As generations change, tastes change. Music, food, even cars all change in consumers’ favorability consciousness. Currently, one of the most popular brands in this part of America is Subaru.
As you drive down the road, park when shopping, or talk to neighbors, more of them are piloting cars with the Subaru logo. For a few years, the compact-class Forester crossover carried the honors, but of late, the Outback wagon has regained the top position in this burgeoning success story. Last year, Subaru sold almost 183,000 Outback wagons in this market on its way to the ninth spot on the sales charts with over 615,000 cars sold. That beats GMC, Dodge, Ram, Buick, Volkswagen, Mazda and every single premium luxury car maker.
The Outback’s roots remain from the original; it is still an AWD wagon with great ground clearance, 8.7 inches, and a compliant fully independent suspension. The package is roomy — almost midsize SUV roomy — while ingress and egress are exceptionally convenient. Quieter inside, and with more refinement throughout, this latest Outback is the wagon-class standard-bearer for a segment that marketers say no one wants anymore. If Volvo made its mark with wagons two to three decades ago, this Outback explodes that paradigm with a broader portfolio of driver engagement, safety and general competence.
With more cargo room than many comparably sized crossover wagons, the Outback further separates itself from the pack with a spacious rear seat — more legroom now. The cargo hold expands to 73 cubic feet after you use the rearmost release levers to fold the seatbacks forward, while a new power liftgate aids access. Again, access to the rear cargo deck is human-sized convenient.
Power comes from the familiar 2.5-liter Boxer flat-four engine, 175-hp, while a 256-hp flat six is available if you need towing capacity. Each is mated to a CVT automatic with manual shift mode on the console along with steering wheel paddle-shifters. CVT action is more natural “feeling,” however the CVT disliked the cold each morning with elongated revs necessary to initiate much forward action. And seriously, how many people with a CVT automatic are using paddle shifters for a transmission that really has no gears? Raise your hands, everyone who used their paddle shifters today.
The Outback’s chassis produces a solid ride and smooth handling. In fact, this is one of the wagon’s strong suits. Driving the Outback is neutral; there are no flaws that distract, while every trip is a seamless adventure enjoyed. The Symmetrical AWD system works when necessary, yet it was hard to escape the fact that a 1-inch snowfall revealed that the standard all-season tires deliver less grip than the two snow-tired vehicles otherwise in this household.
The cabin is quieter, the new headlights were brilliant (with a great pattern off-center for low-beam rural driving) while the new safety features augment driver action. More in a minute.
Power delivery from the Boxer engine is plenty adequate. Cruising speed is easily achieved and with less of the droning engine note previously evident. EPA mileage estimates for our Limited trimmed Outback were 25/32/28 mpg. Three fill-ups ranged from 25.8 to 30 mpg, for a week-long average of 27.8 — almost exactly on top of the projected combined economy rating.
Occupants will be impressed by the ease of access and the cultured interior in the Limited trim. Softer surfaces, better controls, and simple rotary knobs for both climate and audio always make more sense that confusing touchscreen interfaces. While the Outback does have a touchscreen for some entertainment and navigation functions, the steps are often one-touch, simple and far less distracting than the usual menus and multiple steps necessary in competitors’ offerings. With a new 12-speaker Harmon Kardon audio system, you want to be able to manage it efficiently, and you certainly can here.
The steering wheel, however, is crowded with tiny buttons trying to provide every function: audio, dynamic cruise, info-tuning and more. The buttons lack tactile feel or differentiation, so your eyes are forced to look down to the wheel for steps that could be more fluid. Perhaps smaller fingers more readily engage while frequency of use will erase some trepidation.
At one point in our driving history, Volvo established the perception that its cars and wagons were safer, more durable and, while funky looking, more family-friendly. That mantle surely could be assumed by Subaru and the Outback as a plethora of safety items populate the features list and make this wagon a very family-friendly package.
With standard AWD and Vehicle Dynamics control as a baseline, Subaru has added a rear vision camera, blind-spot detection, rear cross traffic alert and a reverse sensing system that can automatically apply the brakes while backing if obstacles are detected. Subaru’s Starlink adds Siri for voice assistance while driving, as well as OnStar-like safety aids and navigational assistance. Also included in option package 24 is EyeSight, Subaru’s assortment of electronic aids; pre-collision braking system, adaptive cruise control, Lane Keeping Assist, Lane Departure Warning and Sway control and pre-collision throttle control.
The rear cross-traffic assist is great when exiting parallel parking spots, yet the Lane Departure Warning and Lane Sway control’s artificial tugging on the steering wheel proved annoying and too overt. A button can turn these interventions off.
Other notable changes include a keyless ignition and access, an electric parking brake button and heated rear seats. There are so many changes, so many capabilities with the new Outback Limited, Subaru provides no less than eight different specific owner’s manuals for your reading pleasure.
Outback sales jumped 30,000 units in 2016, one of several crossover success stories last year. The Outback is built in Lafayette, Ind.
Pricing starts at $25,870. Our well-equipped Limited sample stickered for $35,260 and instantly made me think who needs a high-priced Volvo — or any other more expensive wagon for that matter. This is a well-rounded, nicely equipped, very competent crossover/wagon (whatever title fits your needs works here).
The Outback may not yet be legendary, but it certainly qualifies as the quintessential Maine car.