We see the Outback as the midpoint of the mid-size utility vehicle segment, exactly halfway between a true SUV and a car-based crossover. You Outback owners? You probably see it in a class by itself, as one of the few wagons of its kind to come standard with all-wheel drive.
Only those diehard Subaru fans will notice its mildly updated look at first pass. Three years ago, the Outback gained a chunkier look with more overt SUV references. A new grille and headlamps play up those reference points this year, but the profile's unchanged, and so is the interior, save for a layer of woodgrain on the dash, and some new interior fabrics.
The big news this year is underhood, where a new flat four-cylinder boosts fuel efficiency. The new 2.5-liter engine has marginally better performance and higher fuel economy. It puts out 173 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque, with more torque at the low end of the range for better responsiveness.
Subaru continues to offer a six-speed manual gearbox with that engine in all but the 2.5i Limited, though most buyers opt for the continuously variable transmission (CVT), which comes with paddle shifters behind the wheel to simulate manual mode when needed. Subaru's CVT is one of the better examples of the breed, unobtrusive under full-throttle acceleration but responsive enough to move the car smartly away from rest. Gas mileage is as high as 30 mpg highway, or 26 mpg combined.
At the high end of the range, the Outback 3.6R model continues with an unchanged 256-hp, 3.6-liter flat six paired to a five-speed automatic transmission. This is a smooth and quiet combination, with better acceleration through its range. It may be more fun to drive, but the cost is significantly lower gas mileage--just 20 mpg combined.
The Outback's relatively low curb weight and low center of gravity gives it more car-like handling than some crossovers, and a stiffer body structure translates into a firmer but better ride this year. Road manners are fine--the steering's not exceptional, and the tires are tuned for weather, not grip--if not to the level of the latest Ford Escape.
The Outback really comes into its own off road. With 8.7 inches of ride height, it's uniquely suited to a variety of road surfaces, paved and unpaved. And it's easy enough to make great use of that capability with standard all-wheel drive--and with a roof-rack system with folding cross-bars, in which the rear bar can be moved back to carry longer items like ski and snowboard boxes, kayaks, and other outdoor gear.
The Outback has good interior space for five adults, particularly in back, where the rear seats recline. There's no third-row option, though. The rear seats split and fold, turning the 34 cubic feet of storage space into more than 71 cubic feet when needed.