycle facelift. Dimensions are unchanged and the main body is unaltered. The brand’s hexagonal grille is back, too, but it’s in a revamped nose with lower cladding designed for better protection from mud and stones. The grille is flanked by reshaped headlamps that contribute to the most effective visual change. Their illuminated c-shaped outline blends with the new fascia’s horizontal character lines for an impression is of greater overall width. And in a neat touch, the headlamps’ bar-and-circle interior elements suggest the piston motion of Subaru’s boxer engine design (see the “powertrain” section below). Rounding out the changes are reshaped mirrors designed to reduce wind noise, and the Limited gets new wheels with high-contrast spoke/rim coloring.

Even with the facelift, this generation Outback continues to look more like an inflated station wagon than a pretend-truck SUV. Indeed, it shares its basic structure and mechanical components with the Subaru Legacy midsize sedan. Don’t be deceived. In this class, only the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Toyota 4Runner beat Outback’s 8.7 inches of ground clearance. Yet, the Subaru’s step-in height is modest, and with its generous legroom, four adults ride in terrific comfort and a fifth is not unwelcome in a pinch.

Subaru had not released full details on ’18 Outback content in time for this report. But visual differences among trim levels should remain minor. The 2018 Premium grade should again build on the Base version with fog lamps, privacy rear glass, and body-colored instead of black mirrors. All models have alloy wheels, 17s on Base and Premium, 18s on Limited and Touring. Those top two versions also have side mirrors with integrated turn signals, Base, Premium, and Limited have roof rails that incorporate innovative integrated retractable crossbars. The Touring has its own low-profile rails in a silver finish with available detachable crossbars.

Additional noise-reducing measures include insulated front side glass. And all ’18 Outbacks receive upgraded cabin materials, including a more upscale steering wheel. The highlight here is larger display screens for Subaru’s Starlink multimedia system, to 6.5 inches from 6.2 on the basic setup and to 8 inches from 7 inches on the more advanced system available on Premium-level trims (see the “new features” section below for additional Starlink upgrades). Two USB power points are added to the back of the center console for rear seaters. The temperature control dial now displays the temp-setting readout, and the dashboard clock is larger.

Gray joins black and ivory as an interior-color theme. Limited and Touring continue with perforated leather upholstery, and faux-wood cabin accents. Added for model-year 2017, Touring supplanted the Limited as Outback’s flagship. It follows the dark-trim trend with a deep-gray-tinted grille and wheels and black side cladding. Inside, its exclusive silver trim, gloss-black control bezels, and ivory-stitched Java Brown leather upholstery are upscale but not ostentatious – just right for a Subaru.

Any mechanical changes?

Yes, to suspension, steering, and transmission. Subaru says retuned dampers give a smoother ride;0 recalibrated brakes a more direct feel; and adjustments to the electric power steering system yield smoother, more linear response.

The 2.5i line reprises a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with 170 horsepower and 174 pound-feet of torque. A few other midsize crossovers offer four-cylinder engines, but they’re typically limited to front-wheel-drive models. Even with its standard AWD, Outback’s four-cylinder furnishes adequate acceleration, thanks in part to the Subaru’s relatively light 3,600-pound curb weight.

Outback 3.6R models retain 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, as do the increasing number of turbocharged four-cylinders in this class. But even 3.6R Outbacks weigh a couple hundred pounds less than comparably equipped crossovers, so they deliver satisfying get-up-and-go.

Both engines utilize the Japanese automaker’s space-saving “boxer” layout, meaning their cylinders are horizontally opposed rather than arranged vertically inline or in a “v.” And both again mate with a continuously variable transmission. A CVT takes the role of a conventional automatic transmission but doesn’t have stepped gear ratios. Outback’s CVT comes with steering-wheel shift paddles that give drivers some manual-type gear control. For ’18, the number of “step shifts” increases to seven, from six. And in the 2.5i models, changes to engine and CVT internals are designed to reduce noise during acceleration. That’s welcome, because this transmission had contributed to the engine drone during rapid acceleration that’s a characteristic of the less sophisticated CVTs. The annoyance was particularly evident with Outback’s four-cylinder engine, which itself would benefit from an upgrade to the efficiencies of direct fuel injection.

All Subarus except the rear-wheel-drive BRZ sports coupe come with an AWD system tailored to their market segment and price point. Outback’s boasts torque vectoring, which aids handling by distributing power laterally as well as longitudinally. It also has the automaker’s X-Mode programming, which bolsters off-road grip and control. In all, it’s a sophisticated setup that can gets an Outback through terrain that would alarm many of its owners and embarrass lots of trucky-looking rivals.

Does fuel economy improve?

EPA ratings for the ’18 Outback were not released in time for this report, but updates included in the midcycle freshening aren’t likely to trigger changes from the ’17 ratings. Thus, Outback ought to continue with higher mileage than most competitors with similar power. Thank the CVT and the aerodynamic efficiencies of a body profile that’s more car than truck. The 2.5i models also have active grille shutters that automatically open and close to manage wind resistance. Expect the 2018 Outback 2.5i line to again rate 25/32/28 mpg city/highway/combined and the 3.6R models 20/27/22 mpg.

Does it have new features?

Yes, but mostly upgrades to a roster of standard and optional features that was already quite comprehensive. A highlight is Subaru’s EyeSight safety system, which was standard for 2017 on the Touring model, optional on the Limited and Premium, and unavailable on the Base 2.5i. This laudable driver aid includes autonomous emergency braking designed to automatically stop the crossover to prevent a frontal collision. That capability earns EyeSight-equipped Outbacks coveted Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) Top Safety Pick+ status.

EyeSight also includes adaptive cruise control to maintain a set distance from traffic ahead, steering-linked fog lamps, and autonomous braking to prevent a collision while backing up. It also incorporates lane-maintaining automatic steering, which for ’18, activates earlier, at just above 37 mph. Touring models and Limiteds with EyeSight have high-beam assist, which automatically turns on the high beams to illuminate dark roads and turns them off as a courtesy to oncoming traffic. Ordering EyeSight on a 2.5i Premium adds blind-spot detection with rear cross-traffic alert, which is standard on the Limited and Touring.

For ’18, Touring models and the 3.6R Limited gain steering-linked headlights in conjunction with newly available LED headlamps. All Outbacks come with a rearview backup camera; for ’18, it gains guidelines that move in sync with the steering. Also new for ’18, the tire-pressure-monitoring system now detects pressure changes at individual tires, rather than simply illuminating an icon that doesn’t identify which tire is low. Automatic locking doors are new. And Subaru says improved LATCH anchors make child-seat installation easier.

Subaru’s Starlink connectivity platform is standard on every model and benefits from 2018’s move to larger screens and software changes the automaker says results in quicker performance. The version on the Base 2.5i grade integrates entertainment apps, smartphone mapping, and Bluetooth linking. The version on the other Outbacks adds a touchscreen with pinch-and-swipe control and hands-free SMS text messaging; it gains smartphone-like operation for ‘18. Voice recognition is again standard, and Subaru claims a significant improvement in response because it now uses two microphones and technology by Nuance, maker of Dragon Dictation apps for computers and other devices. Subaru says the driver can more easily use Apple Siri or OK Google voice commands, and that the system is compatible with multiple languages.
Again optional on Premium and Limited and standard on Touring models is imbedded GPS navigation and a moonroof. A power liftgate is standard on Limited and Touring and optional on the Premium. We’d like to see the convenience of keyless access with pushbutton ignition migrate beyond just the Touring, where it’s been standard, and from the Limited, where it’s been optional.

Are 2018 prices different?

Subaru hadn’t released 2018 prices in time for this review. Anticipate some increase, but nothing drastic. Estimated 2018 base prices in this review include Subaru’s destination fee, which was $875 for the 2017 Outback.

We project starting prices of around $26,900 for the 2.5i Base model and about $29,000 for the 2.5i Premium, making them again some of the most affordable AWD crossovers this size. Expect every ’18 Outback to again come with standard features expected in this class, including a rearview camera and power windows, locks, and mirrors. Figure the Premium to expand on that with the previously outlined connectivity and convenience features, plus heated front seats and mirrors, a windshield-wiper de-icer, dual-zone automatic climate control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and a power driver’s seat.

With an estimated base price of about $33,650, the 2.5i Limited may be Outback’s top overall 2018 value, particularly when equipped with EyeSight. This four-cylinder model includes all the aforementioned features, plus a power passenger seat, heated rear seats, and blind spot detection with rear cross-traffic alert. Although the 2018 2.5i Touring will again come fully equipped, at a projected starting price of around $37,300, it would remain pricey for a midsize crossover with a four-cylinder engine of modest output.

The 2018 3.6R Limited and Touring models exchange xenon low-beam headlamps for LEDs, and they have dual exhausts. Otherwise, they duplicate the features of their 2.5i counterparts. Expect the 2018 3.6R Limited to be priced from abound $36,300. At an estimated base price of $39,500, the 3.6R Touring should again list for thousands less than the flagship version of any other crossover in its competitive set, although most of those rivals will again have far more powerful engines.

Subaru has grouped options in a fairly simple manner and isn’t likely to deviate for 2018. Don’t expect any options to be offered on the 2.5i Base model. The 2.5i Premium should again be available with a roughly $1,700 package that will include a moonroof, a power liftgate, and an automatic-dimming rearview compass mirror with Homlink remote controls. It should continue to offer EyeSight and the power liftgate for around $2,000, or group EyeSight, the moonroof and power liftgate, and GPS navigation for about $3,600.

Up until now, the sole 2.5i Limited option has bundled EyeSight with reverse automatic braking, navigation, and xenon headlamps for $1,995. And until now, the 3.6R Limited’s only option has consisted of Eyesight with auto-reverse braking, navigation, and automatic high-beams for $1,595.

When will it come out?

Release date for the 2018 Outback is summer 2017.

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com 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 HowStuffWorks.com, 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]