2015 Subaru Outback Test Drive – Ruge’s Subaru – New York Times

30 Aug

SUGAR HILL, N.H. — In 2010, with middle age fading in the rearview mirror, Practical Adult Syndrome struck my wife and me. The telling symptom: the purchase of our first boring car, a 2011 Subaru Outback.

Subaru makes some hilariously entertaining vehicles, notably the WRX and WRX STI. But the Outback is a station wagon, clearly at odds with more frivolous transports we’ve owned, which have included a 1971 BMW 2002, a 1984 Volkswagen GTI, a 1986 Toyota MR2 and the surprisingly entertaining 2000 Ford Focus ZX3 hatchback that our Subaru replaced.

But relocating to the White Mountains of New Hampshire — to a house in a snow-prone region with a steep driveway — we concluded that the Outback was the perfect choice. Its 8.7 inches of ground clearance and all-wheel drive would also make traveling a rough, muddy road to go hiking or kayaking less worrisome.

We consoled ourselves with the idea that the Outback, despite a name that suggested adventure, wasn’t about fun but about getting someplace to have fun.

SLIDE SHOW|12 Photos

CreditSubaru of America

It helped. A little.

The 2011 Outback has been, nevertheless, a likable and comfortable tool, a conclusion widely shared in these parts. A parking lot in New Hampshire often looks like a meeting of an Outback club. But the 2011 does fall far short of engaging its driver, an issue remedied by the 2015 model.

The latest Outback is the fifth generation of what is probably Subaru’s most important vehicle. Last year the company sold about 425,000 vehicles in the United States; 118,000 of them were Outbacks. An example of the popular category known as crossovers — it’s car-based but dressed in a sport-utility-vehicle disguise — the Outback’s competition includes the Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Edge, Hyundai Santa Fe, Jeep Cherokee and Toyota Venza.

All Outbacks have all-wheel drive. The least expensive version with a 4-cylinder engine costs $25,745, including an $850 destination charge. The most expensive is the 6-cylinder 3.6R Limited, at $33,845. The model I tested was the midrange 2.5i Premium with a 4-cylinder engine and a starting price of $27,845; Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle equipment added $300. The only option was a $2,195 package that included a sunroof, navigation and power rear lift gate, for a total of $30,340.

Subaru says the 2015 model has new underpinnings, which it shares with the revised Legacy sedan. The appearance has been updated with a new grille, a windshield that’s less upright and some smoother lines that lessen the appearance of its being bundled up in an unflattering winter coat. The overall length grew by 0.6 inches, to 189.6 inches.

But the biggest change to the body is noticed on a rough road, where the Outback feels exceptionally solid compared with my weak-sister 2011 model. Subaru says it has increased the torsional stiffness — a measure of the chassis’ resistance to twisting — by 59 percent, largely through the more generous use of high-strength steel.

That’s just one of the elements that contributes to making the new Outback more interesting to drive. Another is a reworked suspension. The third is steering that is quicker and has more weight, though still short on delivering a feel for the road.

Body lean and upward motions are now far more tightly controlled. The vehicle is keener to head into a turn, and it doesn’t demand fiddly steering corrections when that turn includes uneven road surfaces. If the driver is pushing too hard and overwhelms the grip of the front tires, the computer will briefly apply the brake on the front inside wheel to help tug the Outback back on course.

The result is that the latest Outback is far more rewarding and confidence-inspiring to drive quickly, though it is hardly a sport wagon like the turbo Forester XT.

There is a downside to the suspension work. On a rough road our 2011 is notable for its ability to soothe and smooth. The 2015’s ride is significantly stiffer and there’s more of a jolt when encountering broken pavement or tar expansion strips. The new Outback still has 8.7 inches of ground clearance, something appreciated in deep snow or on an unpaved road.

As before, there’s a choice of two engines. The 2.5-liter 4-cylinder has been extensively reworked, cutting noise and vibration and while improving fuel economy; output has increased to 175 horsepower, from 173. The 3.6-liter 6-cylinder — largely carried over from last year — is still rated at 256 horsepower.

All models now use a continuously variable automatic transmission. Previously, a somewhat clunky 6-speed manual was available on the base model while the 6-cylinder had a 5-speed automatic.

The 4-cylinder provides adequate acceleration thanks to the C.V.T.’s quick response. Subaru claims a zero to 60 run of about 9.3 seconds, so this is not the vehicle for a quick pass on a mountain road, but it keeps up with traffic.

The upside is that the fuel economy is impressive, particularly for a vehicle with all-wheel drive. The federal rating is 25 miles per gallon in town and 33 m.p.g. on the highway. That’s an improvement over 2014 models of 1 m.p.g. city and 3 on the highway. Over some 400 miles, traveling two-lanes and Interstates, I averaged just better than 31 m.p.g. without any special effort to economize.

Subaru says the 6-cylinder, also a boxer design, takes the Outback to 60 m.p.h. in 7.3 seconds. The fuel economy is rated at 20 m.p.g. city and 27 m.p.g. highway. That’s better by 3 m.p.g. in the city, and 2 more on the highway, than last year.

Inside, the first pleasant surprise comes when settling into the driver’s seat and pulling the door closed. The interior door handle doesn’t just have soft-touch plastic, it feels plush. That luxury feel is not carried over to the rest of the Premium trim, but the surroundings are handsome, including the weave of the cloth used on the seats. The basic controls are mostly intuitive, and there is adequate storage space.

The cargo capacity behind the second row is rated at 35.5 cubic feet, an increase of 1.2 cubic feet. Subaru has also added more sound-deadening material so the Outback is quieter. Improvements to the 4-cylinder and continuously variable transmission also reduced vibrations and noise, making long trips less tiring.

The 2015 Outback and its sedan sibling, the Legacy, received a Top Safety Pick+ rating in crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research group financed by the insurance industry.

Like other automakers, Subaru offers a collision-prevention system. Called EyeSight, it uses forward-looking cameras to detect objects in the vehicle’s path and automatically applies the brakes. Based on its tests, the insurance group gave EyeSight a rating of Superior. The least-expensive EyeSight comes on the Premium model and costs $1,695 as part of a package that also includes blind-spot detection and a power rear liftgate.

After a week or so of driving the 2015, my wife, Cheryl, mentioned our 2011 and asked: “Does this mean we have the crummy one?”

Well, the 2015 Outback is significantly better in everything, from handling to fuel economy without surrendering its core role as practical all-weather transportation. Crummy might be a bit harsh, a criticism that would just make us feel bad about our years-ago choice, but the 2015 is much, much better.


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