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

With easy driving characteristics, standard all-wheel drive, excellent safety options and a roomy interior, it's hard to imagine a better vehicle for a family of four with outdoorsy inclinations.

Wayne Cunningham Managing Editor / Roadshow
Wayne Cunningham reviews cars and writes about automotive technology for CNET's Roadshow. Prior to the automotive beat, he covered spyware, Web building technologies, and computer hardware. He began covering technology and the Web in 1994 as an editor of The Net magazine.
Wayne Cunningham
7 min read

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.


2015 Subaru Outback

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.

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 .

New Subaru Outback puffs up, luxes up (pictures)

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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.

I found the electric power steering to exhibit a natural feel, proving easy to turn when stopped and offering a comfortable amount of resistance at speed.

2015 Subaru Outback
The X-Mode button by the shifter activates an offroad program, controlling traction and the torque split. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Of course the Outback comes standard with Subaru's all-wheel-drive system, its hydraulic differential shifting torque between front and rear axles based on sensor inputs. In most driving situations, you won't notice it at work, but get into the slippery stuff and it could make the difference between a safe journey home and calling a tow truck. Subaru enhances its all-wheel-drive system with X-Mode, an offroad program affecting torque split and traction control, available at the push of a button on the console.

None of this equipment makes the Outback a serious offroader, but it will certainly handle dirt tracks and trail driving reasonably well. 8.7 inches of ground clearance will help in the ruts.

Superior sight

I highly recommend the EyeSight assistance feature. Lacking that, however, this Outback had blind-spot monitoring and a backup camera. Somewhat confusingly, an icon for the blind-spot monitor lit up on the instrument cluster when the system was off. After I got that figured out, I noted how the system used its side-view mirror icons to let me know about traffic to the right or left down to very low speeds, making it useful in city traffic.

As for the navigation system I mentioned at the beginning, it shows up in a dashboard touchscreen, with touch buttons on the surrounding bezel for a home screen and quick access to the map display. I noticed the system was occasionally slow to render its flash memory-stored maps, but not enough to interfere with navigation. And live traffic, obtained through satellite radio, covered many surface streets along with highways and freeways.

The navigation system offers detours around heavy traffic, and although they might save you time, they should keep you moving. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

Using voice entry for a street address, I had to give it a few tries to get "235 2nd Street, San Francisco, California" recognized, but it let me say the entire string at once, less tedious than having to say the street number and city separately. Subaru also offers its StarLink app integration for destination input, using the Aha Internet service. Using it requires a phone running the app plugged into the car.

Audio sources include the usual suspects, such as USB, iPhone, HD radio and Bluetooth streaming. Subaru includes Pandora integration and the StarLink app offers many Internet-based sources. I like that the audio interface puts all these sources on one page, rather than separating radio and onboard media, as some systems do. The system made browsing music libraries easy, but only with USB devices. For Bluetooth streaming, I still had to select music using my phone.

I was pleased that this Outback came with the optional 12-speaker Harman Kardon audio system, the top offered by Subaru. It did a credible job reproducing the range of frequencies from the tracks I played. However, I noticed panel vibration from deep bass tones.

As one final trick, the Outback is one of the very few US cars to offer MirrorLink, a technology that shows your phone's navigation, audio and other features on the dashboard interface. Unfortunately, only a handful of phones in the US support MirrorLink, and it seems a bit superfluous given the Outback's own navigation system.

Excellent all-arounder

The 2015 Subaru Outback comes with an array of upgrades over the previous generation, building on the model's base strengths, and Subaru offers a good range of trims and options. Operating the power lift gate, I imagined the typically spartan Subaru owner considering that feature a bit of unnecessary luxury, but I expect this individualistic breed to appreciate the safety features of the EyeSight system. Certainly the integrated roof racks will delight this kayak-happy demographic.

And although the Outback measures a bit larger than its predecessor, I didn't feel it had grown to unwieldy proportions. The six-cylinder engine will be more power than most drivers need, making the four-cylinder engine an attractive and more efficient option, but the CVT is a good upgrade that any driver should take to easily.

Subaru's cabin tech features help the Outback keep up with competition from the Nissan Rogue or the Kia Sportage , as two examples. The new Jeep Cherokee , however, comes out as a strong contender against the Outback, offering better offroad capability and the excellent Uconnect infotainment system, although substantially less interior space.

Tech specs

Model 2015 Subaru Outback
Trim Limited
Powertrain 3.6-liter flat 6-cylinder engine, continuously variable transmission
EPA fuel economy 20 mpg city/27 mpg highway
Observed fuel economy 21.1 mpg
Navigation Optional with live traffic
Bluetooth phone support Standard
Digital audio sources Internet radio, Bluetooth streaming, iOS integration, USB drive, HD Radio, satellite radio
Audio system Harman Kardon 12-speaker 576-watt system
Driver aids Blind-spot monitor, rearview camera
Base price $32,995
Price as tested $36,040

2015 Subaru Outback

Score Breakdown

Performance 7Features 8Design 8Media 5