When it first hit the market at the height of the '90s SUV craze, there wasn't anything quite like the Subaru Outback. With "rugged" cues like body cladding and brush guard-equipped fog lights, its styling said "SUV" to buyers, while its car-derived underpinnings made it nimbler and more fuel efficient than traditional body-on-frame 'utes.
That basic formula, now known by the catchall crossover descriptor, has since become a recipe for success for countless trucklets and soft-roaders. While the Outback didn't invent the crossover concept (that distinction goes to the AMC Eagle), the Subie does deserve credit as the first model to popularize it.
Three model generations and nearly two decades after its debut, does the Outback still have anything unique to offer? To find out, we spent a week getting to know the latest version of Subaru's mid-size family hauler.
What is it?
Completely redesigned back in 2010, the Outback continues to essentially be a tall-riding Legacy wagon (a model sold in most markets outside of ours) underneath the sheetmetal. It received a mid-cycle refresh for the 2013 model year that included mildly revised styling, several chassis tweaks and a more efficient version of the entry-level four-cylinder.
Though a quick-but-thirsty 3.6-liter six remains available, most Outback buyers opt for the 2.5-liter flat-four. Newly endowed with dual-overhead camshafts, the mill's output is up incrementally to 173 horsepower and 174 lb-ft of torque. More significantly, mileage has improved by 2 mpg in the city and a single mpg on the highway to 24/30 mpg with Subaru's Lineartronic CVT. For those who prefer working three pedals, a less-efficient six-speed manual is available on the low- and mid-grade 2.5i and 2.5i Premium trim levels.
As with all Subarus except the rear-drive BRZ, all-wheel-drive comes standard. Each of the Outback's powertrain combinations use a slightly different setup - the four-cylinder, CVT-equipped model we spent time with featured an "active torque split" AWD system with an electronic continuously variable hydraulic transfer clutch (say that five times fast) that aids in slippery situations by sending up to 100 percent of engine power to whichever pair of wheels has the best traction.
The refresh also brought a suite of active safety systems dubbed EyeSight, which includes several technologies that only a few years back were found exclusively on luxury vehicles. Available as part of a $4,000 package that also includes navigation and a sunroof, EyeSight uses two stereoscopic cameras located above the rearview mirror to monitor vehicles, pedestrians, traffic lanes and other potential obstacles. At speeds under 19 mph, the system can bring the Outback to a complete stop if it detects a pedestrian entering the crossover's path. Above 19 mph, it can apply the brakes to reduce the severity of an impending collision.
In addition to that safety technology, which is known as pre-collision braking assistance, EyeSight includes adaptive cruise control that helps drivers maintain a set distance from other vehicles on a highway. Also part of the package is lane departure and sway warning, which alerts drivers if they unintentionally begin to drift into another lane.
Our tester, a 2.5i Limited with the EyeSight package, was as fully-loaded as a four-cylinder Outback can be, stickering at just above $34,000.
What's it up against?
Rivals to the Outback include midsize, five-passenger crossovers like the Toyota Venza, Ford Edge and Honda Crosstour. In addition, we'd argue that buyers could potentially cross-shop "compact" CUVs like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4, which have actually grown to be nearly as large as the Subaru inside.
If it were our money, we'd also consider the Acura TSX Sport Wagon, which lacks the Outback's rear-seat space and all-wheel-drive traction but has a more refined cabin and a more playful demeanor on curvy roads.
How does it look?
Subaru's designers focused on the front of the crossover for the mid-cycle refresh, adding a restyled grille and additional tough-looking black plastic around the reshaped fog lights.
Despite the changes, the Outback is still one of those vehicles best appreciated for its inner qualities. That's not to say the exterior is offensive; it's just decidedly frumpy due to elements like the tall, blunt front end, lengthy overhangs and swollen wheel arches. While necessary to maintain its off-roading pretensions, the Outback's ride height doesn't do its appearance any favors, either, giving it an awkward, perched-on-stilts look.
Still, we think the sleek new grille a step in the right direction, and the body cladding does a good job of dressing up the flanks without going overboard in the manner of the first-gen Chevrolet Avalanche.
Crack open a door, and it'll soon become clear why so many buyers are willing to look past the ho-hum exterior. The cabin feels big, bigger even than the far-from-insubstantial exterior and interior measurements would suggest. Rear-seat passengers are treated to full-size leg- and hip-room, and the 34.3-cubic-foot cargo area has enough stowage space to accommodate all but the most overambitious Costco hauls.
The leather-covered seats were Volvo-like in terms of comfort and left us feeling fresh even after long, traffic-filled road trips.
Design-wise, the interior could best be described as simple and conservative, but our top trim-level tester did manage to feel suitably upscale. The surfaces that passengers are likely to interact with on a regular basis, like the door tops and armrests, are composed of soft-touch materials. The dashboard does a good job of conveying the impression that it's made from the same premium component, although dash fondlers will discover that it's actually a hard plastic surface.
We found the logically-arranged and intuitive buttons on the center stack to be above reproach, and the infotainment touchscreen was similarly user-friendly even if its graphics felt a few years behind cutting-edge.
But does it go?
With just 173 ponies pitted against over 3,500 lbs. of mass, the Outback is no Impreza WRX. However, the CVT does an excellent job of making the most of the available power - there's virtually no "rubber band" delay while the transmission selects the ideal ratio, just seamless acceleration. Our main complaint with the powertrain is a common CVT criticism - anything more than a smidgen of throttle incurs pronounced engine drone.
The steering is a tad slow off-center but surprisingly generous with road surface information, and excellent sightlines provide another level of driver confidence. However, the Outback's family-car mission is revealed in the suspension, which as Willie Dixon sang, is built for comfort - not for speed. The ride is laid-back over even the most crumbling roads, with the trade-off predictably coming in the form of a fair bit of body movement in turns.
For some reason, we couldn't seem to find any volunteers to help us test the pre-collision braking system, but we can attest that the adaptive cruise control component of EyeSight works just fine. Lane Departure Warning also functions as intended, which is good and bad - it's a useful tool on the highway, especially at night, but we found the system can be a headache on tight two-lane roads where parked cars or bicyclists necessitate frequent excursions over the double yellow lines. Luckily, it can be turned off without shutting down the other Eyesight-based technologies.
Why you would buy it:
Sensible, spacious and efficient, the Outback is a solid choice for an all-weather family vehicle.
Why you wouldn't:
Just because you have kids doesn't mean you're ready to forgo excitement just yet.
Leftlane's bottom line
With the exception of the well-executed EyeSight system, the recently refreshed Outback doesn't really bring anything novel to the table or stand out like the original did.
However, it's an excellent execution of a popular and proven concept, and for that reason it should continue to appeal to a broad swath of buyers.
2013 Subaru Outback 2.5i Limited base price, $29,800. As tested, $34,130
Moonroof + Navigation System + EyeSight System package, $3,940; Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle Package, $300.