Those of us who remember Subaru in its early days in North America may recall such outside-the-box creations as the BRAT, XT, Baja, Justy and SVX. And then there was the World Rally Championship conquering WRX.
Fuji Heavy Industries' automobile subsidiary obviously was not afraid to stretch the envelope whether through design or engineering.
And Subaru still colours outside the lines. It has steadfastly stuck to horizontally-opposed engines and full-time all-wheel-drive (with the exception of the Toyota-engineered BRZ).
But over the past decade or so quirky Subaru has become mainstream Subaru. The strange styling and model choices have been replaced by a series of vehicles that paddle much closer to the centre of the stream.
Building on a reputation for bullet-proof reliability, terrific resale value and all-season security, Subaru has enjoyed a continuous rise in popularity. And no single vehicle in the lineup reflects this success more than the Outback.
In the beginning, the Outback was little more than a Legacy with plastic cladding, a jacked-up body and a label but now it has become a stalwart of the brand. There is no more Legacy wagon, on which it was originally based, and it outsells the Legacy sedan three-to-one!
More mainstream appearance
A tall station wagon, the Outback has come in for a serious upgrade for the 2015 model year. The styling is subtly updated, inside and out. You have to look closely to see the differences but they are there.
The appearance is closer to mainstream than rugged with less cladding. The windshield angle has been lowered by pulling the base forward about 6 cm. This change, along with a number of other little tweaks, has resulted in a significant improvement in aerodynamics.
Add in more insulation, liquid-filled engine mounts and acoustic glass in the windshield and the result is a very quiet and refined ride.
The major change in exterior dimensions is the height, which is almost 60 mm greater than in the previous-generation Outback.
The wheelbase has increased by 5 mm, overall length by 17 mm and width by 20 mm. The new Outback has also put on a little weight (it's about 30 kilos heavier on average, depending on trim) due to additional standard equipment and extensive use of high strength steel.
It's more rigid than its predecessor, too. Torsional rigidity of the 2015 Outback is 59% greater and the bending resistance is up 39%.
More high-end interior
The inside has been considerably improved with less plastic and more high-end materials.
There is 6-cm more shoulder room inside in both front and rear seats. The taller roof allowed the seats and thus hip point to be raised without sacrificing headroom.
The result is an SUV-like viewing platform and exceptionally easy entry and exit. The low beltline also means great visibility.
The 60/40-split rear seats fold flatter than in the outgoing model and do so with the tug of a lever in the cargo area.
Cargo capacity has also benefitted from the new dimensions. Lift-over height has been lowered by 15 cm and the load floor is 18cm longer – both significant improvements.
The Outback has gone from trailing the pack in terms of content and infotainment systems, to a place at or near the lead.
All Outbacks have a wide-angle rear view camera, 10-way power driver seat, multi-functional steering wheel controls, soft touch materials throughout, tilt- and height-adjustable head restraints and rear seat HVAC vents.
As you work up the trim ladder you find a power tailgate with memory, higher quality leather and heated rear seats. There is enough room in the centre console to swallow an iPad, a dedicated cell phone pocket and an electric parking brake.
A multi-meter info screen between the two main analog instruments can be toggled between a variety of settings.
The audio/infotainment systems are new. The base audio system has a 16-cm high-resolution WVGA display with an all-new user interface and gesture touch screen.
The optional 576-watt Harmon Kardon system provides monster sound levels while using 50% less power. Top trim levels come with a 18-cm screen with embedded navigation and voice-activation for the HVAC system.
Advanced driver-assist systems
Standard on higher trim levels or available as options are: cross traffic alert, a blind spot warning system that works at a greater distance than most and a new generation of the company’s exceptional EyeSight system that uses a pair of forward-facing stereo cameras behind the rear view mirror that are 15% smaller and have 40% more range than the previous version.
The system will warn the driver with an audible alert when there is a chance of colliding with an object in front. If the driver fails to take corrective action, it will bring the vehicle to a complete stop if necessary. Lane departure warning and adaptive cruise control systems are incorporated.
Revised but familiar engines
The fifth generation Outback is available with a choice of 2.5-lite four- or 3.0-litre six-cylinder engines – both, of course, horizontally-opposed.
Subaru insists the engines are 80% new but the output of the six is unchanged and the four gains but four horsepower. There are new heads and lighter internals, less friction and improved NVH.
Fuel economy has been improved 8-10%, with most of that improvement coming from the CVT transmission.
The base 2.5 model is available with a six-speed manual transmission, all others get a continuously variable automatic programmed with six simulated gears for manual operation, making it more acceptable than most CVTs.
Performance with the six is more than acceptable but hardly impressive. It is beautifully smooth and quiet.
The electronic management system for the all-wheel-drive unit has more parameters than before. A new Xmode, introduced in the current Forester, optimizes throttle, torque split and the transmission setting for optimal off-road use.
Active torque-vectoring has been incorporated as well, applying more power to the outside wheel and the brakes to the inside in corners, helping to reduce understeer.
Subaru’s traditional supple suspension retains its ability to absorb a wide range of surface imperfections with aplomb. The more rigid platform, stronger mounting points and stiffer components have added a degree of precision.
The engineering team paid particular attention to the steering system and it shows in improved feel and response.
The 2015 Outback is available in three trim levels when equipped with the four-cylinder engine and two with the six. Prices have been reduced by $500 across the line despite the additional equipment, ranging from $27,995 to $40,095.
Model: 2015 Subaru Outback
Price Range: $28,000 - $41,000
2.5-litre horizontally-opposed four-cylinder, 175-horsepower, 174 lb-ft of torque
3.6-litre horizontally-opposed six-cylinder, 256-horsepower, 247 lb-ft of torque
Length: 4,815 mm
Width: 1,839 mm
Wheelbase: 2,746 mm