Car Reviews

Subaru Outback 2015 onroad and offroad test

Robert Pepper’s 2015 Subaru Outback review with pricing, specs, ride and handling, safety, verdict and rating.

Editor's Rating

How we rated the 2015 Subaru Outback 90%
This latest iteration of the Outback is the best yet. It is a decent onroad drive, supremely comfortable and unsurpassed on dirt roads. It doesn't stop when tracks are marked "4X4 Only" either. There are a few minor niggles but this car should definitely be on your shortlist for a big, practical wagon.
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On the outside

There was a surprisingly negative reaction to the Outback’s styling. “Boring” was a word often used.  “A mixture of ideas” was another.  
 
I say this is surprising because to my eye it’s not a bad looking car, (and Editor Bober agrees with me for a change), as it has just enough offroady-features like black wheelarches to state intent without becoming a bit try-hard.  Still, it doesn’t need to try hard on the looks front because this car has two very important styling features which trump everything else.
 
The first is the badge marked “Subaru” which is a Japanese word that translates to English as “super practical recreational vehicle”.  
 
Actually, I made that up but if you look at any meeting of outdoorsy people like rogainers, orienteers, abseiliers or kayakers then you tend to find a proportion of Subarus that cannot be explained by chance. 
 
And the second is the word “Outback” which everybody knows means one of the best wagons on the market.
 
So it doesn’t really matter how Subaru style this car, as long as it wears those badges all will be well.  
 
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Room & Practicality

Starting from the front we have two electrically adjustable seats, doorpockets, centre console and glovebox.  Much to my dismay there is no trademark Subaru storage compartment on top of the dash.  There are two drinks holders behind the gearshift.  The centre console is deep, but the tray is removeable which means it can fall out and get in the way.  
 
The middle second row seatbelt is mounted in the ceiling, which is not only inconvenient to reach but also a major hassle if you want to fit a cargo barrier or stack the back full of gear.  This is a real blemish on what is otherwise a very practical vehicle.  It is also a safety issue for young children because it sets the belt too high up on the body and cannot be height-adjusted, so we decided that the shorter children should travel in the outer second row seats. Outbacks have had this design for years, and it is time Subaru changed it to a system that incorporates the belt into the seat.  Otherwise, room in the second row is very good.
 
This 3.6R Outback has an electric tailgate, operated by the remote fob, a switch near the driver or the door itself.  It is a bit slow to operate, and twice it stalled.  We resorted to the recovery which is to manually close it half way and then operate the switch again, which restored the function. 
 
Seats are a 60/40 split with the 60 on the kerb side.  As this car is not a 7-seater that’s fine.  A nice touch are handles in the cargo area which flick the seats down.
 
The roofrails are brilliant, easily switchable from in-line to rack without any tools:
 racks
You will need a Torx screwdriver to mount them in different locations though.
 
With the crossbars in the rack position there is no additional noise.  There would be a fuel consumption penalty but we did not test to that precision as it would be very small.
 
The 3.6R has keyless entry, with a single button to lock and unlock as opposed to the individual buttons usually found.  This is a good usability point.  As usual with such systems the car can be locked by touching the doorhandle, and unlocked by grasping it so no need to ever see the key again once it’s in your pocket.
 
As you’d expect from so many years of development, the Outback works very well as a practical vehicle.

On the inside

The infotainment system features a centre touch-screen  that is better than average, well thought out and effective.  It is quick to respond, intuitive, and has quite a few features such as service reminders and links to Pandora, missing nothing that other modern cars offer.  The smaller TFT screen in the dash is linked, for example showing navigation prompts.  The Bluetooth audio streaming works nicely, even easily allows you to switch devices.  There is a function to split the screen, for example half navigation, half audio, but it’s not as useful as it sounds because you can’t do much once in split mode.  The sound system is fine but not exceptional, but it is very easy to change fade and balance.  The voice recognition system is quite usuable too, and handy for having the car read you text messages or make phone calls.
 
Happily, the heating/ventilation controls are easy-use dials, and there’s a clock display visible at all times. Amazing how often these simple things are missed by other manufacturers.  There’s two USB ports up front with a single 12v socket, next to a little compartment ideal for storing your phone that has a small blue backlight. There’s another 12v in the centre console.  
 
The second row is, according to my daughter, “a tragedy” because there is no USB socket nor a 12v outlet.  This means her e-devices cannot be charged, and the consequence is nobody in the family ends up happy.  This is poor form by Subaru given the family focus of the Outback, but it’s an easy fix for a DIY mechanic or any automotive electrician so don’t not buy the car on this point alone.  There’s no 12v in the third row either.

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This is a “tragedy” because there is no 12v or USB socket to charge the essentials of teenage life. On the upside, two strong back pockets for those paper things, a smallish transmission tunnel, and comfy seats. The mats are not standard and neither is the mud.
 
The front seats are heated, but only in the base and lower back.  There’s two memory positions for the driver’s seat, and the passenger’s seat is also electrically adjustable.  There were a few complaints about the driver’s seat and the difficulty of finding an ideal position, me among them.
 
The rear seats fold kind-of flat, and offer a decently long space for the sort of gear Outback owners tend to carry.
 

Performance, Ride & Handling

Onroad
The Outback has the viceless, easy handling you find in almost all modern vehicles.  You don’t expect cars of this class to be sharp handlers, and the Outback will not be gracing racetracks any time soon.  It is a competent rather than joyful or interesting drive, and frankly I was a bit bored with the onroad dynamics.  The ride, on the other hand, is sublime.  Very comfortable thanks to that relatively long-travel, supple suspension.  But don’t confuse comfortable with soggy.
 
But it is a Subaru, so there’s one major difference to the rest.  Subaru are one of the few manufacturers who have a proper all wheel drive transmission.  Most of the rest drive the front wheels, and send drive to the rear wheels only as and when the computers decide the time is right.
 
I don’t care what such systems are called or how quick they react, they just aren’t as good as Subaru’s constant drive to all four wheels, all the time, and every time I drive a Subaru in slippery offroad conditions I am convinced anew.   Symmetrical AWD is not just a marketing slogan, it’s a description of what all such vehicles should be. Onroad, this means you are never going to run out of grip unless you slap physics in the face, and it also means the car does not feel like a front driver, but far more neutral and balanced. 
 
If the car is in Drive and you use the paddle shifts it’ll allow you to change gear, and then it will revert to Drive after about 3 seconds, as usual for modern automatics.  There is no sport mode, but you can change to manual where you get to change the gears, and the car won’t change down even if you floor it.  A nice touch is that if you are descending a hill and decide to flick down a couple of gears for engine braking the car will maintain the lower gear provided you don’t accelerate too much and mainly brake or descend on idle.  The cruise control maintains speed down hill too.
 
The Outback 3.6R has SI-Drive, with three modes – Intelligent, Sport, and Sport # (Sharp).  These change the throttle sharpness (but not overall power), and the gearshift points so it changes up later and changes down earlier. As the transmission is a CVT, SI-Drive also changes the virtual gear ratios.  The stability control (VDC in Subie-speak) calibration is unaffected.  You won’t get any more power or go any faster with S#, but you might prefer the snappier response. Exhaust note stays the same.  Side note: we have a tech breakdown of similar features on the WRX STi.
 
SI-Drive
 
As the Outback is somewhere between a 4X4 and a roadcar it has some attributes of both.  It will take a very big pothole to bother the Subie, and you are never going to worry about steep driveways, water on the road or scraping the bottom of the front bumper.  On the other hand, it is not a small car but with a turning circle of 11m it is nevertheless quite maneuverable around town, and the slightly raised ride height is a boon.
 
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The 3.6L engine is a mixed bag.  It pulls nicely, is quite and refined but these days 191kW from 3.6L is on the ordinary side of unimpressive, and the official figure of 9.9L/100km for this sort of vehicle is rather high.  It is worse in reality, we recorded 14.4 on one fill during the test, and 12.2 on the other.  The engine is also quite heavy, as evidenced by the difference in weight between the 2.5i and the 3.6R.  Hopefully it can’t be long before this motor is pensioned off.  A lighter 3.0 with oh, say, 220kW would do very nicely thanks.
 
There’s a hill hold feature which must be manually activated.  It will apply the parkbrake when you stop on an incline, and that is automatically released when you drive off.  This is as distinct from most other systems which simply hold the footbrake – problem with those is that they don’t work on very steep hills, and after a short while the footbrake is released, whereas the parkbrake always stays on.  That said, I think a bit of left-foot braking is still the better way to go for automatics and hill starts.
 
Dirt roads
This is where the Outback starts to set itself apart, in true Subaru style.  I’m not sure there’s a better dirt-road cruiser on the market, and that includes larger 4X4s.  Some 4X4s are limited in their dirt-road capability by their engine – they can go too fast for their suspension and chassis.  Others are the reverse, so well sorted they could accept more power.  Despite the grunty 3.6L motor in the Outback, its limitation is actually power, because everything – accelerating, braking, cornering – is so beautifully assured, thanks to that excellent drivetrain and suspension which just soaks up anything you throw at it.  Mrs P drove the car with two friends behind in an X-Trail and an older Outback, only to find we had to keep slowing to let them catch up.  And we didn’t feel like we were going particularly fast.
 
IMG_6472
 
Offroad
Subaru do not intend the Outback as a serious offroad vehicle.  So we took it offroad anyway, but on tracks that didn’t challenge its clearance but were wet and muddy, so provided a decent test for its ability to handle slippery conditions.  But before that, let’s cover what the vehicle has in the way of offroad tech.
 
The Outback has electronic traction control (brakes spinning wheel for traction), which is left enabled when stability control (skid recovery) is disabled.  This is good news, and a step up from the rather silly system in the previous model which disabled both at the same time.  
 
Then there is X-Mode.  This recalibrates various systems to suit offroading.  The engine map is changed to a gentler setting so it is easier to drive on slippery roads, yet if you floor it the system ensures maximum torque is very quickly made available.  Good to see Subaru have considered both ends of the spectrum, most manufacturers only do the former.  X-Mode also increases the locking between front and rear axles by 25%, which means less wheelspin and better control on steep hills; you don’t get the situation of the front wheels spinning and the rears doing nothing.  Again, top marks.  The gear “ratio” settings are adjusted (this is CVT remember) and the lockup function is reduced, which allows the engine to rev higher at lower speeds.  The traction control system is changed so it deals with wheelspin earlier. X-Mode also includes electronic hill descent control, a single speed, but it does not deactivate when accelerator or brake is pressed.  X-Mode can be selected up to 20km/h, is active till 40km/h and can be re-selected below 30km/h.  Above those speeds you wouldn’t really need it anyway.
 
The underbody is pretty well sorted, and there’s no cosmetic junk to break off or fill with mud, although the bashplates are plastic.  I think that’s decades of experience showing through.
 
So, onto the performance.  If that if all four wheels are on the ground then the Outback does a good job of keeping momentum up by controlling individual wheelspin.  When diagonal wheels are either in the air, or have little weight on them the X-Mode system does a decent job of pulling the vehicle through, although there are occasions when it cannot quite distribute enough torque to the wheels that need it for the vehicle to progress.  We had it cross-axled on a slippery ditch at one point, and and the wheels on the ground weren’t turning.  That said, the Outback does a better job in this respect than the myriad try-hard plastic fantastic wannabes it competes against.
 

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A muddy uphill on road tyres is where you discover how good all wheel drive systems are. The Outback’s X-Mode is brilliant.
 
The hill descent control system is good.  It is smooth, effective, makes little noise and slows the car down slippery inclines.  It also transitions out and in smoothly, and makes enough noise to let you know its there without generating “what the…?” noises from the passengers.  Definitely makes slippery descents safer and easier.
 
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Wet mud/grass downhill, with no real ruts to tramline. This is how we test hill descent control systems. The Outback passed. It also drove back up the hill, but we had to call on a few of the 191kW under the bonnet to do it…
 
Time to praise the suspension again which manages to carry a load and retain a very decent amount of flexibility so the car can put power to the ground.  Great job, Subaru!
 
A minor quibble is that the computers are a bit reluctant to let you change gears up or down.  At 2000rpm in second third gear should be accessible up a slight hill, but I wasn’t allowed it by the e-brain.  A fraction more freedom with the gears would be helpful in difficult conditions.
 
The Outback is also power-limited at low speeds.  This means it is possible to get the car into situations where the wheels are in soft ground or on a steep slope, you put your foot to the floor and the engine refuses to turn the wheels – we tested this in deep sand.   This is not an uncommon problem with vehicles that lack low range, and one reason why low range is still (for the moment) an advantage offroad.  Also, after some of stop/start work on a steep hill we managed to create a smell that was probably from the CVT transmission.  This was however after a lot of work in very demanding conditions, and to the car’s credit no warning lights came on and it still worked.  I do know the WRX CVT doesn’t handle track days, and perhaps the CVT in the Outback would suffer from prolonged use on hills with heavy loads.  Still, that’s probably well out of its design parameters. 
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The Outback is cross-axled – no weight on front left and rear right. Despite that, it pretty much crawled up this hill. A good effort for this class of car and an obstacle that would have seen most of its peers dropping their fluids in terror and hiding behind the bushes. We tried an X-Trail on the same line…not so good.
 
The major limitation of the Outback is the approach angle, with the rather long nose limiting what you can climb. Then there’s clearance, which at 213 mm isn’t too bad but decreases rapidly with any form of load.  Many owners put a slight suspension lift in and fit marginally larger tyres and that would definitely improve matters, but my advice in these situations is that if you really want to play offroad then don’t try and make a Pajero out of an Outback, just buy a Pajero. In the same way, don’t try and make an Outback out of a Pajero, buy an Outback.
IMG_6167
That long nose. Very annoying. 213mm of clearance isn’t quite enough when most 4X4s have 220+. Still, pretty good for what it is.
 
Summary – very good in slippery conditions, only struggles in really deeper ruts where clearance and slow work where approach angle and off-idle power is challenged but that’s just this class of vehicle not really a criticism. More than capable enough for those that just wish to drive on dirt roads, good in sand and snow and a significant cut above most of its peers.  My litmus test is would I drive it anywhere in the High Country with offroad tyres and the answer is no, it’s not designed for that sort of rough 4X4 track work.  You could get it along the tracks but it’d be hard work.
 
If you want to modify your Outback check out http://www.subaxtreme.com/ and there’s a big owner’s forum over at http://www.offroadsubarus.com/.
 
 

Quality

Everything is well built, as you’d expect from Subaru.  Nothing broke, and everything looks pleasingly modern.  The steering wheel is a bit busy, with no less than 17 buttons, but it looks pretty decent and it all works conveniently enough.
 
 

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It’s taken a while, but Subaru are getting better at interiors. The muddy mats are ours, we put them in all press cars that go offroad.

Pricing & Equipment

For the money the Outback is reasonably well specced, with impressive features like Eyesight and the superb all wheel drive system.  Yet there are odd missing or under-done features such as only the driver’s window being one-touch and the second row centre seatbelt in the roof.  It’s indicative of a car that is into its 5th generation but hasn’t quite had the complete makeover it deserves.
 
Fuel is 91 RON, and ADR81/02 fuel consumption is 9.9L/100km combined but you won’t get too close to that in country driving. The tank is a mere 60 litres, so the car is disappointingly short-legged considering it is called an ‘Outback’.   On our long weekend away we travelled 360km for 51.86 litres which translates to 14.4L/100km, but that was loaded, with some offroad and fairly quick onroads.  The lifetime fuel consumption shows 12.5.  Either way, this vehicle will not be passing too many servos.
 
The tyres are 225/60/18, but for offroad or dirt road use I’d want 16 or 17″ rims instead.  Still, standard tyres are Bridgestone Dueler HPs, which are pretty decent rubber for dirt driving.
 
The model on test is the 3.6R, $47,990 plus onroads.  Below that are the 129kW 2.5i and 2.5 Premium.  These can tow only 1500kg vs the 3.6’s 1800kg,  sprint 0-100 in 10.2 seconds vs 7.6, and have an combined consumption figure of 7.3L/100km, helped by a weight of 1597 and 1628kg, a lot less than the 3.6 which is 1702kg. The extra weight in the 3.6 would be in the front thanks to the bigger engine, and that wouldn’t help handling.  
 
The 2.5s get auto stop/start which the 3.6 lacks (but needs), and two SI-Drive modes, although the 3.6 has the third Sport # driving mode as well.  Trust me, you don’t need S#.  The 2.5i is $35,990 + ORC, and the 2.5i Premium is $41,490. 
 
There are two diesel variants, the 2.0 Diesel and the Premium. These are actually quicker 0-100 than the 2.5L petrol, and sip fuel at 5.7L/100km combined so the 60L fuel tank starts to become more liveable.  The diesels do not get Eyesight or SI-Drive.  You could live without SI-Drive entirely, but Eyesight is a useful safety aid. The manual diesel is the cheapest in the range at $35,490.  I would call that good value.  The diesels have a fixed front/rear torque ratio, whereas the others get active torque distribution.   I’ve not tested a diesel, but based on wider experience these front/rear torque systems tend to make very little real-world difference.  The diesels do get X-Mode, unless they are manuals.  X-Mode is worth having, and manuals offroad without low range never really works anyway.
 
Almost all Subarus have great resale value and the Outback is no exception, so you’ll never struggle to shift one secondhand.    
 
While the Outback is not up there with the likes of Prado or Pajero for offroad and touring accessories, you can certainly find useful gear for them and there are a few owner’s clubs throughout the country.   Parts, servicing and general care should never be a problem.
 
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Safety

All three second row seats have child seat tethers sensibly located on the back of the seat where the straps won’t interfere with anything, and the two outer outer seats have ISOFIX child seat restraints.
 
The Outback has Subaru’s Eyesight system which provides automatic emergency braking.  We tested the system and found it detected and stopped a life-sized inflatable doll from 50km/h or so, but beyond that no collision could be avoided.  The system is not calibrated to work on hills or on dirt as we found it hit the doll even at 30km/h.   It is  useful and it does work, but like all such systems…never rely on it, and I don’t care if the government tells you otherwise.
 
There’s a very effective active cruise control system which changes the car’s cruise speed so it follows the vehicle in front by a set distance.  Braking and acceleration is smooth, and the system will even work all the way down to a brief halt and restart.  If the halt is longer than a few seconds you’ll need a brief press of the accelerator to start again, but the car will even prompt you! 
 
Safety is 5 star with a creditable rating of 35.99 out of 37. The spare is a full-size alloy – good on you, Subaru!  There is enough space around the wheel well to stash tyre repair gear, tools, recovery gear and the like. 
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The lane departure warning system is effective, with very few false positives. It is either disabled or set to reduced effectiveness when the steering wheel is turned.  There appears to be no system to bring the car back into line, just some beeps and a dash flash to alert the drive.  There is no blind spot notification.
 
There is a reversing camera, but no sensor. The camera has guides for the width of the car but no lines which show where the car’s wheels go when the steering wheel is turned.
 
Subaru do offer a factory-fit steel cargo mount which can fit behind either the first or second row.  Great move, you really need one in a wagon like this.
 
We have a few photos and brief comparison of a 2005 Outback vs the 2015 model.
 

2015 subaru outback 3.6R

PRICE : $47,990  (+ORC); WARRANTY : 3 year / unlimited km; SAFETY :  5 STAR ; ENGINE : 3.6L petrol; POWER : 191 kW at 6000 rpm; TORQUE : 350 Nm at 4400rpm; 0-100km/h :  7.6 seconds;  TRANSMISSION : CVT with 6 virtual speeds and paddle shifts; DRIVE :  AWD; BODY :  4815mm (L);  1840mm (W),  1675mm (H); TURNING CIRCLE :  11m; GROUND CLEARANCE  : 213mm; WEIGHT :  1702 kg; SEATS: 5; TOWING : 750kg unbraked, 1800kg braked, max TBM 180kg; FUEL TANK : 60 litres; SPARE : Full-size alloy; THIRST : 9.9L/100km ADR81/02 combined cycle; FUEL : 91 RON

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ALSO CONSIDER

Medium-sized 4WD

The likes of Pajero and Prado are far more capable offroad,  better tow vehicles, have greater interior space and are taller. They are more expensive, not as nimble, a bit larger and not quite up there for dynamics, although the Pajero is pretty close.  I’d like to say the fuel consumption of the Outback is better, but I doubt it at least in 3.6R guise.
 
Roadcar wagon
You’ll get better fuel consumption it’ll cost less and, ride a bit lower and be a bit more agile on bitumen roads.  Beyond that…well…nothing.  In the Outback you never worry about dirt roads (in fact, you look forwards to them), or driveway drains, and over rough sealed roads it reigns supreme.  In fact, hard to think of a reason why you’d buy one and not an Outback.  Guess that’s why the Liberty wagon no longer exists.  We have written a comparison of the Liberty vs Outback vs WRX.
 
Other softroader wagons
I have said it before and I’ll say it again – most of the others in this market have on-demand all wheel drive systems which are markedly inferior and that shows up in everything from onroad handling to soft sand.   Honourable exceptions are Audi, BMW and Land Rover, but the former two tend to insist on space-saver spares or runflats which immediately removes it as a serious dirt-road touring option.  And as we’ve said, the Subaru Outback is well known, well supported and easy to service or resell.  You still see 15 year old Outbacks doing work, not so much premium Euro brands.  We have also reviewed the 2015 diesel CVT Forester.
 
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Outback photo gallery

Interior

Cargo

Offroad


Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper is a motoring journalist, offroad driver trainer and photographer interested in anything with wings, sails or wheels. He is the author of four books on offroading, and owns a modified Ford Ranger PX which he uses for offroad touring. His other car is a Toyota 86 which exists purely to drive in circles on racetracks, and that's when he isn't racing his Nissan Pulsar. Visit his website: www.l2sfbc.com or follow him on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/RobertPepperJourno/ or buy his new ebook!