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PowerSteering: 2017 Subaru Outback Review

PowerSteering: 2017 Subaru Outback Review

By Christian Wardlaw, January 11, 2017

2017 Subaru Outback front quarter left photoIntroduction
For many people, the weeks following the holidays go from magical to miserable, the wintery weather something to be endured rather than enjoyed. If this describes your sentiments about the cold and dark months of the year, the 2017 Subaru Outback could help to chase those blues away—or at least bolster your perseverance as you await the return of sunny skies, warm temperatures, and blooming flowers.

Equipped with all-wheel drive (AWD), lots of ground clearance, plenty of cargo space, soothingly comfortable heated seats, and even a wiper de-icer system, the Subaru Outback is seemingly custom-built for foul weather. But even if you live where the sun regularly shines, you’re likely to find this crossover SUV useful, perhaps even entertaining.

The Outback 2.5i is the most popular version of Subaru’s midsize crossover, equipped with a 4-cylinder engine and an EPA fuel-economy rating of 28 mpg in combined driving. It comes in standard, Premium, Limited, and new Touring trim levels. The more powerful Outback 3.6R has a thirstier 6-cylinder engine and is offered only in the Limited and Touring trims.

For this review, our expert evaluated a 2017 Outback 3.6R Touring without any upgrades. The price came to $39,070, including the $875 destination charge.



What Owners Say
Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the 2017 Outback, it’s helpful to understand who bought the previous version of this crossover SUV and what they liked most and least about it.

According to J.D. Power research, Outback buyers are 60 years of age, on average, compared with the typical Midsize SUV buyer, who is 55 years old. In fact, 72% of Outback buyers are members of the Boomer (those born between 1946 and 1964) or Pre-Boomer (prior to 1946) generations, compared with 57% of Midsize SUV buyers. Gender splits 41% women for the Subaru, compared with 42% for Midsize SUVs, and an Outback buyer earns a median household income of $121,875, compared with the segment average of $111,964.

When it comes to sentiments about car buying, people who choose the Subaru Outback diverge from Midsize SUV owners on several fronts. For example, 60% of Outback buyers disagree that they prefer to buy a vehicle from a domestic company, compared with 42% of Midsize SUV buyers. Perhaps the 40% of Outback buyers who do prefer to buy domestic are thinking more about supporting Subaru’s Indiana manufacturing facility, where the Outback is built.

Sport utility vehicles are about practicality, yet just 27% of Midsize SUV buyers identify themselves as practical buyers, compared with 38% for the Subaru Outback. Here is another oddity: Outback buyers are less likely to agree that they prefer a vehicle that stands out from the crowd (54% vs. 69% for the segment), yet fewer Outback buyers are likely to agree that a vehicle is just a way of getting from place to place (35% vs. 39% for the segment).

Perhaps because the Subaru’s standard 4-cylinder engine meets Partial Zero Emission Vehicle (PZEV) status, Outback buyers are more likely than Midsize SUV buyers (67% vs. 54%) to agree that they are willing to pay more for a vehicle that is environmentally friendly. Additionally, 65% of Outback buyers agree that their first consideration in choosing a vehicle is miles per gallon, compared with 59% of Midsize SUV buyers.

Outback buyers also say their favorite things about their SUV are (in descending order) the driving dynamics, visibility and safety, exterior styling, seats, and storage and space. Buyers indicate their least favorite things about the Outback are (in descending order) interior design, engine/transmission, climate control system,  infotainment system, and fuel economy.


What Our Expert Says
In the sections that follow, our expert provides his own assessment of how the 2017 Subaru Outback performs in each of the 10 categories that comprise the J.D. Power 2016 U.S. Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study.SM

Exterior
Historically, Subaru is known for three things: all-wheel drive, dependability, and quirky styling. Today, the company retains two of those three traits.

While the 2017 Outback does wear the rugged SUV design cues that made it one of the original crossover SUVs when it debuted in the 1990s, they are tastefully applied to what is a fundamentally balanced design. This is, after all, a Legacy station wagon sitting on a raised suspension, and while the looks won’t raise a pulse they also won’t elicit derisive commentary.

Interior
Within the Outback, roomy seating for 5 people beckons. Touring trim includes exclusive new Java Brown leather upholstery, which contrasts appealingly with the dark matte finish simulated wood trim, bright silver simulated aluminum accents, and a smattering of gloss black surfaces.

Balance and symmetry rule within the Outback, which is constructed of quality materials that do, on occasion, reflect this car’s relatively low entry price of $26,520. The places you’re likely to touch are covered in soft material, though, and the controls have a solid look and feel when they’re used.

The control layout takes some acclimation. On a positive note, the climate system, stereo, and primary controls are located where you expect to find them, and they are easy to operate. However, secondary controls are haphazardly located, and Outbacks fully equipped with all of the extras present a constellation of buttons and switches frequently marked with small, nearly indecipherable icons.

Seats
Because the Outback sits up high off the ground and is equipped with doors that open wide, it is very easy to get into and out of this vehicle. Once you’re aboard, comfort is easy to achieve, though the front passenger’s seat is without a height adjuster and neither of the front seats are offered with ventilation to help handle hot, muggy summer days.

I put lots of miles on the test Outback, including a day trip from the northernmost reaches of Los Angeles to San Diego and back, and this Subaru delivered impressive long-distance comfort. Additionally, my young children sat up high enough in this vehicle to enjoy an expansive view out.

Climate Control System
A dual-zone automatic climate control system is standard in all but the base version of the Outback, as is an All-Weather package including heated side mirrors, windshield wiper de-icer, and heated front seats. Additionally, the test car had rear outboard heated seats and—as an exclusive for the new Touring trim—a heated steering wheel.

Though winter had descended upon Southern California when this test was conducted I had little use for any of these features, though I recognize how important they are in regions where freezing temperatures are common. What I can say is that the markings on the silver buttons are somewhat difficult to discern, but otherwise the system is easy to use and reference.

Infotainment System
According to J.D. Power data, aside from dissatisfaction with fuel economy, Outback buyers cite the Starlink infotainment system as a primary source of irritation. This technology is standard for the Outback, and the test car had the version equipped with all of the bells and whistles.

Positive traits of the Starlink system include separate knobs to control stereo power, volume, tuning, and audio settings. Also, the system features a flush glass surface similar to a smartphone or tablet computer, one that does an impressive job of resisting fingerprints. I’m also a fan of the system’s graphics and shortcut buttons, though Audio and Phone are missing from the menu of shortcuts. Dual USB ports reside in a covered cubby bin forward of the gear selector.

Negative aspects of the Outback’s Starlink system include a voice-recognition system that proves to be no match for Siri, inconvenient radio station pre-set buttons, and sometimes slow response to input. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone-projection technologies are also missing from the system, which does not offer a Wi-Fi connection and supplies relatively limited subscription service packages.

Storage and Space
Outback buyers identify themselves as practical buyers more frequently than people who purchase other midsize SUVs, and there is good reason for this.

Though maximum cargo capacity numbers measure on the smaller side of the scale, with 35.5 cu. ft. of volume behind the rear seat and 73.3 cu. ft. with the rear seat folded down, the Outback’s cargo hold is usefully shaped. Furthermore, Subaru offers a variety of carrying racks and utility enhancements for this car, available at extra cost through Subaru dealerships.

Within the passenger compartment, storage is reasonably generous for people sitting up front. The glove box and center console bin are decently sized, and door panel bins are wide enough to be useful on a regular basis. Rear-seat occupants are not as lucky.

Visibility and Safety
Thanks to thin windshield pillars, large windows, and oversized mirrors, outward visibility is excellent. The clear sightlines add a measure of confidence when driving, bolstered by an impressive suite of driver-assistance and collision-avoidance technologies.

In addition to a standard reversing camera, the 2017 Outback is available with a blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic detection system, and it works perfectly. Additionally, the company’s EyeSight package of camera-based safety systems—ranging from adaptive cruise control and lane-departure warning with lane-assist technology to forward-collision warning with front and rear automatic emergency braking—operates with refinement and accuracy. It isn’t perfect, but it is dependable and, for the most part, doesn’t become a nuisance.

The exception is the rear automatic braking system. If you regularly negotiate an angled driveway or parking situation, you will tire of this technology in short order.

During my week behind the wheel I needed to remember to manually shut the system off with each departure from home, and when I forgot to take this important step the car rewarded my family and me by slamming on its own brakes as we left the driveway for our steeply crowned street. This did, however, almost certainly provide our neighbors with regular entertainment.

As far as collision protection is concerned, the Outback is engineered to deflect as much crash energy away from the cabin as is possible. As a result, this Subaru aces both federal government (NHTSA) crash tests and those conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Engine/Transmission
Dive into Outback buyer sentiments and it’s clear that they like the vehicle’s steering, braking, and suspension tuning. They are not, however, big fans of the engine or the transmission. In fact, the Outback’s top three weaknesses, according to the results of the 2016 U.S. APEAL Study, are related to the acceleration, passing power, and sound of the engine.

I have an explanation for this. Most Outbacks are sold with the standard 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine, which makes 175 horsepower and 174 lb.-ft. of torque. That’s not much motive force in a vehicle that can weigh up to 3,684 lbs. in 2.5i Touring trim. A continuously variable transmission (CVT) makes the best use of the available power, but clearly it is not effective at deflecting owner criticism.

Subaru offers a solution to the power problem. By upgrading to the 3.6R Limited or 3.6R Touring, you get a more satisfying 3.6-liter 6-cylinder engine good for 256 horsepower and 247 lb.-ft. of torque. The test vehicle had this engine, and it delivered plenty of oomph.

Both engines employ horizontally opposed cylinders in a design known as a “flat” or “boxer” engine. Aside from Subaru, only Porsche uses this type of engine construction. Boxer engines produce a characteristic grumble and vibration that some people enjoy for its unique character, while others complain about it. Boxer engines also help to lower a vehicle’s center of gravity, in turn helping to deliver improved handling characteristics.

On a final note, Subaru really ought to offer turbocharged engines in the Outback. They frequently provide a superior blend of accessible torque and good fuel economy, and they are less susceptible to the effects of elevation on engine performance. Since many Outback owners live in places like the Rocky Mountains, turbocharging would likely improve owner satisfaction with this Subaru.

Fuel Economy
Upgrading from the 2.5i to the 3.6R helps resolve the Outback’s leisurely acceleration characteristics, but it comes at a price. The EPA says the Outback 2.5i will get 28 mpg in combined driving, while the Outback 3.6R is rated at 22 mpg.

On the test loop, the Outback 3.6R returned 21.6 mpg, falling just short of the official EPA estimate.

Driving Dynamics
Though it sits on a raised suspension that provides a generous 8.7 inches of ground clearance (matched in the segment only by the Trailhawk version of the Jeep Cherokee), the Subaru Outback delivers remarkably capable handling despite its unremarkable 225/60R18 all-season tires.

Rain pummeled California early in the weeklong test of the Outback, and with rain comes small rockslides in local mountains. As a result, portions of the test loop were strewn with debris, which the high-riding Outback easily straddled. Wet trails were dispatched with ease, the Subaru’s active AWD system automatically apportioning power as proved necessary to maintain optimal traction in the mud.

On pavement, the Outback’s MacPherson strut front and double-wishbone rear suspension did an excellent job of controlling unwanted body motions. This crossover feels taut and secure, and while the electric steering’s effort levels are a tad bit high it nevertheless proves accurate and responsive. The brakes, featuring ventilated discs in front, also performed flawlessly, though it bears mention that temperatures during testing were seasonably cool.

Overall, the Outback is enjoyable to drive, and with its 6-cylinder engine, outstanding visibility, composed ride, athletic handling, and impressive AWD system, it makes quick work of traffic, trails, and all driving conditions in between.


Final Impressions
Few flaws exist within the 2017 Subaru Outback 3.6R Touring. Priced at less than $40,000 when fully equipped with all factory options, it provides genuine value. Plus, it is roomy, comfortable, safe, loaded with utility and practicality, and enjoyable to drive. No matter the weather, the Outback is ready to strike a blow against Mother Nature.

My personal residence is incompatible with the Outback’s available rear automatic braking system, the Starlink infotainment system needs an upgrade, and Subaru could improve the layout of secondary controls while adding ventilated front seats and a passenger’s seat height adjuster to its popular crossover. Otherwise, I have no significant complaints to levy against the Outback.

Just make sure to consider the 3.6R version if engine power and acceleration are important to you.

Subaru of America supplied the vehicle used for this 2017 Subaru Outback review.

For more information about our test driver and our methodology, please see our reviewer profile.


Additional Research:


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