Cruising Well into the AWD 30 MPG Club
In our northwest corner of the country, motorists embraced Subarus back when quirky wasn’t hip. We thought Subarus were neat long before Paul Hogan started hauling his “barbie” around in Outbacks or Lance Armstrong cycled his way to becoming the new company spokesman.
We, along with buyers in New England and the Rocky Mountain states, knew for years that Subaru’s all-wheel drive cars and wagons offered superior traction—not just on snowy or muddy roads, but on any slippery or uneven surface. And the decision in 1994 to morph the Legacy wagon into the “world’s first sport-utility wagon” and call it Outback? Brilliant, as consumers in all three markets flocked to dealers.
Over the years Outbacks and, indeed, all Subarus, were known for just so-so fuel economy. The automaker has been working to erase that reputation. The 2014 Outback 2.5i four-cylinder, with a 30-mpg highway rating, earned inclusion in our Clean Fleet Report All-Wheel Drive 30 MPG Club. The 2018 Subaru Outback improves on that with an EPA rating of 32-mpg highway/25 city/28 combined with a standard continuous variable transmission (CVT). Plus, the 2018 Outback boasts a driving range of nearly 600 miles, thanks to a large 18.5-gallon gas tank.
For those willing to forgo some fuel economy in exchange for power, the six-cylinder 3.6R is rated at 27-mpg highway/20 city/22 combined.
While the crossover SUV craze has overshadowed the car market in the U.S., the Outback wagon is Subaru’s top selling vehicle. But it isn’t totally alone. If you are set on a wagon with all-wheel drive, there’s the all-new Buick Regal TourX, along with the Volkswagen Golf Alltrack, BMW 3-Series Sports Wagons, Audi A4 Allroad and Volvo V60.
A Distinctive Look
The Outback has grown in size over the years and along the way became a nameplate of its own, losing the Legacy badge in 2000. But one thing hasn’t changed, its distinctive look.
In profile, it is still one handsome station wagon with a roofline that sweeps naturally back. Like the original, the SUV-like appearance is maintained with pronounced front and rear fender arches along with lower body cladding and signature round fog lights. Minor restyling for 2018 brings a chunkier bumper and front fascia that includes a wider and lower grille, chrome wings extending from the logo and more aggressively styled headlights. The rear has also been tweaked for a more substantial look, and the Limited trim offers a new wheel design. The 8.7 inches of ground clearance continues to set it apart from other small crossovers; it’s one of those cars that still looks classy when it’s caked in mud.
A roof rack remains standard but with a clever twist. The roof rail system has noise-reducing crossbars that swing out of the way when not in use. It also makes it easier to secure bikes, kayaks and snowboards.
While Subaru wanted the outside of the Outback to look tougher, it made the 2018 edition’s interior more luxurious. The center console and steering wheel have been redesigned; all grades above the base trim include new stitching on the dash. The dash, center console and door panels flow together in a contemporary manner. Materials look and feel rich, and the faux wood trim has a matte finish, not the sheeny look that so many makers prefer.
Unlike far too many vehicles that use tiny controls on the center console, the Outback has large, easy-to-read push selectors for climate control. And kudos to the designer who kept separate rotary audio control knobs rather than absorbing them into the navigation system.
Storage inside the Subaru’s interior is also generous and well thought out. The center console bin is massive, the door pockets have slots for water bottles and there’s a larger covered bin forward of the shifter that’s perfect for a phone or wallet. The two front cupholders are large and well-placed. There are also two rear cupholders in the fold-down armrest.
Front bucket seats are supportive with good grip, and yet are comfortable. It’s easy to arrange a just-so driving position, which is a separate issue from how good the seats themselves feel. Front
head- and legroom are excellent. The rear cabin is a pleasing place to ride. It’s not only comfortable for adults with its reclining seatbacks, it’s a rear seat that adults can climb into without much trouble. Younger families will appreciate the easy-to-reach latch connectors in the outboard seat for easy car seat installation.
I’m still amazed by the amount of stuff you can cram into the cargo area of the Outback. There’s a generous 34.3 feet of storage space behind the rear seats, which expands to a voluminous 71.3 cubic feet with the seatbacks folded flat.
Of late, Subaru has been on top of the features-offered game. For 2018, the Outback has an updated Starlink multimedia and infotainment system that features a standard 6.5-inch screen in place of the previous 6.2-inch unit, and an 8.0-inch touchscreen is available in the Outback for the first time. Both offer Bluetooth, USB and auxiliary inputs, along with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. The upgraded unit also has two USB ports, TomTom navigation and the ability to receive over-the-air updates using Wi-Fi.
The automaker also bolstered the Outback’s safety arsenal with optional swiveling headlights, automatic high-beams, adaptive guidelines in the standard rearview camera, individual tire-pressure monitors, automatic locking doors and a reverse-braking system. The optional EyeSight camera and sensor package has also been upgraded with lane-keeping assist that now activates at a lower speed, around 37 mph.
If you want a variety of choices, go no farther. There are four trim levels of the 2018 Outback 2.5i wagon. Pricing begins at $25,895 for the base model with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and CVT transmission, while the top line 2.5i Touring starts at $36,490. The 3.6 R Limited model starts at $35,995.
Committed To AWD and The Boxer Engine
Subaru introduced its first all-wheel drive vehicle in 1972, the Leone Estate. Called symmetrical all-wheel drive, the system became standard on all Subarus sold in the U.S 1996. The lone exception is the rear wheel-drive BRZ sports car (which is a platform shared with Toyota). Engineers have improved the AWD technology over the years and today the system enhances traction,
control and balance. What hasn’t changed is its symmetry—a balanced front-to-rear and side-to-side operation.
While others have followed Subaru with AWD, the company continues to march to its own drummer with its “boxer” engine. The boxer, also used by Porsche, is laid out horizontally rather than vertically, as are conventional in-line and V-engines. The pistons are placed opposite one another. When the engine is running, it looks like a boxer throwing punches, hence the name.
This piston action allows their movement to cancel out vibration as well as reducing wear. Because it is mounted longitudinally—front-to-rear—it provides a low center of gravity, adding to the Outback’s stick-to-the-road capability.
Behind the Steering Wheel
Subaru handed us the keys to an Outback 2.5i Touring to test drive. Standard equipment included leather upholstery with heated front seats, heated mirrors, dual-zone automatic climate control, EyeSight, Starlink and a Harmon Kardon 400-watt audio system. Suggested retail was $36,490.
Weighing in at close to 3,400 pounds, the 175 horsepower four-cylinder is no screamer. It has to work a bit, but it is more than adequate for the tasks we ask vehicles to perform. The payoff is the fuel economy for a vehicle this weighty that totes around an all-wheel drive system.
On paved surfaces, where the Outback spends most of its time, the ride is well isolated with a suspension that’s slightly firm around town, but generally very comfortable. Highway driving has an impressive sedan-like feel, in part because of the low center of gravity.
Steering works well, staying pointed straight ahead without fussing, when that’s your intent. Cornering is easily handled without slop or drama, courtesy of well-matched tires, suspension and AWD. Brakes come on swiftly when summoned, but no one will think they are touchy.
Subaru was an early adopter of the CVT transmission and the one in Outback is as good as they get. There was no annoying run up of engine rpms during heavy throttle application and, simulated gear shifts via paddle shifters resulted in smooth up and down shifts.
I first drove an Outback off-road in 1995, its first model year, when it was known as the Legacy Outback. At Subaru’s request, it was a support vehicle for the second annual “Mudfest,” an event judged by journalists to determine the Northwest Sport-Utility Vehicle of the Year.
Since then I have driven a score of Outbacks off-road. It probably can’t conquer the most rugged routes of the famed Rubicon Trail, but I’ve slogged behind numerous Jeep Wranglers and Cherokees, Chevy Trailblazers and Nissan Pathfinders on some very nasty, rutted, muddy, steep trails and emerged with nary a problem.
My off-road foray with this Outback wasn’t a real test, just a few miles on an old, neglected Forest Service road for a picnic by a scenic stream.
As for fuel economy, the Outback delivered as advertised. Driving most of the time at the legal go-with-the flow pace for 251 miles, rewarded us with a 33.1-mpg average, slightly better than the EPA combined estimate. That included nearly 35 miles of some frisky driving on a nearly deserted two-lane country road.
Despite growing competition, the 2018 Subaru Outback continues to be a top choice if you’re looking for a sporty and affordable luxurious wagon with big cargo volume. The Outback is comfortable, it’s versatile, and is available with high-end safety tech and the highest safety ratings.
Join owners in the Pacific Northwest, New England and the Rocky Mountain states and, you won’t go wrong.
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Clean Fleet Report is loaned free test vehicles from automakers to evaluate, typically for a week at a time. Our road tests are based on this one-week drive of a new vehicle. Because of this we don’t address issues such as long-term reliability or total cost of ownership. In addition, we are often invited to manufacturer events highlighting new vehicles or technology. As part of these events we may be offered free transportation, lodging or meals. We do our best to present our unvarnished evaluations of vehicles and news irrespective of these inducements.
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