The allure of the Subaru Outback is not wasted on me for one simple reason––I love a road trip. As much as I like trouncing down a rugged track at walking pace, I also revel in the idea of setting the cruise control at 80 mph, knocking down several hundred miles, then turning down a remote road to access a tucked away campsite, or just to see what discoveries await around the next bend.
I’ve had a number of built up 4×4 vehicles, and while most of them were adequate on the highway, none were able to dispatch a day’s worth of highway without guzzling fuel or straining to maintain a reasonable speed. This is where the new Outback excels, and I for one love it. I recently spent a week behind the wheel of the new Suby putting it where it was intended to be used: on the highway, and in the dirt.
Not many overlanders are inclined to tackle a 300 mile stretch of pavement to get to a weekend camping destination, but that’s a perfect mission for the Outback. After loading the large cargo area of the Outback with camping gear for two, we rolled onto the highway, set the adaptive cruise control, and made way for Idyllwild, California. A six hour haul from our front door, it proved to be an excellent way to best assess the new Outback. I wish I didn’t have to hand the keys back, because I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the driver’s seat.
Updating and already great car is a bold move.
When Subaru set out to update the 2015 Outback, they were calculated, restrained, but also comprehensive in their redesign. As one of the most successful platforms in the brand’s recent history, it didn’t really need much in the way of improvements, but they did manage to make an already great car even better. From the outside, the car received a few modest adjustments. The grille and defined ridge at the shoulders of the car are the most noticeable aesthetic changes as are the new headlights and positioning of the side mirrors. Inside the new Outback a few more subtle tweaks were made, some as slight as adding felt to the interior of the glove box. For our test, we were lucky enough to get a fully loaded car, wrapped in soft leather and featuring every option on the Subaru menu.
Slipping into the driver’s seat, it is hard not to imprint on Subaru’s efforts to make the Outback as luxurious as possible. The materials used are as good as any, and the layout of the controls is refined and well thought out. It’s definitely an elegant space purpose-built for convenience and comfort. Our car even had heated seats for all four occupants. The 7-inch navigation, communication, and entertainment console was easily mastered and during our 900 mile weekend adventure served as our only map resource. To my surprise, the navigation system had all the map data I needed including this tiny forest road pictured below. I’m often loathe to use in-dash navigation systems, but when we got peckish on our drive into Idyllwild, my wife poked a couple buttons as she searched for restaurant options and the Subaru drove us straight to The Gastrognome restaurant.
I have to admit, The Grateful Dead does sound better in a Subaru. It could also be the quality of the Harman Kardon sound system.
Although I consider myself a more than competent driver, I was nonetheless interested in trying out Subaru’s latest techno-marvel, their highly acclaimed EyeSight front crash avoidance system. Two forward facing cameras located adjacent to the review mirror are connected to an onboard computer system which effectively keep tabs on speed and all the things in the car’s direct path. If the EyeSight system detects a pending collision, it automatically cuts the throttle and applies the brakes to avoid impact. Not to say I went around aiming the bumper of our loaner car at various objects, but I did get it to engage, and it was impressive even if my particular pending collision was mild and easily avoided on its own. (It was a cardboard box in our closed parking lot.)
Another thing that surprised me was the cavernous interior, not just within the front two seats, but overall. With more than 73 cubic feet of capacity aft of the two front seats, it has more cargo room than a Jeep Grand Cherokee. The deck of the cargo space is low and easily accessed and the power-assisted rear gate, something that always seemed completely unnecessary to me, actually became one of my favorite features.
As we rolled onto the forest roads around Idyllwild, California in search of rougher terrain, we noticed the transition from pavement to bumpy road was not overtly conveyed in the ride quality. The large 18-inch diameter wheels are paired to tires with ample volume to attenuate the ride, even at full street pressure. The suspension is progressive and compliant without feeling mushy giving the car a confidence inspiring ride quality that feels well suited to any given speed. Brisk drives on well maintained gravel roads are flat-out fun, and reflect on the brand’s dirty DNA.
Once we finally encountered some genuine off-road obstacles in the form of deep ruts, dry creek beds, and steep climbs, the Outback’s strengths and limitations became evident. Despite 8.7-inches of clearance, the rather lengthy snout of the Outback and the tame approach angle it creates, had my wife out and spotting more than we normally do. While we didn’t threaten to impact the front fascia very often, it was a constant consideration. Once the nose was over a given obstacle, the long 108-inch wheelbase became the next concern. That same long wheelbase that gives the Outback rock steady highway manners, does require attention off-road, but that’s getting into nit-pick territory.
For those sections of steep and loose road that pushed the limits of traction, the remedy was a simple push of the X Mode button by the shifter. X Mode is Subaru’s advanced traction control system designed specifically to improve the car’s off road, or slippery surface performance. Engaging X Mode allows the car to employ lower gear ratios for more low speed torque. It also allows the traction control to interrupt wheel spin quicker than normal and deactivates the transmission’s lock-up clutch for better power distribution to all wheels. It also permits the use of the Hill Descent Control feature for more controlled descents down slick or rough hills without manual application of the brake pedal. All of that on top of Subaru’s legendary symmetrical all-wheel-drive system and you have a vehicle that is extremely planted and persistent when conditions get challenging.
The approach and departure angles will demand attention as terrain gets rough, but overall the Outback is a standout performer once off the tarmac.
Turning back onto the highway to head to our next stop in Joshua Tree National Park, I pointed the Outback down an on-ramp, nudged the shifter into the manual position, and wrapped my fingers around the two paddle shifters behind the steering wheel. The 3.6-liter 6-cylinder engine produces 256 hp at 6,000 rpm, and as I toggled through the gears, found myself at my 80 mph cruising speed in seconds. To say it is fast might be an overreach, but sufficiently swift might best describe the acceleration. Having driven the 4-cylinder variant, which isn’t bad but nothing to write home about, the 3.6-liter engine is the way to go. Passing acceleration is excellent as is the performance in the mountains when things get steep. The CVT transmission, something that once gave many potential buyers pause, is quiet, smooth, and refined.
There is a lot to like about the new Outback. The interior is refined and luxurious, the engine is torquey and smooth, and the ride quality is simply superb. Gone are the days of road noise and tin can construction. The Outback is rock solid, quiet as a church, and wholly ready to tackle any gravel road you want to conquer.
When I had my built up Land Rover Discovery, I found myself reducing the diameter of my adventuring circle. Seven hour drives were laborious, expensive, and even in a luxury SUV, not all that comfortable. In the Subaru Outback, particularly one as well appointed as this one, a seven hour drive was not just comfortable, it was enjoyable. As we burned through the first tank of gas another positive benefit came to the fore. Even at high Interstate speeds, we were only consuming fuel at 27 mpg. Combined with the huge 18.5 gallon tank and we were pushing a 500 mile fuel range.
Gear for two only consumed a small portion of the rear cargo area. This is a big hauler and the factory roof rack is ready to accept more.
There will always be trips that demand big tires, long travel suspensions, and a full compliment of armor and recovery gear. Then there are those overland trips that traverse more tame terrain, often further from home. For those trips, count me amongst the many who favor the Subaru Outback.
*Price as tested: $36,795