2015 Subaru Outback: First Drive

July 7

It's what outdoorsy people often remind each other—whether experienced granola-and-carabiner types or relative newbies—before heading out to the back country. Having the right gear can make a situation that would otherwise be trying or unpleasant turn into an adventure. And as we confirmed this past week in a first drive of the 2015 Subaru Outback, if you have an active, outdoorsy household but don't want to cripple your commute, compromise comfort, or go with something too pricey or fuel-thirsty—or uppity—the Outback remains one of the best ways for families to gear up.

And from first glimpse of the new Outback, with its generous 8.7 inches of ground clearance, short overhangs, and burly roof rack, you can tell that Subaru hasn't at all lost sight of how most owners use their Outbacks. According to the automaker, citing J.D. Power data from last year, Subaru models are second only to Jeep and Ram in how often they're used on unpaved roads; they're also far more likely to do those outdoorsy things, like kayaking, snowboarding, or rock climbing.

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But being a purpose-built model for where the pavement ends is one thing. How does the Outback drive the vast majority of the time, which is still mostly on the pavement? To break it down to the essence, after a major step up in size with its last redesign, five years ago, the new 2015 Outback isn’t all that different than its predecessor—it feels like it’s a willing, cheerful family pack mule, willing to hold everyone, and stash away all of their gear securely, all while at the same time taking on road and terrain conditions that no passenger car could handle and few other car-like crossovers could tackle.

Tough, versatile, and...a lot more civil

There's one key difference that's apparent right away, though: It's quiet—far more so than what we'd become accustomed to in many experiences with the outgoing Outback. With a long list of improvements ranging from liquid-filled engine mounts, to a thicker floor and fender walls, to an acoustic windshield, the 2015 Outback soaks up road and tire noise like never before, and you really only hear the four-cylinder engine in the 2.5i models when you're accelerating particularly hard.

As before, the Outback comes in 2.5i and 3.6R models, with the new-generation 'FB' version of the 2.5-liter horizontally opposed ('flat' or 'boxer') making 175 horsepower and the 3.6-liter flat six in the 3.6R making 256 hp. There's no manual gearbox in the lineup anymore; all Outback models have a Lineartonic continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), with steering-wheel paddle-shifters that provide access to six simulated ratios. Choose the 3.6R and you knock about two seconds off its 0-60 mph time (7.3 vs. 9.3 seconds). But we recommend the 2.5i unless you plan to carry a heavy load the vast majority of the time, because while the 3.6R is a bit smoother, the 2.5i is feels nearly as perky in most situations—and it's quite a bit more fuel-efficient.

The tuning on the CVT is a sort of masquerade...but it works. With the last-generation cars, Subaru tuned its Lineartronic CVT so that it wouldn't 'motorboat' too much—keep engine revs at a near constant during acceleration, which can be especially taxing on passengers. Now engineers have taken that a step further, with a new logic that essentially will allow the CVT to fool you into thinking it's a conventional automatic transmission. It now shifts in steps during moderate acceleration or anything more, saving its smaller ratcheting steps for only the lightest acceleration; and the shifts are so quick and firm, at least in the upper gears, that it's convincing as a six-speed automatic; you can even grab the steering-wheel paddle-shifters and click between those ratios.

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For the highway, rides and handles more like a sedan

On the road, the Outback rides and handles like a typical mid-size sedan, not a utility vehicle. Yes, you sit a few inches higher, but the driving position and body motions are definitely more controlled, and more in the vein of the Honda Accord, Ford Fusion, and yes, Subaru Legacy, than the Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot, or Ford Explorer. At less than 3,600 pounds in base form, the Outback is hundreds of pounds less than those taller crossovers, and it feels it on the curvy two-lane high-desert roads that we followed in Central Oregon, near Bend.

Those roads, with long, sweeping curves, accented by occasional quick switchbacks to follow rivers or canyon walls, served to show off the Outback's on-the-road versatility. With all 2015 Outbacks getting electronic power steering, with an effective ratio of 14:1, from 16.5:1 previously, it's feels more tossable than before—all while tracking extremely well on the straightaways, even when they were undulating and uneven. Four-cylinder models tended to feel a little more nimble, while the additional 200 or so pounds of the 3.6R models seemed to bring a little more nose-heaviness and somewhat heavier feel at the steering wheel. All models, however, have impressive brakes, with four-wheel ventilated discs all around.

As we hinted above, no Outback adventure would be complete without venturing off-pavement; and our day driving the 2015 Outback included around 50 miles of unpaved national-forest roads—some of which were washboard-like and 'unimproved.' Over these surfaces, the Outback really shows its strengths, isolating the harshness of the surface and leaving the cabin surprisingly serene—and rattle-free.

But part of the way through the day, we saddled up to some especially demanding conditions, where the unpaved road opened up to a curved ridgeline, surrounding a steep slope on either side, covered with coarse, gravel-like volcanic rock. To show off the capability of the Outback on this especially tricky situation, Subaru had us descend an especially loose, steep slope.

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X-Mode: Set and forget for when the going gets tough

It was the perfect situation to show off Subaru's so-called X-Mode. With a simple press of a center-console button, you engage a different control logic for the stability system, to reduce wheelspin, and you soften throttle response and transmission behavior—all while making the Active Torque Split all-wheel drive system a little more proactive. Hill Descent Control also kicks in and actuates the brakes to keep speed down.

And it's out on dusty, unpaved back roads where the Outback truly does feel in its element; the suspension soaks up those washboard surfaces with aplomb, yet it remains in contact with the road and in control. And when the going gets a little more challenging, the Outback is up for it, too—within reason. There's still a lot of head-toss in the Outback over some of the most rutted, undulating terrain; the relative lack of wheel articulation versus trail-focused SUVs is a consequence of the Outback's very car-like layout.

Back in town, the Outback has plenty of other assets to help keep you safe. A new version of the automaker's Eyesight active-safety suite (top-rated by the IIHS) includes rear cross-traffic and blind-spot detection, and it has a range that's 40 percent longer for 2015. The system can now help potentially avoid an accident altogether, with braking when the speed differential is less than 30 mph to the vehicle ahead. Head toward a barrier—a test one, as we did—even with your foot on the accelerator, at under 30 mph, and the Outback will first warn, and then panic-brake you to a stop, with at least a few inches to spare. It's a great system, with very few of the false alarms that plague those in some luxury vehicles.

Infotainment much improved, albeit still with some flaws

There's other major change in the Outback that's readily apparent from the driver's seat: Subaru has at last caught up with rivals' infotainment systems; we're not saying they've innovated or pushed ahead, but they've caught up. The new systems in the Outback are based around a 6.2-inch touch-screen, with a relatively simple menu and layout, easy phone pairing, Even on the base-model 2.5i, you get HD Radio, and apps-based streaming of Pandora, among others. Quite like the systems that are now offered on a range of Toyota systems, but with a more attractive display, this Subaru system is quick to react to menu selections (it'll accept tablet-like clicking and dragging), and we like the intuitive way its tasks are arranged. Voice controls are now natural-language enabled, and they extend even to climate-control functions.

The only down side to the display was that it's shiny, and on a bright, sunny day we saw a lot of reflections (it didn't play well with our polarized sunglasses, either); a matte finish for this system, or some attention to those reflections, would have made it much easier to use.

Subaru has given its swing-out roof rack (which lets you put it in a more aerodynamically-friendly position when you're not using it) a sturdier design, and there's no a flatter step area, for loading, at the back-seat doorsills. Back inside, with rear climate-control vents and available rear heated seats, the Outback feels like it takes care of back-seat passengers more than some other mainstream models; rear seatbacks remain 60/40-split and now flip forward easily from the hatch side to extend the (still flat, and now somewhat larger) cargo area. Despite the high ground clearance of the Outback, lift height for loading, and the cargo floor itself, feel quite low, and while most will have no trouble reaching the hatch or closing it with one arm, there's a power liftgate on the Limited model for which you can set a lower max height.

But the experience in the Outback's cabin isn't perfect. Wind noise was still an issue; on a drive day that was admittedly bit breezy, we found more than expected around the front side mirrors. One other minor disappointment is that there isn't a single model that offers a fully-adjustable power seat for the front passenger; the passenger-side power seat in the top-of-the-line Limited only slides fore-and-aft and reclines, but the lower cushion is locked in a position that some might find scooped-forward.

Not quite a luxury contender, but a knockout deal in modest trims

The 2015 Outback has come a long way, and it's far more refined. But the lack of full adjustment there, and some of those other small details, are in our mind what still separates the top-of-the-line Outback models from the likes of the Volvo XC70 and Audi Allroad. Where the 2015 Subaru Outback makes the most sense—and frankly, where it wows—is in base 2.5i form, where it offers an astonishing level of capability, trail prowess, features, and everyday refinement, all for $25,745.

Our pick of the lineup, though is the 2.5i Premium, where you get heated seats, upgraded infotainment, dual-zone climate control, and more, for $27,845—or $29,540 with EyeSight, as part of a $1,695 option package. Unfortunately, the power rear tailgate—an unnecessary piece of kit as we see it—is mandatory if you want EyeSight, which we do highly recommend.

What you get at the 2.5i Premium level is a superb family wagon that feels at once down-to-earth, but not quite as uncultured as some of the Outback models of the recent past. So to you people who actually get out and do things, outside: Yes, gear up.

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