I hated the 2015 Subaru Outback when I first met it. Interior on the ugly side of bland, acceleration of a pedi-cab. But it’s comfortable, it’s roomy, reasonably efficient, surprisingly good off-road, and holy crap am I describing the perfect vehicle?

Exterior

The 2015 Subaru Outback looks a lot like the 2014 Subaru Outback but swaps the outgoing car’s chrome beak for a nicer braceface grille, and ditches distorted raised-eyebrow headlights with some properly assertive looking units. The result is tidy.

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As for the black plastic body cladding; nothing pulls off that look like a rough-road-ready adventure wagon.

Interior

The Limited’s leather front seats are very comfortable, adjustable, and heat right up. Steering wheel’s got a great weight and texture to it as does the shift knob. Construction quality really left me impressed too; everything was tight and materials felt... nicer than they look.

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Rear leg room in back is more abundant than you’d think; with the pilot’s seat in a six foot tall person’s driving position you can still cross your legs in the row behind. Right and left rear seats even recline, but to such a small degree that it’s almost not worth the significant effort required to twist your torso around and find the lever.

But there’s no way around the fact that the overall design is decidedly uninspired. Survey the console and controls and it feels like you’re looking at the bedroom stereo your parents bought you for Christmas, 1998. There are way too many colors going on in the gauge cluster and everything that’s trying to pass for “high-tech” comes out as “kid’s toy.”

Does the average Subaru customer care? Based on the stereotypes you’re about to recite in the comments I’m gonna say no, but I really do think a little dress-up would go a long way in increasing this car’s appeal. When you compare it spec-for-spec with something like a Jeep Grand Cherokee, the only major edge SUVs have is sexiness.

No, really. Grand Cherokee Overland ground clearance: 8.6 inches. Subaru Outback: 8.7.

SUVs also have the advantage in towing; but I sure see a lot of small-to-medium sport utilities running around with scratch-free trailer hitch receivers. And I’d be so bold as to guess most of the folks in these rigs do not own a boat or horse. If only the Outback weren’t so oppressively frumpy, I could see them sneaking a lot more sales from people who usually buy Jeep Cherokees, GMC Terrains, maybe even the lower Land Rovers.

Toys And Technology

A $3,000 option package unlocks the power moonroof, smart key, and navigation. More significantly it gets you “Subaru EyeSight,” which uses two cameras in the top of the windshield to alert you about lane drifting, manage your following distance with adaptive cruise control, and help you avoid plowing into something with what they call a “Pre-Collision Throttle Management System.”

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That system (which you may or may not need) can automatically hit your brakes, or just cut power if the car thinks you’re pouring on too much juice while there’s something in your way. Watch Subaru’s breakdown for a more complete technical explanation:

Performance

I’m a truck guy; that means I generally drive like I’ve got all day to get someplace. But the Subaru Outback is oppressively slow. From a roll, mashing the throttle is like poking a three-toed sloth that just sucked down half a pizza. But once you coax it up to highway cruising velocity its behavior is adequate for A to B driving.

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The 2.5 liter flat-four cylinder engine burps out just 175 horsepower and 174 lb-ft of torque, neither of which comes on strong at low RPM. But it’s not the worst thing, as less power can translate to better economy. And that’s the obvious priority in a family hauler regardless of how adventure-ready you need your wagon to be.

Oddly contrary to the vehicle’s torpid disposition is the throttle tip. The car really wants to leap from stopped to about 5 MPH, then it settles right down to a leisurely rate of acceleration. After a few days behind the wheel and a whole lotta leaving stoplights, I was still jerking the Outback off the line unless I carefully considered my right foot.

Transmission and Transfer Case

AWD all the time, and CVT only.

CVTs have a bad rep because when the technology hit mainstream cars about a decade ago, it was awkward and unreliable. That’s not really the case anymore, automakers have since added more rubber bands or whatever makes a magical continuously-variable transmission work. But it still precludes a car from being driven with anything resembling enthusiasm.

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The Outback’s CVT has a “manual override paddle-shift” functionality for you to fool yourself into thinking you’re in a sport wagon. But save the gas and leave those stupid switches alone.

And don’t worry, that miserable mumble you’re hearing will go away after a few hours. Er, I mean, you’ll get used to it.

Ride and Handling

The Outback feels safe and confident on corners and even over rough roads, but it doesn’t like to be pushed around. At a curb weight of about 3,600 pounds it’s not a particularly heavy vehicle, but you feel every ounce get flustered when you send it around corners too hot.

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Ride quality itself is good and the suspension soaks up everything. Dirt roads are a dream and even the war-torn streets of New York are... not that bad in this thing.

Fuel Economy

So the Outback is nice to cruise in, all right to turn in, and a little lackluster to launch in, but it’s easy to see past that when you look at fuel consumption compared to other semi off-roadable peoplemovers. Switching from an SUV to this for a weekend ski run saved me something like $50 in gasoline, now you can afford a soggy sandwich at the lodge!

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We turned out about 25 MPG over a 400 mile trip from NYC to the Vermont mountains traveling at a good clip. Full-size SUVs and pickups have made the same run at about 15, we got 18 out of a 2014 Toyota 4Runner last winter.

If you go up every weekend from December to February, you’ve pretty much saved up for a new pair of ski boots just by driving the Outback instead of a truck.

Hauling, Towing, Cargo Management

Buttons in the cargo bay that fold the back seats flat are a huge help, and even with the rear seats in place the way-back space is abundant. With the car in full-cargo mode 177cm skis just fit without bumping into the front seats, so you might want to roof rack it for longer items.

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The pros and cons versus an SUV here are pretty obvious; the wagon’s lower and easier to load, truck-based utilities have more headroom.

Towing capacity is actually rated at 2,700 pounds... which I would not recommend doing for any significant distance or at altitude, but it’d be enough to handle a small U-Haul or a couple motorcycles.

Off-Roading And Boondocks Shenanigans

Subaru’s new off-road trick is called “X-Mode.” Activated by a button on the center console, X-Mode is supposed to make your wagon’s ABS and stability control work together to maximize low speed traction. The CVT is put into a low gear ratio to give it some grunt, and the AWD system is locked into putting power to every wheel, not just the tires with least resistance, as discussed over on the Subaru Forester forum.

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To see the system in action, check out Subaru UK’s demonstration video. The intro’s kinda weird, but, there’s some good information here:

The Outback is light on power, but excellent ground clearance and a reasonable approach angle (about 19 degrees) make it plenty capable in what we affectionately call “soft-roading” or “fauxverlanding.” As long as you carry momentum through really sticky stuff and stay off steep rocks, this wagon will keep you moving to your designated camp site.

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You’re out there to hike or fish or whatever anyway, right? Y’all hippies can just leave your Subies at the trailhead and I’ll splash you with mud as I bushwhack by in my lifted Scout. Ah don’t worry, my truck could never actually catch a person carrying a cooler through the woods.

Value

The eco-conscious fun-loving adventure-family thing is in right now, so Subaru is (naturally) milking their association with this idea to sell cars. Have you heard the radio ad where the guy buys a Subaru because it fit more soil for his CSA co-op?

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But the fact remains; the Subaru Outback really does offer an incredible balance of economy, drivability, luxury, and just enough offroadiness to be a really savvy alternative to an SUV. If you’re not in a big hurry to get anywhere and you don’t have a big boat to tow but you still want to get to the... outback.... this car offers pretty tremendous bang-for-buck.

Verdict

I’ll break it down for you one more time, hoss: the 2015 Subaru Outback is like an SUV but with better driving dynamics and fuel efficiency at the expense of speed and sexiness. To give you a little more insight on what this wagon’s actually like to own, take it from Wes Siler who just bought one:

Wait me? Jalopnik’s former road test editor and lover of all things stupid and dangerous bought a station wagon? Well yeah, and I think it was the best car for my money.

I guess one of the things you learn from getting to drive pretty much everything on the market is that an awful, awful lot of the “features” modern vehicles are now endowed with are utterly unnecessary and mostly spec’d to compensate for their buyers’…otherwise unimpressive assets. Do you really need locking diffs and a low range transfer case to go off-road? Or a 4.5 second 0-60mph time to cruise down the highway?

It turns out that, if you don’t intend to use your vehicle as a toy, all you really need to get down a dirt road is a decent amount of ground clearance and tires without a razor-thin profile. And, it also turns out that, here in America, there are these things called “speed limits” on paved roads and violating one carries a stiffer penalty than, say, being a cop and murdering a black child in cold blood.

So far, the Outback has proven more than capable at tackling any dirt I’ve thrown at it and fast enough that I’m constantly having to remind my girlfriend that cruising down the highway at over 100mph is potentially very costly. In the couple thousand miles we’ve put on it, it’s averaged 25mpg overall (23mpg off-road!), has carried my dogs and my friends and my camping gear and my mountain bike, all at once, without yet exhausting its interior capacity and my girlfriend finds it easier to park and drive around town than the Jetta she drove previously. Thank its truly remarkable vision and very tight turning circle for that.

To top it all off, my friends and my dogs are treated to a ride that’s at least as good as, a level of NVH that’s totally comparable with and, at 2.3 inches moreleg room in the back seat, an interior that’s considerably larger than a $60,000 Mercedes E-Class. And we paid $28,000 for this car. And did I mention it goes off-road too?

Of course, writing about adventure travel in the outdoors now, I’m looking to shore up that dirt ability a little bit. So, there’s some new wheels, new tires, skid plates, recovery gear and a whole bunch more going on it in the near future, hopefully achieving a lot more confidence and capability way out in the middle of nowhere. You’ll be reading about all that soon on IndefinitelyWild.

— Wes Siler

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Images by the author, Subaru


Andrew P. Collins is Jalopnik’s off-road and adventure guy. Shoot him an email at andrew@jalopnik.com or hit him up on Twitter @andr3wcollins to talk trucks.