2015 Subaru Outback review: New Subaru Outback could be best family wagon ever

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3.5 stars

CNET Editors' Rating

4.5 stars 4 user reviews

The Good The 2015 Subaru Outback's continuously variable transmission delivers smooth acceleration and good fuel efficiency, while the new X-Mode feature enhances its standard all-wheel-drive system's off-road capability. The available EyeSight system combines adaptive cruise control and collision prevention.

The Bad Minor quibbles only, but the six-cylinder engine pulls a little too hard on initial throttle tip-in. The premium audio system exhibits panel rattle with heavy bass tracks.

The Bottom Line It is hard to imagine a better all-around vehicle for those who enjoy outdoor activities, as the 2015 Subaru Outback offers an easy driving experience for urban and rural environments, but the four-cylinder version will meet most needs.

7.6 Overall
  • Cabin tech 7.0
  • Performance tech 8.0
  • Design 8.0

As I drove through an unfamiliar town, the 2015 Subaru Outback's navigation system piped up with, "Turn left at the second set of traffic lights." I found that voice prompt exceptionally useful as I looked down the street and saw two sets of traffic lights in my immediate future. The direction was visual and simple, not requiring me to search the corner infrastructure for a street sign.

Subaru doesn't sit on the cutting edge of technology, but its adoption of helpful features, such as this very human-oriented navigation system, makes a difference in everyday driving situations.

Similarly, I am a big fan of the Subaru EyeSight system, which uses two forward-looking cameras and image processing to enable adaptive cruise control and forward collision alerts. The Outback I happened to be testing did not have that particular option, but I extensively tested that system last year in a Subaru Legacy.

Dimensionally updated

The 2015 Outback is an update over the previous generation, although you would hardly know to look at it. Subaru stuck with its strengths, maintaining the five-passenger crossover style, and general exterior styling, as well. The model has puffed up a bit, gaining about half an inch of length and over 2 inches in height. The Outback 3.6R Limited model I was driving, the top trim, also weighed in 162 pounds more than the previous matching model.

The new Subaru Outback retains its predecessor's strengths, making it an excellent family car for weekend adventure. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The price of this top-trim model comes in at $32,995, while the base model in Subaru's Outback, dropping two cylinders and many of the nicer cabin appointments, goes for $24,895, not bad considering all-wheel drive is standard across the range. Australian buyers will be looking at AU$40,226 for the base model, and how can they resist considering the country-appropriate model name. Subaru hasn't announced pricing for this new generation in the UK, but the previous base model there, with a 2-liter diesel engine, goes for £23,366.67.

This Outback sets itself apart from its sibling majority with a 3.6-liter six-cylinder engine, arranged in the same flat opposed cylinder format as the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine available at a lower price. The 3.6, sticking to conventional port injection, makes 256 horsepower and 247 pound-feet of torque. As a change from the previous generation, it comes with a continuously variable transmission (CVT), a type of gearless transmission using belts to constantly change the drive ratio for the best power and efficiency combination. CVTs can often be more fuel-efficient than fixed-gear transmissions, and also offer smoother acceleration. The available 2.5-liter engine also comes mated to a CVT, and produces 175 horsepower.

Where the 3.6 achieves 20 mpg city and 27 mpg highway, the smaller engine turns in 25 mpg city and 33 mpg highway, a pretty substantial difference. Mixing urban, freeway and mountain backroads in my driving, I came in at just 21.1 mpg. Unless you plan on loading the Outback with five adults and their luggage, and towing a trailer, you can probably get away with the smaller engine.

Cargo capacity of 35.5 cubic feet with the seats raised may prove limtied for families of four on longer trips. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Quick tip-in

What caught me by surprise when I first got into this Outback was how quickly it wanted to move at the barest tap of the accelerator. The CVT takes quick advantage of the engine's torque, so there's no hesitation for acceleration. Frankly, I would have appreciated a more controlled take-off, which the 2.5-liter engine would certainly deliver.

Subaru includes a hill-hold feature, and I quickly found out why it is off by default. I turned it on while I parallel-parked on a hill, but it was so sticky that I had to give the gas pedal a pretty big pop to free it each time, making the car jerk back and forth during my maneuvering. However, it was less intrusive when I was merely stopped on an incline, waiting for a traffic light to turn.

Subaru doesn't bother with eco or sport settings in the Outback, which is fine by me. A real-time fuel economy display should serve most people as an efficiency coach, and this car isn't designed for sport driving. The transmission offers a pseudo-manual mode, with programming for virtual shift points. Paddle shifters on the steering wheel make it easy to select these fixed drive ratios when you are going downhill or stuck in mud.

Mostly, the Outback is set up for uncomplicated driving -- push the start button, move the shifter and you're off.

As with all Subaru models, the flat engine format moves the weight down, leading to a lower center of gravity than with a V-format engine. Subaru also equips the Outback with what it calls "active torque vectoring," a system that adds a little braking to the inside wheels in a turn, further aiding handling. Despite these features, the Outback was prone to understeer when cornering and didn't inspire me to power down any long twisty roads. Subaru offers the WRX STI for folks who enjoy that type of driving.

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