Subaru Outback: Game with Strong Offense

By Frank A. Aukofer, January 10th, 2015

In the automotive world, the 2015 Subaru Outback epitomizes the excitement of a successful Hail Mary. You know: the quarterback's pass to the wide receiver in the end zone that wins the football game in the final seconds.

Manufacturer photo: Outback's bold new design delivers an even more compelling blend of on-road agility, off-pavement control, ride comfort, interior refinement and safety technology
Manufacturer photo: Outback's bold new design delivers an even more compelling blend of on-road agility, off-pavement control, ride comfort, interior refinement and safety technology

The difference is that the Outback's play started out as a defensive move that became the offense and lasted for 20 years.

It happened in the mid-1990s when sport utility vehicles were coming on strong. SUVs were tall, truck-based station wagons with durable body-on-frame construction and plenty of space for people and cargo, along with four-wheel drive and towing capability.

The Ford Explorer, which fit that bill, became the best selling of the genre. Japan's Subaru, on the other hand, could not compete in the segment: Despite its well-developed all-wheel drive system, it didn't have anything to bump bumpers with the trucks.

So it played defense. It had the Subaru Legacy sedan and station wagon, which already were winning converts with their unique combination of all-wheel drive and so-called Boxer engines.

Manufacturer photo: Outback's bold new design delivers an even more compelling blend of on-road agility, off-pavement control, ride comfort, interior refinement and safety technology

Subaru always has championed the Boxer engine, also called a horizontally opposed or flat engine. It is the same basic design that powered the famed Volkswagen Beetle from before World War II until 1975 in the U.S., and later world-wide. Besides Subaru, which uses it across the board, Boxers power the Porsche 911, Cayman, and Boxster sports cars.

In horizontally opposed engines, the cylinders lie flat, feet to feet, on both sides of the crankshaft. The design enables a low center of gravity and welcomes four-wheel drive in front-drive vehicles because the drive shaft to the rear wheels can connect directly to the back of the engine.

Subaru, faced with the SUV challenge, responded by simply jacking up the Legacy station wagon -- and, for a few years, the sedan -- to create the Outback. Suddenly, the Outback became a pioneer in what is now called the crossover utility vehicle, or CUV, segment, which has a unit body like a car.

It became a benchmark for many vehicles from other manufacturers, to the point where CUVs now dominate the all-wheel-drive market, eclipsing the old Ford Explorers and other truck-based SUVs.

It is, as it has been, a stylish, comfortable, good-handling midsize station wagon that has been raised on its suspension system to provide 8.7 inches of ground clearance, more than the 8.6 inches on the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Manufacturer photo: Outback's bold new design delivers an even more compelling blend of on-road agility, off-pavement control, ride comfort, interior refinement and safety technology

The Outback is not a bruising off-road machine like Jeeps or Land Rovers, although its equipment includes a so-called X-mode, which allocates power individually to all four wheels for driving in slippery conditions, including uphill, and also incorporates hill descent control. The Outback's forte is all-weather capability and modest off-roading with its standard automatic all-wheel drive.

For 2015, a manual gearbox no longer is offered and every Outback now comes equipped with a continuously variable automatic transmission, aka CVT. Instead of traditional gears, a CVT uses a system of belts and pulleys to transfer power from the engine to the wheels. Because of the continuous torque multiplication, there are no shift points, although the Outback comes with a computerized manual mode, with paddle shifters, that mimics shift points.

Unlike some CVTs that annoy critics because they sometimes feel and sound as if the transmission is slipping, especially under hard acceleration, the Subaru version is smooth and unobtrusive throughout its rev range. It also enhances fuel economy compared to a standard automatic transmission -- and even some manuals.

When equipped with a 175 horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder boxer engine, the Outback has a starting price of $25,745 and a city/highway/combined fuel economy rating of 25/33/28 mpg. Tested for this review was the top-line 3.6R Limited model, which comes with a 256-hp, 3.6-liter six-cylinder boxer. It is smoother and more powerful than its four-cylinder sibling but doesn't do as well on the fuel economy chart with 20/27/22 mpg.

The test 3.6R Limited came with a starting price of $33,845. With options that include pushbutton starting, navigation, and a motorized sunroof, it had a bottom line sticker of $36,040.

Manufacturer photo: Outback's bold new design delivers an even more compelling blend of on-road agility, off-pavement control, ride comfort, interior refinement and safety technology

Subaru is among only a few vehicle manufacturers that increased sales during the recent economic recession. The new Outback provides further evidence of why that was so. Its unique approach deserves consideration.

Specifications

Base price $33,845 (as tested: $36,040)
Curb weight 3,810 lbs.
Displacement 3.6-liter
Engine type DOHC six-cylinder Boxer w/SMFI
Epa mileage rating 20 mpg city, 27 mpg highway
Fuel capacity 18.5 gal.
Horsepower (net) 256 at 6000 rpm
Overall length 189.6 in.
Torque (lb.-ft.) 247 at 4400 rpm
Transmission CVT
Vehicle type 5-passenger AWD CUV
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