Model: Outback 2.5i Premium (four-cylinder/CVT)
Starting Price: $24,795
Options: All-weather package (heated front seats, heated side mirrors, windshield wiper deicer, Harman/kardon audio system, Bluetooth wireless device connectivity and streaming, satellite radio with 4-month trial subscription, HD radio w/4.3-inch color display, power moonroof and rearview mirror with integrated camera), CVT with 6-speed manual mode and all-weather floor and cargo mats.
Total Price: $29,104 (excluding $775 destination fee)
Miles Tested: 241 miles
Fuel Economy: 26.8 mpg
Subaru's midsize wagon was last updated for model-year 2010 and has seen few changes since. For that redesign, it got a raised suspension and a few more inches of length, blurring the line between wagon and SUV. I count the Outback's standard all-wheel drive, roomy cabin and cargo-friendly body style among the car’s strengths. But how did it perform for my small family of three on a 200-plus-mile road trip? Though overall pleasant, this staff favorite wasn’t without gripes.
Stop-and-go traffic felt like a chore for the Outback's CVT and four-cylinder engine. It was pokey from a stop and was slow to spool out more power at highway speeds; passing required some planning and a deep stab of the pedal. It sounded just as unhappy about it as I was. The CVT droned intrusively during around-town driving, emitting a near-constant crabby groan. The noise faded to tolerable levels on the highway, though.
For a large all-wheel-drive wagon, the Outback returned pretty favorable fuel economy. During my 241-mile trip, it returned 26.8 mpg, which is great considering the Outback is EPA-rated at 22/29 mpg city/highway. I spent about 85% of my drive on the highway, staying between 60-70 mph.
Although the front seats look nice with their attractive design and slight bolstering, my first impression turned out to be unsupported -- literally. I spent most of the trip trying to get comfortable, and there are plenty of buttons to help with that in the form of lumbar support settings and two levels of heat. I fiddled and fidgeted for a while, but I couldn’t find the right mix. In fact, I fiddled for almost 200 miles and I think, in the end, the seats were just too firm for me.
I also couldn't get used to the placement of the backup camera. Integrating it into the rearview mirror was distracting, and the screen is so small that it takes a minute to figure out what you’re even looking at. If you upgrade to get a navigation system (only available on Limited and Touring trims), the camera displays on the larger, more centrally located screen.
One small cabin feature that I got a lot of use out of was the visor extenders; not many vehicles have these. Though they add only a couple of inches of plastic to the visors, they came in handy during my southbound trip while I was beset by the bright sun setting in my side window.
The second row scored some points with its reclining seatback and fairly accessible Latch anchors. The reclining seatback is a nice convenience for passenger comfort. It also helps when installing a child-safety seat; adjusting the angle often affords it more room. Installing my rear-facing convertible car seat was pretty easy, thanks to Subaru’s anchor system. Instead of digging for the Latch brackets, I found them quickly under strips of fabric Velcroed to the seat. They are more recessed than I’d like, but their placement was still easier than what you see in a lot of vehicles.
Things continued looking up behind the seats. All-weather floormats were handy at catching spilled milk in the backseat; the mats also line the cargo area. Behind the second row, there was more than enough room for a day’s worth of stuff, a roomy 34.3 cubic feet. Again, the heavy-duty all-weather floormats were a nice feature, especially if you’re hauling messy items.
Overall, the Outback capably managed to get us and all our stuff over the river and through the woods without much fuss, unless, of course, you count the CVT’s complaints. An annoying drivetrain and less-than-comfortable front seat were offset by commendable fuel economy, a reasonable base price and an accommodating second row. Maybe I should relegate myself to the backseat during my next Outback outing.