When Subaru first added some ride height and plastic cladding to a second-generation Liberty wagon in 1994, it created something that was not only good, but it essentially introduced the crossover wagon to the mainstream.
The Subaru Outback is now in its fifth generation, and this version is shaping up to be the best one yet.
While the Outback brought the crossover wagon concept to a mass market, it wasn’t the first all-wheel-drive wagon. The Alfa Romeo 33 ‘Giardinetta’ Estate was offered in 1984 with raised ground clearance and a manually-selectable 4WD system.
Go back further and the now-defunct American Motors Corporation sold the Eagle wagon from 1979. Similar in size to an Outback, the Eagle (resplendent with faux-wood side paneling) had a full-time 4WD drivetrain with a 50:50 torque split – just like the Subaru.
Fun fact, the father of Marty McFly’s girlfriend Jennifer drove one in Back to the Future!
But while the Eagle and Giardinetta may have pre-dated the Outback, they didn’t outlast it. Subaru’s formula of mating the already popular and successful Liberty wagon with some extra ‘adventure’ capability has marched on solidly for the past 20 years.
In fact, the Outback is now the only Liberty-based wagon you can get, because the actual Liberty badge is now exclusively affixed to a sedan body-style.
The all-new 2015 Subaru Outback 2.5i Premium tested here costs $41,490 (before on-road costs). The entire range is substantially cheaper than before, which is perhaps the main driver of its staggering 312.5 per cent sales growth this year.
The fifth generation gets a slicker design than before, with some particularly notable elements being a new grille, revised headlights that incorporate LED daytime running lights and main-beam projectors, and new 18-inch wheels. To our eye, the result is a very smart overall appearance.
There are nine colours available (all as a no-cost option), as well as a light or dark interior trim choice. Our test car is finished in a ‘champagney’ Tungsten Metallic, but our pick is the Lapis Blue Pearl as seen in our recent Subaru Outback v Ford Territory comparison.
The signature hard-wearing black cladding around the sills and wheel arches still helps to give off an ‘outdoorsy’ vibe but is also really handy. The material extends to the large rear kick plates too, meaning you have somewhere to stand when deploying the cool integrated roof-rack crossbars without getting dirty feet on the seats – smart.
On those crossbars though, they are specific to the Subaru, and are just basic cross-blades rather than the thicker bars with accessory gutters you tend to get as an aftermarket solution. This means you need to assess whether any existing roof carrying accessories you own would fit the Outback or if you need to bundle in some Subaru items when you purchase the car.
Don’t get me wrong, they are a really neat solution, but it is something to note if you are upgrading from another car.
The Outback sits 65mm higher than the 2015 Subaru Liberty, giving a 213mm ride height. This does afford the Outback a bit more off-road capability, but more importantly for day-to-day use (particularly for those not as young as they used to be), it makes getting in and out much easier.
It’s not too high either – this reviewer's own six-year-old daughter had no trouble clambering into the back for the school run.
Inside, the cabin affords great headroom (even with the sunroof) and good visibility all round.
The Premium grade includes electrically adjustable heated leather front seats, the driver’s including memory and lumbar support. They are very comfortable on longer drivers, and generally well supported – a bit more bolstering wouldn't goes astray though.
Interior materials are of a much higher quality than the previous generation Outback, with the top dash and gloss black trim elements particular standouts. It’s not quite up there with a Volvo XC70, and some materials – such as the silver buttons around the climate controls – have the tendency to mark and fade over time, but it’s all still a big step forward.
There is something the Subaru’s key competitors could learn from though: in the Premium grade, there are no options. Everything is included. Satellite navigation, dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth audio streaming, sunroof – the Outback is a remarkably well-equipped car.
Possibly the most notable inclusion is Subaru’s EyeSight driver assist system (a key contributor in the Outback securing a five-star ANCAP safety rating). As well as supporting adaptive cruise control and pre-collision braking (AEB), EyeSight’s cameras can detect objects in front of the car (even people) and they have colour recognition capability for spotting red brake lights ahead.
Our favourite feature though (which we have nicknamed 'Facebook Alert') tells you if the car in front has moved off from a row of stationary traffic, should your attention be elsewhere.
Having driven a number of cars at a range of price points with intelligent driver assist technology, we have to say that EyeSight is certainly up there with the best – a sentiment backed by North America's independent vehicle safety assessor, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) – and an impressive feat on a $40K family wagon.
Pairing a phone to the seven-inch touchscreen media system is easy, and there are a pair of USB connections located in the lower section of the centre stack. Excellent for when car occupants are fighting over whose device should be receiving charge, let alone serving up music.
The six-speaker stereo is good, and there is even a multi-band graphic equaliser function that lets you get your 4.3MHz range sounding just right.
Navigation is clear and easy to use, however there is the dreaded motion lock-out on address entries.
One big drawback of the system is that the high gloss screen reflects any direct sunlight, making the information hard to see, which can mean eyes off the road for longer than is ideal.
There is quite a lot going on for the driver too, with buttons on the steering wheel, centre stack, console, lower dash panel and the arm-rest – we counted 83 individual functions. Plus there's information on the touchscreen and the multi-function display mounted between the main instruments. Helpful, sure, and you do get used to it, but it does feel a bit busy and cluttered at times.
Passengers in the back have masses of room, although sitting three adults abreast might get a bit cozy on a long trip. There is great knee and foot room, plus the seats recline (in 60:40 split) for a bit more ‘business class’ comfort on a long haul tour. As you would expect on a car like this, there are deep door pockets, map pockets, rear air vents, and even a dark privacy tint for extra shade and security.
The practicality extends to the power-operated boot, which opens (slowly) from either the remote fob or a button on the dash.
Remote release handles can fold the rear seats flat, expanding the 512-litre boot to 1801 litres of cargo space. The cargo blind is easy to remove and there is a storage space under the floor for both it and the full-size spare wheel.
In terms of a practicality package, there are few, if any, areas to find fault with the new Outback.
Ready to hit the road, you settle in, push the start button and fire up the 129kW/235Nm 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol engine, which still carries a hint of the famous 'Boxer' sound.
It’s not the most rapid power plant – choose the $47,990 191kW/350Nm flagship 3.6R if you need more oomph – but it still shifts the Outback along with enough pace to deal with all manner of daily duties.
Response is 'relaxed'. And while there’s no specifically noticeable gap or hole in the rev range, the Outback does what it's told to do, just rather casually.
Subaru claims a combined cycle fuel consumption figure of 7.3 litres per 100km, but we saw a bit higher at around 9.8L/100km – albeit for a largely urban cycle. The overall figure started to drop with more sustained freeway driving, though never enough to match Subaru’s claim.
The $43,490 Outback 2.0 Premium Diesel does offer marginally better economy at 6.3L/100km combined, but the difference isn’t substantial enough to offset the slight lack of driving enjoyment and the absence of the Eyesight system in the diesel.
The continuously variable transmission (CVT) is smooth and adaptive enough to essentially fulfil its role without being noticed. I doubt that quote will make anyone’s marketing showreel, but in a world where a poorly configured CVTs can really hurt a car, the Outback is tuned to match the ratios of a standard transmission, and it works quite well.
Should the car be empty of the ever-judging family, and a winding road present itself, you can change the drive mode from 'Intelligent' to 'Sport', and tip the CVT into a 'manual' shift mode that changes the blue backlight on the instruments to a strange looking, yellow colour.
Don't expect any Jekyll and Hyde change in the Outback's personality though. There might be a slightly more engaging experience that is amplified by shifting gears with the steering wheel mounted paddles, but its largely a placebo. There are no ultra-sharp shifts nor exciting exhaust pops, though equally, there isn’t a prolonged elastic drone either.
Subaru’s trademark symmetrical ‘always on’ all-wheel-drive system – giving a 50:50 torque split to both front and rear wheels – provides predicable handling.
You’re never going to be pushing physics to the limit with the 2.5-litre engine, but head into some curves, and the chassis responds with confidence. And more than likely, the driver will respond with a smile.
In fact, to match the adventure sport theme of the exterior, there is a ‘sporting’ undertone to the handling of the Outback on all surfaces.
Around town, the ride over urban undulations such as speed humps and cobbles is firm but never crashy. The sporty feel is there, but it is always compliant and comfortable.
It’s even pretty quiet. We measured ambient cabin noise at about 62dB while travelling 100km/h on the freeway – not far off a Jaguar XF sedan we recently tested on the same stretch of road.
Plus, the Outback is a ‘proper’ Subaru, and the constant AWD helps adventurous owners leave the tarmac to explore dirt, sand and even snowy terrain with greater confidence.
Here too the ride and performance of the car is compliant and predictable. You’re never going to go 'boulder hopping' in the Outback but unsealed surfaces and dirt tracks are all easily negotiated.
All of this flexibility does come at a bit of a cost for owners though. Where a three-year/unlimited kilometre warranty and lifetime capped-price servicing may sound like the icing on the cake, the service intervals for the Outback are every six months and each visit is a little pricey.
This means the first three years of ownership will see your service bill reach $2202.11. For reference, the $41,990 Skoda Octavia Scout 4x4 will cost $1376 over the same period.
In all though, the 2015 Subaru Outback is a terrific package. It’s a true crossover that really manages the best of both worlds – smarter and more premium than a wagon, more practical and liveable than an SUV. It’s a fantastic alternative to either.
It might not be up to the same overall quality as the $70,500 Audi A4 allroad, but neither is the price. The pricing correction that Subaru applied to the majority of its range sees the Outback as better value than ever before – something reflected in sales so far this year.
While the 3.6R offers more power and the 2.0-D diesel greater economy, the Subaru Outback 2.5i Premium is, in our mind, the sweet spot in the range and the best combination of performance, features and overall cost. It’s a car we would recommend in a heartbeat and proof that Subaru’s interpretation of the crossover wagon concept is still a winning formula.
Click on the Photos tab for more 2015 Subaru Outback 2.5i Premium images by Tom Fraser.
Note: Image showing Subaru EyeSight system is of a 2015 Subaru Liberty 3.6R.