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PowerSteering: 2018 Subaru Outback Review

PowerSteering: 2018 Subaru Outback Review

By Liz Kim, May 15, 2018
Introduction
Subaru Outback owners have known for over 20 years that the concept of a station wagon with most of the abilities of a rugged SUV is an appealing combination. If that sounds like a crossover SUV to you, then congratulations, you’ve identified the recipe. In fact, the original Outback was one of the first crossovers to go on sale in America (the other was the Toyota RAV4).

Even though Subaru enthusiasts and Outback owners have appreciated cars that are kind of like trucks for years, it has only been during the past decade or so that this plucky Japanese automaker has really come into its own, with year-over-year increases in sales and burgeoning consumer interest. Meanwhile, the Outback has retained its loyal following, while amassing more fans that are in the market for a tidily sized 5-passenger crossover SUV.

For 2018, Subaru has made a host of small changes to attract even more people to the Outback, especially those who live in the Sunbelt states where terms like ‘black ice’ aren’t in everyday vernacular. For 2018, the Outback’s exterior gets a slight makeover, the infotainment system gets an upgrade, and the ride is tuned to be softer, complementing what is said to be a quieter cabin.

For this review, we evaluated a 2018 Subaru Outback 2.5i Limited equipped with the EyeSight Driver Assist option package. The price came to $35,695, including the $915 destination charge.


What Owners Say
Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the 2018 Subaru Outback, it’s helpful to understand who buys this midsize SUV and what they like most and least about it.

Based on J.D. Power research data, the majority of Outback buyers are men, at 61%. This is slightly higher than the Midsize SUV segment overall, at 59%. Outback buyers are also older (60 years vs. 56 years for the segment), and they earn more money in terms of median household income ($116,856 vs. $113,384). More than half are Baby Boomers (56%), and more than a third identify themselves as practical buyers (36.5%).

Low maintenance costs are important to Outback buyers. About 71.5% of them strongly agree that they avoid vehicles they think will be expensive to maintain, compared to 64% of Midsize SUV buyers collectively. They also strongly agree that reliability is their first consideration when choosing a vehicle (72% vs. 62%).

Fuel economy is also important to Outback buyers, as nearly 65% agree that it is a first consideration when choosing a vehicle. They’re also willing to pay more for a vehicle with the latest safety features (86% vs. 73%) and pay more for a vehicle that is environmentally friendly (70% vs. 52%). The Outback’s standard 4-cylinder engine is a Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (PZEV) power plant.

J.D. Power data also shows that Outback buyers are less concerned about image; just 53% say they like a vehicle that stands out from the crowd, compared to 70% of all Midsize SUV buyers. They’re also less likely to agree that they like a vehicle with responsive handling and powerful acceleration (85% vs. 91%), and to agree that they prefer to buy a vehicle from a domestic company (38% vs. 61%). The Outback is assembled in Indiana.

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


What Our Expert Says
In the sections that follow, our expert provides her own assessment of how the 2018 Outback performs in each of the 10 categories that comprise the J.D. Power 2017 U.S. Automotive Performance, Execution and Layout (APEAL) Study.SM

Exterior
The Subaru Outback doesn’t look suave or sleek. Rather, the design is rugged and practical. Outback buyers care less about the outward appearance of their vehicles than the typical midsize SUV customer, and Subaru knows that for most of its customers what matters is the engineering underneath rather than flashy exterior styling.

Revised headlights and taillights, an altered front grille, redesigned bumpers, and, for the popular Limited trim level, new aluminum wheels, summarize the exterior changes for 2018. This vehicle is still instantly recognizable as an Outback, though, with its gray lower cladding and raised suspension giving you a hint as to its strength and abilities. Its lower profile, compared to other crossovers, is distinctive as well, and you feel more comfortable calling it a wagon rather than an SUV.

Interior
You’ll find few flourishes within the cabin of the Outback, where a straightforward, no-nonsense aesthetic underscores this Subaru’s mission.

My test vehicle was furnished with dark leather, dark carpet, and a gray headliner. Overall, I prefer the look of a lighter interior, and Subaru offers both a Warm Ivory color choice and a new Titanium Gray selection. Get the top-shelf Touring trim for Java Brown leather.

Although car designers seem infatuated with piano black trim, I’ve found this of limited appeal. It looks great when it’s clean, but as soon as fingerprints and dust start to collect, it just looks dirty. Hopefully, you’ll like it better than I do, because the entire center stack of the Outback is composed of it; even the hazard button.

At least the matte finish on the faux wood trim looks good regardless of how long it’s been since your last car wash. And the new exposed stitching on the dashboard and door panels gives the Outback a boost in visual appeal.

Seats
Seat comfort falls mid-pack when it comes to attributes that Outback buyers favor. I think the driver’s seat is very comfortable, with good bolstering, thigh support, and number of adjustments. The passenger seat has no options for a height adjustment, but the seat is mounted high enough that it wasn’t a big issue.

The rear seats were a bit tight for my school-age kids in terms of legroom, as the week required bulky rain boots that left marks on the front seatbacks. There’s plenty of room for two adults abreast, but it will be tight for three. The two rear USB charging ports are always appreciated, though.

Climate Control System
Subaru altered the dual-zone automatic climate control system design for the 2018 model year in an effort to simplify it, placing the temperature readouts within the knobs. The buttons in between the temperature knobs are small, but are clearly marked.

The system proved effective during unseasonably cool weather, and the available seat heaters for the front and rear cushions are always appreciated on chilly mornings. There is no option for ventilated front seats.

Infotainment System
Subaru reworked its Starlink infotainment system software for 2018 for improved speed and responsiveness, and it is indeed more satisfying to use than previous versions. The separate power/volume and tuning knobs are especially helpful, but the main menu touch controls surrounding the 8-in. display screen aren’t as satisfying as physical buttons.

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone projection always makes inputting commands easy and familiar, and the Harman Kardon premium audio system sounded great.

Storage and Space
The Outback is classified as a midsize SUV, but its cargo area is more competitive with the larger members of the compact SUV set.

Behind the second-row seat the Outback provides 35.5 cu. ft. of space, while folding them reveals 73.3 cu. ft. The seats fold easily thanks to two levers in the sides of the cargo area, but ski bums may wish that the Outback had 40/20/40-split seats, rather than the less-flexible 60/40-split configuration it has now. Good thing Subaru dealers sell a wide variety of racks and carriers for this car.

With my test car, the space was accessed through a power liftgate, and features like the underfloor storage with a removable tray and grocery hooks and cargo tie-downs make transporting your belongings easier.

Within the cabin, Subaru supplies plenty of bins, trays, nooks, and crannies in which to store various items.

Visibility and Safety
With slim windshield pillars, a sloping hood, and decent ride height, the Outback offers good forward visibility. Huge side mirrors, reshaped for 2018 to help quiet the cabin, supply a broad view to the sides. Even rear visibility is aided by the Outback’s big windows and slender rear roof pillars.

Subaru built a tenet of its reputation on its ability to keep its passengers safe, and the Outback does not disappoint. The 2018 Outback gets a “Top Safety Pick+” designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), and a 5-star overall rating from the federal government’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

My test vehicle was equipped with the optional EyeSight package of safety technologies that includes adaptive cruise control, forward-collision warning with automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning and lane-keeping assist, automatic high-beam headlights, and LED steering-responsive headlights that help to see around dark corners.

Additionally, blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert is optional for Premium trim and standard with Limited and Touring trim. A reverse automatic braking (RAB) system is optional for Limited trim and standard with Touring.

As with a previous model year Outback test vehicle, the reverse automatic braking system proved faulty on our sloped driveway. It incorrectly sensed the street as an object, slammed on the brakes, accompanied by a series of loud beeps. It makes for an unpleasant start to the morning, and the Subaru Outback and Legacy are the only vehicles in which I’ve ever experienced this happening with this type of technology.
You can’t turn the system off permanently, either. It re-engages each time you start the car. That means, in my case, I have two choices: creep slowly out of the driveway, or wait for Starlink to load so that I can use the virtual “RAB-Off” button on the display.

Engine/Transmission
Subaru is celebrated for its turbocharged engines, and its 6-cylinder engines are decent, so it’s a bit of a disappointment when I receive a test vehicle with the company’s popular 2.5-liter 4-cylinder under the hood. Especially when it’s an Outback weighing a minimum of 3,622 lbs. before adding passengers or cargo.

Feeling underpowered and wheezy in almost every situation, the engine makes 175 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 4,000 lb.-ft. of torque at 4,000 rpm. A continuously variable transmission (CVT) that is engineered to sound and feel as much like a traditional automatic as is possible is charged with driving all four of the Outback’s wheels through an active torque vectoring all-wheel-drive (AWD) system. The AWD system includes an X-Mode off-road traction system as well as hill-descent control.

Most Outback SUVs have this standard powertrain setup. Based on J.D. Power findings, I am not the only person who is unimpressed with it. But, in addition to saving $2,700 off the price of an Outback with the more powerful 3.6-liter 6-cylinder engine, it gets 5 extra miles per gallon in both the city and on the highway.

Choosing a 2.5i over a 3.6R must be worth the savings, right? Read on.

Fuel Economy
Based on my experience, it is no surprise that buyers cite fuel economy as their least favorite thing about the Outback. Since the Outback’s last redesign for 2015, the 4-cylinder engine’s fuel consumption has consistently been a source of disappointment in various test cars even if total driving range impresses. It seems like a tank of gas lasts forever.

According to the EPA, a 2018 Outback 2.5i should get 28 mpg in combined driving. I got 23.7 mpg on my test loop, which includes a mix of driving conditions. This result aligns with other Outbacks I’ve driven. This ranks as a disappointment, to be sure, and is apparently not anomalous.

Subaru needs to fix this fast, as fuel economy is cited as one of the most important considerations for Outback buyers when they’re choosing a new vehicle.

Driving Dynamics
Buyers of the Outback cite its driving dynamics as their favorite aspect of this Subaru. Its lower center of gravity, thanks to the shape and placement of its boxer-type engine, is apparent in its handling, the Outback snugging down nice and tight against the road when it’s asked to change directions rapidly.

But for 2018, Subaru softened the suspension, ostensibly to address complaints that last year’s Outback was a tad harsh over bumps. I feel that they went a bit overboard, as it now feels too cushy, wallowing around turns and deadening any feel from the road. Its brakes remain strong and well-modulated, and the steering, though light, is precise.

One appealing thing about the Outback in comparison to other crossover SUVs is its 8.7 ins. of ground clearance and sophisticated AWD system. In this vehicle, you can explore farther off the beaten path than you can with most of the competition.

While I didn’t have a chance to test its mettle this time around, previous adventures with the Outback have demonstrated its significant talent on rutted trails, over slippery ice-coated roads, and in torrential downpours. It’s no wonder why Outbacks are so popular in areas with frequent inclement weather.

Despite Subaru’s attempts to quell some of the engine and road noise that intrude on the ride—including adding new-for-2018 laminated front side glass and more aerodynamic side mirrors—I still think the Outback is fairly loud inside. The boxer engine has a distinctive grumble, which is pleasing and should not be eradicated, but there’s still quite a bit of wind noise. Then again, the Outback isn’t necessarily a plush, serene vehicle, so perhaps buyers aren’t expecting better.


Final Impressions
Subaru has cultivated one of the most loyal followings of any carmaker. People who buy Subarus tend to stay in the family when it comes to their next car purchase.

The Outback is the next logical step up in size for those who started with a Crosstrek or Forester, and for 2019 Subaru is once again offering a family-sized 3-row SUV in the Ascent, so that your growing family can stay with the Subaru brand.

Despite its noticeable shortcomings—namely its stingy power delivery and disappointing fuel economy—the Outback still boasts plenty of charm to make it a beloved part of any family. It’s ready-to-go capability makes it a versatile and useful vehicle, and a worthy choice in the highly competitive crossover SUV segment.

Subaru of America supplied the vehicle used for this 2018 Subaru Outback review.


Additional Research:


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