First Drive

FIRST DRIVE: 2015 Subaru Outback

Fifth-generation Outback is bigger, more fuel-efficient and more refined

2015 Subaru Outback - rear 3/4 view

ST. JOHN’S, NLFD. – Back in 1995, when Subaru jacked up the Legacy with taller tires, slapped on some plastic siding and called it the Outback, I was among those who questioned the result. Wrong! The Outback has gone on to become a mainstay in the Subaru lineup and a best-seller.

Canadians love their Outbacks. Every five years since then, Subaru has come out with an updated version. The fifth generation 2015 Outback is arriving at Subaru stores now.

2015 Subaru Outback - front 3/4 view.jpgWhile some might have to park it side-by-side with the outgoing model to detect the changes, every piece of the exterior has been redesigned. Most noticeable among those changes are a more raked windshield, a new grille and LED lights.

There is more that's different beneath the skin but, as with appearance, the mechanical changes are evolutionary. At the new Outback's core are variations of the same pair of horizontally-opposed four and six-cylinder engines as before, sending power to all four wheels through the company’s sophisticated full time all-wheel-drive system.

Content and packaging changes

The bigger changes come in content and packaging. Subaru had fallen behind the competition, which it sees as the Ford Edge, Toyota Venza and Highlander, Honda Pilot, Nissan Murano and Chevrolet Traverse, in such areas as infotainment, interior refinement and packaging. So the bulk of the effort during development of the new Outback was concentrated in these areas.

2015 Subaru Outback - front seats.jpgINFOTAINMENT – The base audio system on the new Outback has a 16-cm high-resolution WVGA display with an all-new user interface and gesture touch screen. The optional 576-watt Harmon Kardon audio systems provides higher sound levels while using 50% less power. All models include a rear-view camera.

Top trim levels come with an 18-cm screen with embedded navigation, which incorporates a wide-angle rear view camera display, as well as a voice-activation for the HVAC system. The multi-metre info screen between the two main analog instruments can be toggled between a variety of settings.

2015 Subaru Outback - rear seat.jpgREFINEMENT – NVH and material quality are at a whole new level. This is a very quiet automobile on the road and it starts with a stiffer platform. Torsional stiffness has been improved by 59% and bending stiffness by 35%.

Subaru’s traditional supple suspension retains its ability to absorb a wide range of surface imperfections with aplomb. But stronger mounting points and stiffer components have added a degree of precision to course corrections.

A number of aerodynamic and acoustic treatments contribute to the silence. Thicker panels, foam injection and an acoustic windshield all play a role.

PACKAGING – Both people and cargo space have been increased, particularly in the areas of hip and shoulder room. The sunroof is larger, the 60/40 split rear seats fold flatter than in the outgoing model with the simple tug of a lever, the centre console is deep enough to hold an iPad, there is a dedicated cell phone pocket and electric parking brake frees up room on the console or foot well.

2015 Subaru Outback - steering wheel and instrument panel.jpgCONTENT – The 2015 Subaru Outback has a new 10-way power driver seat, multi-purpose steering wheel, soft touch materials seemingly everywhere, all new audio and infotainment systems, improved outward visibility, tilt and height adjustable head restraints, rear HVAC vents, power tailgate with memory, higher quality leather and heated rear seats on top trim levels.

Other feature on higher trim levels or available as options include a cross-traffic alert, blind spot warning system that works at extended distance compared to others, a new generation of the company’s exceptional EyeSight system that employs more compact colour cameras for improved poor weather work, the ability to recognize red brake lights and faster pedestrian detection. The adaptive cruise control has four distance settings and the ability to bring the vehicle to a complete stop.

Three trim levels

The 2015 Outback is available in three trim levels when equipped with the four-cylinder engine and two with the six. Prices have actually been reduced by $500 across the line despite the additional equipment, ranging from $27,995 to $40,095.

2015 Subaru Outback - rear cargo area.JPGThe wheelbase has been increased by 5 mm and overall length by 17 mm. Width is up 20 mm and height by 10 mm. Overall weight is up 30 kilos due to the larger body and additional equipment.

An 11% improvement in aero numbers from the swept-back windshield and thinner A-pillars as well as revisions to both engines and the switch to a CVT transmission for the six have brought improved fuel-consumption numbers – 6.0 L/100 km in the city and 8.1 on the highway for the four and 7.3/10.6 for the six.

The four-cylinder Outback now boasts the best fuel-efficiency numbers in the class. Subaru quotes 0-100 km/h times of 9.3 seconds with the four and 7.3 with the six.

The 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine is rated at 175 horsepower and 174 lb-ft of torque and the 3.6-litre six at 256 horsepower and 247 lb-ft of torque.

The company says more than 80% of the parts on the four-cylinder engine are new, resulting in lower internal friction. Both engines get new intake and exhaust systems and the six mates with a heavier duty version of the CVT transmission previously paired with the four.

Unique to Canada for the Indiana-built Outback is the availability of a manual transmission – on the base four-cylinder only.

On-road and off

The stated goal of refining the Outback was achieved. As mentioned previously this is a very quiet car on the road with very little wind or road noise a task tough to accomplish with a wagon and the large expanse of open space inside.

The four has the characteristic sound associated with this engine but much of the vibration has been engineered out. The six is a sweetheart with plenty of grunt and a very smooth and quiet manner. The CVT in both cases is as near to acceptable as they get for me thanks to programmed shift points.

The engineering team paid particular attention to the steering system and it shows in improved feel and response. Active torque-vectoring has been incorporated into the all-wheel-drive system, applying more power to the outside wheel in a corner and the brakes to the inside to all but remove understeer and impart a much more sporty demeanor in the corners.

Another addition to the AWD system, on all Outbacks with an automatic transmission, wears the "X-Mode" label. Push a small button at the rear of the centre console and traction in extreme conditions is sharply improved through optimization of engine control, all-wheel-drive and braking systems. It also incorporates hill descent control.

While nobody would subject their Outback to the conditions we were able to tackle some stupidly terrible surfaces and inclines as the engineers sought to prove the effectiveness of X-Mode. They are right!

The 2015 Subaru Outback may not look much different than the 2014 version but it has grown leaps and bounds in almost all respects.

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