2018 Subaru Outback

By January 17, 2018

A five-passenger wagon, the Subaru Outback is a compelling alternative to taller SUVs, offering excellent capability in all types of weather and brilliant handling on unpaved roads. Outback blends features of compact crossovers, SUVs, and small wagons.

Its superb all-wheel drive and long-travel suspensions were developed while winning world rally championships. Its Porsche-like horizontally opposed engines lower its center of gravity for improved handling dynamics, while a generous ground clearance allows quick travel on primitive roads and capability in rugged terrain. On paved roads, it feels smooth and refined, on wet roads it feels safe and secure.

The current Outback is in its fifth generation and was last redesigned for the 2015 model year.

The 2018 Outback features revised styling, with new headlights, grille, bumpers, and mirrors. An updated infotainment system features Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. A new safety system locks doors when the 2018 Outback reaches 12.5 mph. Subaru claims reductions in wind, road, and engine noise. Improvements may be modest in scope, but they boost the refinement of a vehicle that’s already impressive.

Four trim levels are available: base, Premium, Limited, and Touring. Most Outbacks have a 2.5-liter four-cylinder, horizontally opposed (flat) engine, making 175 horsepower and 174 pound-feet of torque. We’ve found

A more powerful, smoother-running 3.6-liter flat-six is optional for Limited and Touring models. Developing 256 horsepower and 247 pound-feet, the six-cylinder engine consumes more fuel.

All Outbacks use a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). Outbacks are based upon Subaru’s midsize Legacy sedan. An elevated suspension, hefty roof rack, and unpainted black body trim raise its stature in terms of perceived capability.

An impressive 8.7 inches of ground clearance helps boost the utility factor. Outbacks are not meant for serious off-roading, but they’re capable of conquering quite a few obstacles and inclines after the pavement ends.

Every Outback has eight airbags and a rearview camera. Subaru’s EyeSight suite of advanced safety technology is standard on the Touring edition and optional for Premium and Limited. It’s not available with base trim. The EyeSight group includes such features as automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, active lane control, and lane-departure warning. Subaru installs forward-facing cameras inside the windshield, where they’re less likely to be impeded by debris or snow/ice.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the 2018 Outback Good scores on each crash test. When fitted with the EyeSight group, it earned a Top Safety Pick Plus award, and was rated Superior for front crash prevention.

In crash-testing by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the 2018 Outback earned five stars overall and for frontal- and side-impact. Only the rollover rating (a calculated score) dipped to four stars, which is typical for taller vehicles.

Model Lineup

Outback 2.5i ($25,895) comes with the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and all-wheel drive, 17-inch alloy wheels, cloth upholstery, a rearview camera, Bluetooth, and roof rails. The 6.5-inch touchscreen infotainment system includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Outback 2.5i Premium ($27,995) adds a power driver’s seat, heated front seats and mirrors, 8.0-inch touchscreen, and dual-zone automatic climate control. Two option packages include the EyeSight safety suite.

Outback 2.5i Limited ($32,695) includes perforated leather-trimmed upholstery, Harman Kardon audio, 18-inch wheels, blind-spot monitoring, power front seats, heated rear seats, pushbutton start, power liftgate, and moonroof. An option group adds EyeSight and navigation. Outback 2.5i Touring ($36,490) features black cladding, dark gray wheels, Java brown leather upholstery, a heated steering wheel, lower-profile roof rack, woodgrain trim, and EyeSight safety group.

Outback 3.6R Limited ($35,395) and 3.6R Touring ($38,690) get the 3.6-liter six-cylinder engine. (Prices are MSRP and do not include $915 destination charge.)

Exterior

The styling has been revised for 2018, led by a new grille and bumpers, but the changes aren’t easy to discern. Though closely related to the Subaru Legacy sedan, the Outback conveys an outdoor-oriented demeanor, reinforced by bodyside cladding,

The hefty roof rack that comes on most models is highly functional, with stowable crossbars. A slimmer rack is used on Touring models, and cross bars are optional rather than standard.

Interior

Comfortable and roomy inside, the Outback features a particularly functional, cleanly designed dashboard. Soft-touch materials appear here and there. Limited and Touring editions combine simulated wood with genuine leather. Most Outbacks have French stitching on seats and dashboards.

Cloth upholstery in base and Premium models feels durable, while upper-trim Outbacks look and feel upscale.

Not only are front seats comfortable, they provide great views, especially useful for the driver. Nicely supportive and well-bolstered, they are mounted on long seat bases.

The center stack is not the prettiest, if sitting in the seat admiring the interior is something you like to do. Once underway, however, the controls for climate and audio prove to be ergonomically excellent, making it easy to changes settings in a flash. For example, one highly visible button turns on the seat heater; no need to work through menus as other automakers have you do. The navigation map on the center stack is big and easy to read, better than most of them. The radio on our test car annoyingly turned on every time the car was started.

Back-seat riders can rejoice, because they get plenty of space: 38.1 inches of legroom, to be precise. Additional sound deadening and laminated side glass for 2018 help curtail wind and road noise, making an already-quiet vehicle even more hushed.

Raising the tailgate reveals 35.5 cubic feet of cargo volume, with rear seatbacks upright. Fold those seats and cargo space grows to 73 cubic feet. Liftover height is far lower than competitors provide.

Driving Impressions

In addition to practical merits, Outbacks ride and handle well. In each version, crisp, carlike steering is complemented by a supple ride. Outbacks promise comfortable, composed motoring, even better for 2018, due to suspension tweaks. Limited and Touring models ride a little firmer, but differences are subtle.

Rolling through winding roads, an Outback is easy to enjoy. Standard torque vectoring can brake each wheel individually, to improve stability during brisk cornering.

The base four-cylinder yields adequate acceleration, feeling almost lively in urban driving. Passing power diminishes on upgrades and at higher altitudes. The 2.5-liter four-cylinder sounds rough and noisy at times, especially when slowly lugging up hills. The continuously variable transmission, or CVT, stresses smoothness. It’s an improvement over the rubber band feel of earlier CVTs, but there is still that feeling of elasticity between the power pedal and engine response. Using the shifter paddles on the steering wheel, the driver can induce the CVT to mimic a conventional automatic transmission with gears: Pull back on a paddle and the transmission will feel like it is downshifting to a lower ratio for quicker acceleration.

Subaru’s 3.6-liter six is smoother and produces greater thrust. Six-cylinder Outbacks accelerate effectively, even when filled with passengers and luggage. We prefer the responsiveness and power of the six-cylinder. The six-cylinder engine costs more, however, and it is only available on upper models. And fuel economy is lower.

Either way, the Outback is ready for gravel roads and two-tracks. Its 8.7-inch ground clearance helps it on rough roads, though it’s limited by long front and rear overhangs that might scrape on primitive trails. An X-Mode off-road setting alters throttle response and traction-control operation, while engaging hill-descent control helps the driver maintain control on steep, slimy downhills. We found the Bridgestone Dueler all-season tires on one of our test models lacked grip on packed snow at low temperatures. Real snow tires would turn one of these cars into an unstoppable winter machine. For fast travel on gravel roads, these cars are among the best.

On paved roads for everyday driving, the Outback is fairly smooth and reasonably quiet. It handles very well. The suspension is relatively soft and offers a relatively large amount of travel, great on rough roads. It’s easy and enjoyable to drive quickly on smooth, winding roads, but it doesn’t offer the crisp transient response of an Audi with a sports suspension.

Subaru’s four-cylinder engine is impressively thrifty, EPA-rated at 25/32 mpg City/Highway, or 28 mpg Combined. Fuel-efficiency isn’t the forte of six-cylinder models, EPA-rated at only 20/27 mpg City/Highway, or 22 mpg Combined. Both engines use Regular-grade gasoline, while some of the competition requires more expensive, higher-octane Premium.

Final Word

The Subaru Outback is a practical wagon with outstanding all-weather capability and excellent handling in slippery conditions. Well-equipped in each trim level, the Outback blends impressive utility with a classy cabin.

Driving impressions by Andrew Ganz, The Car Connection. James M. Flammang contributed to this report.