On the Road Review: 2015 Subaru Outback Limited

Walpole, N.H., does not show up on any tourist guides as a destination location, but this community is part of a big central area for energy along the Connecticut River. Sharing several river crossings with Bellows Falls, Vt., this valley town just northwest of Keene has a power station with the dam, a railroad yard and oil terminal with heating oil and diesel from a refinery in Canada, plus there is now a railroad yard across the river with a huge new propane terminal — serving accounts as far away as southern Maine.

While drivers often lament the lack of east-west roadways in New England, it is easy to see why. Commerce first used the rivers, which typically flow north-south in these parts, with the railroads following these paths. Communities along the riverbanks flourished with mills and trade because of these connections to markets. Walpole, and its neighbor Bellows Falls, still show signs of these past times with many old brick structures nestled along the riverbanks. The mills are all closed; some converted to modern enterprises, but most vacant and decrepit. Yet the towns are vibrant and making a comeback as service centers for a new society that travels for work, play and education. Energy delivery for the region here will help.

Failure to adapt has led many manufacturers (including automakers) to ruin. Those that find a market niche or more readily adapt to changing markets, will flourish, expand and affect the overall market. Tiny Subaru is capturing ever more attention, climbing the sales charts with products that are growing beyond their previous niche categories. Subaru is crowding into the big table, grabbing a seat with larger automakers that might previously have ignored this Asian automaker.

Such thoughts creep into my consciousness as I make the five-hour drive home from Walpole. There is no easy route east; you must take the backroads of New Hampshire north to Concord or meander along undulating rural routes into Manchester — hoping to not get caught behind one of the tankers hauling energy to other places. Once you get to Interstate 93 and Route 101, high-speed passage begins; north, south and even some east-west access is possible along the urban corridor of coastal New England.

Along this drive, the latest 2015 Subaru Outback’s changes become evident. A car long favored by buyers knowing the difference between a real wagon and a pretend crossover/truck, the Outback still has more ground clearance than its wannabe rivals, 8.7 inches, while continuing to embrace a roomy cabin that has ample cargo room and people space without compromises. An upgraded interior, some enhancements to the powertrain, plus some added features help to power the Outback forward for another generation.

The Outback is almost 20 years old. A modified Legacy sedan then, the newest Outback is still related to the Legacy but more clearly defined as a separate vehicle with its own virtues and vibrant features. Sales continue to grow as the majority of the Outback’s conventional wagon rivals have either given up, become irrelevant (Volvo), or just committed to building larger, taller, heavier crossover wagons.

From the first seconds in the Outback, one has to admire the space utilization. The second row seating is spacious, drawing impressive comments from everyone who climbs into the rear. The cargo hold, assisted by a (slow) power liftgate, also is roomy and user-friendly.

In the front, the heated leather seats in our Limited trim sample ($24,895 for a base Outback, $29,995 to start for the Limited) provide good support from a helm that has great access and an excellent view out. Subaru has upped its switchgear in many instances — larger buttons and knobs are prevalent in most of your contact situations. A new 7-inch touchscreen populates the center dash and provides a better nav system complimented by voice controls. HD radio with SiriusXM is funneled through a potent new 12-speaker Harmon-Kardon audio system, while auto-climate functions and Subaru’s latest Eyesight driving assist aids round out the presentation. Keyless access and ignition, plus remote starting, are still extra cost options.

Like the original Outback, Subaru has maintained certain design cues to keep this car distinct from other wagons. The large front fog lamps, the body-size cladding along the rocker panels, the elevated stance — are all features that endure for 2015. Something that did not make the trip to this year — the manual transmission is no longer available. Base cars with the retuned 2.5-liter boxer four engine all come with a new CVT automatic, while models with the optional 3.6-liter boxer-six engine feature a five-speed automatic.

This modest change increased the Outback’s fuel efficiency markedly. New EPA ratings are 25/33 mpg, numbers that place the Subaru just ahead of the top-selling compact class crossovers, cars with names such as CRV, Escape and Equinox.

On the trip back from Bellows Falls/Walpole, and over the course of a week of other mixed-use driving, the Outback returned a respectable 28.4 mpg. This was commonly one mile per gallon less than the factory trip computer’s calculations, but at least consistent.

On the one hand, this is good fuel economy, given the Subaru’s numerous traction aids; full-time symmetrical AWD, torque-vectoring assist, downhill traction assist and X-mode traction assist. This portfolio is greater than the sum of the parts available on those trucky-crossover wagons, so kudos to the Outback for at least having the fortitude to offer soft-roading access although buyers generally prefer to remain on the tarmac, not off of it.

The contrast is that other brands have extracted even greater efficiency from recent powertrain upgrades. BMW’s latest turbo-engines stand out. With less displacement than this Subaru, 2.0-liters compared to 2.5-liters, the BMW turbo-four produces more power and greater fuel efficiency than the Subaru’s boxer engine. Throttle response is crisper, too, with greater on-road response and acceleration. VW, Audi and Mercedes have developed similar improvements.

This is key. Subaru will need to ‘find’ similar advances in efficiency and power to meet market expectations but also growing regulations that demand higher mileage gains. Will that mean turbocharged boxer engines of similar, or smaller displacements, diesel boxer engines, or electrified hybrid designs of both. The recent gains are admirable, yet the market will not be happy with 30 mpg, as expectations grow for 35-40-mpg — even for popular wagons like the Outback.

These comments are not meant to detract from the latest Outback, a design that will please the Subaru faithful as well as generate more mass appeal. With a stellar safety record, strong reliability scores and now a more user-friendly, fuel-efficient and comfortable wagon, the latest Outback is poised to help Subaru the brand continue to expand into markets unfamiliar with this car’s energy.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.
Tim Plouff

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