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2017 Subaru Outback: A Monument to Success

By Frank A. Aukofer, April 22nd, 2017

Someone ought to build a monument to the Subaru Outback. Due to one imaginative modification the Outback has been a singular steady success.

Back in 1995, sport utility vehicles were coming into their own led by the Ford Explorer, which used a pickup truck chassis with a station wagon body. It became the best-selling SUV, and soon other manufacturers took note. But Subaru was a passenger-car company with no truck experience. It finessed the situation by taking its existing Legacy station wagon, adding all-wheel drive, and jacking up the body to deliver better ground clearance and a taller ride height.

Not much later, the company decided to make all-wheel drive standard in all of its models. That exists to this day except for the rear-drive BRZ sports coupe.

Though automobile engineering is way more complicated than most people imagine, adding all-wheel drive to the Outback and other Subaru models was relatively simple. That's because Subaru is the only vehicle manufacturer to exclusively install horizontally opposed engines -- also called boxer or flat engines -- in all of its vehicles.

Boxer engines, because of their low profile, also deliver a lower center of gravity for improved handling. The Outback's tall profile cancels some of that out but it works well. With 8.7 inches of ground clearance, the Outback can negotiate many off-road trails. It lacks some equipment needed for serious boondock duty though it does have hill descent control. Its orientation is toward more secure handling in nasty weather conditions.

Subaru never did produce a typical truck-based SUV. Instead, almost every other manufacturer came around to Subaru's concept. Truck-based SUVs now are in the minority while unit-body car-based crossover SUVs like the Outback rule the sales charts.

Offered in four trim levels, the Outback starts at $25,645. The Outback tested for this review was the new-for-2017 flagship Touring model, which came so well equipped at $36,870 that it carried no options. Power comes from a 175-horsepower four-cylinder boxer engine that delivers 174 lb.-ft. of torque. If you want more, the Touring can be upgraded for $2,200 with a 256-horsepower, 3.6-liter six-cylinder boxer engine with 247 lb.-ft. of torque.

Both versions get the power to all four wheels through a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) that can be shifted manually with paddles mounted on the steering wheel.

A CVT, which uses a system of belts and pulleys to multiply the engine's torque, ordinarily has no shift points, and as a result, some sound and feel as if the transmission is slipping. That doesn't sit well with some drivers, who prefer the feel of automatic shift points. Subaru mitigates most of that and also programs the transmission to impart artificial shift points under hard acceleration. The manual shift mode on the 2.5i mimics a six-speed automatic. EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption is a respectable 25/32/28 miles to the gallon.

strong>One shortcoming: If you shut off the engine in Drive and forget to shift into Park, the Outback can roll away. There's no automatic fail-safe.

Though the Outback is a midsize, it feels and drives like a bigger vehicle. Interior space is generous, especially in the back seat, which has enough knee- and headroom to accommodate NBA basketball players.

The tested Touring model came with Subaru's excellent Eyesight system, which includes such safety items as collision mitigation, lane-keeping assist, adaptive cruise control, blind-spot warning, and automatic braking when reversing.

The Outback still resembles a station wagon. But it's doubtful that prospective customers see anything but a fully equipped midsize crossover SUV that comes with a promise of durability and a long-term relationship.

Specifications

Base price $35,995 (as tested: $36,870)
Curb weight 3,684 lbs.
Displacement 2.5-liter
Engine type DOHC Boxer 4-cyl. w/SMPFI
Epa mileage rating 25 mpg city, 32 mpg highway
Fuel capacity 18.5 gal.
Horsepower (net) 175 at 5800 rpm
Overall length 189.6 in.
Torque (lb.-ft.) 174 at 4000 rpm
Transmission CVT
Vehicle type 5-passenger AWD midsize CUV
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