Wagon wheels keep on turnin’.
2018 Subaru Outback Subaru Outback 2018 3.5 1.0 5.0
Like the grizzly bear, wagons are a rare sight in North America. Fortunately, one of the breed remains strong, the Subaru Outback. The lifted Subie has been the fittest of survivors; with U.S. sales topping 150,000 in 2015, it’s really more like a different bear—the North American black bear, which is easily spotted in many parts of the U.S.A. and Canada. The Outback masquerades as a crossover-utility vehicle, riding on a slightly raised suspension for more ground clearance, but it’s a Legacy station wagon in every other respect. This configuration has proved so popular, though, that Subaru stopped offering the non-Outback Legacy wagon in the U.S. some time ago.
The Outback 3.6R Touring tested here is powered by an engine configuration that’s also on the brink of extinction—a horizontally opposed, naturally aspirated six-cylinder. Otherwise found only in the top trim Subaru Legacy, this flat-six accounts for roughly 15 percent of total Outbacks sold. We suspect a version of it may also appear in the upcoming Ascent three-row SUV. but outside of Subaru’s powertrain lineup, the free-breathing flat-six is nearly as dead as the Tucker 48 and the Chevrolet Corvair, now that Porsche has followed the downsize-and-turbocharge-it path.
All the Trimmings
Pricing for our top-trim-level test car, a new-for-2017 addition, covered in an also-new and Touring-specific Brilliant Brown paint, starts and ends at $39,070. There’s a less expensive Limited trim, but every option available on the base Outback becomes standard equipment when the Touring box is checked. The 7.0-inch touchscreen Starlink infotainment system, leather-trimmed seats and steering wheel, sunroof, proximity-key entry, dual-zone automatic climate control, heated front and rear seats, blind-spot monitoring, automated braking when reversing, and HID lights are just a few of the creature comforts that ease day-to-day driving. Subaru’s dual-camera EyeSight system covers all the advanced-safety technology bases, providing adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, and pre-collision braking.
R: Not for Racing
Of course, we prefer the Outback with this 3.6-liter six, which produces 256 horsepower and 247 lb-ft of torque, over the sometimes strained base 2.5-liter flat-four rated at 175 horsepower and 174 lb-ft. Supported by Subaru’s high-torque-capacity Lineartronic CVT—a manual mode with six fixed ratios is available for those who choose to select their own “gears”—the Outback 3.6R hustled to 60 mph in 7.1 seconds. Stay on the throttle for 15.6 seconds and the quarter-mile trap speed will be a brisk 94 mph. Both times on this example were 0.2 second slower than we recorded in a test of the 2015 Subaru Outback 3.6R. but it’s still a solid performance for this class and price.
Weighing in at 3859 pounds and measuring 72.4 inches tall, the top-heavy Outback circled the skidpad with 0.79 g of grip, keeping it at the back of the wagon pack. An Audi Allroad can pull 0.87 g in the same test, and the not-lifted 2015 Volkswagen Golf SportWagen manages 0.82 g. At 192 feet to stop from 70 mph, this Outback needed more braking distance than some half-ton pickup trucks; this figure was 12 feet longer than what we measured for the 2015 Outback 3.6R. Both rode on the same 18-inch all-season Bridgestone Dueler H/P Sport AS tires, which is classified as a light-truck tire. Mediocre roadholding aside, the suspension controls body motions well; the electrically assisted steering feels accurate and weight builds linearly through the range, but there’s little feedback. The long pedal stroke before the brakes bite is less than desirable, although retardation rates are easily modulated once it wakes up.
While CVTs in general are not our transmissions of choice, when paired with the 3.6-liter, this one is bearable. Modest cruising speeds are obtainable with the tachometer never rising above 2500 rpm, minimizing NVH. With the throttle to the floor, this CVT mimics gearshifts like those in a regular automatic, keeping the rpm away from the redline—and from the steady scream such transmissions often produce. We were impressed with the 28 mpg recorded on our 200-mile, 75-mph highway-cruise fuel-economy test, 1 mpg better than the EPA highway rating. We saw 21 mpg overall during the Outback’s stay, just 1 mpg worse than the EPA combined rating.
The tall-sidewall tires and soft suspension soak up the harshest of surfaces while modulating road noise; only mild wind noise penetrates the cabin. We recorded a respectable, Mercedes-like 68 decibels while cruising at 70 mph.
Any remaining noise can be drowned out by the 12-speaker Harman/Kardon stereo system. The Starlink infotainment interface can be pesky to use, with layers of menus to sort through, but it has handy knobs for volume and tuning. A large center console-compartment allows plenty of stowage for items you’d rather not display that might tempt parking-lot thieves.
Knocking a shin on the rocker panel when entering the Outback for the first time made us painfully aware of its ride height. The Subie has more ground clearance than a base Jeep Wrangler Unlimited (8.7 inches to the Jeep’s 8.2). The seats, covered in coffee-stain-masking Java Brown leather, provide hours of comfort. The high roof allows large windows, which combines with the high seating position to make the Outback an exemplar for outward visibility from the driver’s seat. Turn your focus to sights inside the cabin and the Touring model announces its luxury pretensions with wood-grain and metallic-look inserts in the dash and door panels. The buttons on the steering wheel are abundant but easy to figure out.
Eyes Wide Open
The camera-based EyeSight systems work well, although in this era of semi-autonomy, it must be noted that they are safety assists and do not offer autonomous-driving functions. Heavy rains render the camera-dependent system all but useless. The lane-departure-warning system can also sound an alert if the driver is weaving in the lane. Lane-keeping assist bumps the car back into place if the driver tries to change lanes without signaling.
The adaptive cruise control will smoothly decelerate the big wagon to match the pace of slower traffic ahead and casually accelerate back up to your set speed when the lane is clear—unlike other systems that perform these tasks with less grace—but an alerting beep will inform all passengers of these motions, disrupting the otherwise serene environment. Get too near the centerline or approach vehicles ahead of you at a stoplight, and the tone sounds loud and early. It seems to assume you’re an idiot—if your foot is on the brake, slowing the car but not quickly enough for its tastes, it sounds off as if you were approaching a brick wall at 100 mph. Disabling these systems can eliminate most beeps, but if you do that regularly, you’ll soon wonder why you paid for them. These systems are probably a boon to the habitually distracted and we’d probably turn them all on for a long, boring stretch of Nebraska interstate, but anyone paying proper attention to driving in town will mutter, “Yes, I know ,” dozens of times even during a short journey.
One key selling point for Subaru’s big hauler is its voluminous interior. The front seats are supportive enough to invite long journeys, and they provide plenty of legroom; the rear seats will easily accommodate three average-size adults. The 36-cubic-foot cargo area allows ample room for provisions and swells to more than 73 cubic feet with the rear seats folded, making it capable of hauling some of the largest items from your local art fair.
The Outback may not inspire many thrills, but that’s not its mission. What it will do is get you, your passengers, and your cargo wherever you want to go, comfortably and quietly, across whatever the terrain may be. Just watch out for bears if you venture far from the beaten path.
Highs and Lows
Quiet cabin, lots of room, more grunt than base four-cylinder engine.