Here in the Pacific Northwest, the Subaru Outback has long been one of the most ubiquitous cars on the road. From soccer moms to weed dealers to weed-dealing soccer moms, drizzle-belt car buyers bought the jacked-up AWD wagons in droves, presaging the modern mass-market craze for all things crossover. But in the transition from rough-and-ready station wagon to mainstream crossover, the latest Outback seems to have lost the magic that made it the vehicle of choice for Northwest families looking to retire the old Volvo wagon.
The Outback’s transformation is immediately obvious: its rounded, swollen shape marks it as something distinctly different than a station wagon, looking more like a slimmed-down Tribeca than anything previously carrying the Outback name. For the mainstream market, this only serves to broaden the Outback’s appeal, lending it an upmarket appeal that has nothing to do with the brand’s utilitarian roots. Awkward styling, long a well-established Subaru trait, is well represented in the Outback’s odd proportions and fussy front-end treatment. In this iteration though, Subaru’s odd lines fit well in its new CUV segment, making it just another odd shape in an evolving vehicle category.
Inside, the Outback makes the strongest case to date for its upmarket pretensions. Our full-length Outback review takes the interior to task, but compared to Subaru’s other newly-restyled interiors (the Impreza leaps to mind), even the stripper Outback I tested was a paragon of subtle good taste. Though the dash design echoes the new Subaru theme, with overstyled “wings” flying off the center console, where these elements were finished in cheap Toyota-like silver plastic in the Impreza, the Outback executes the styling cue in a far more subtle and pleasing manner by sculpting the black plastic dashboard material. The use of faux-brushed-aluminum is tasteful and well-executed for the price-point, and the overall impression seems very appropriate for Subaru’s new Audi-junior positioning. The only major disturbance comes from the cheap-and-cheesy gauge face panel, which sabotages the Outback’s appeal by looking like it came from an the least inspired of Daewoo’s suppliers.
Unfortunately, the mainstream-upscale trend means more weight. Sure, the Outback offers isolation and refinement that its predecessors never even aspired to, but it pays the price every step of the way. The 2.5-liter boxer-four engine is wheezy and unremarkable in this application, struggling hard against the Outback’s near 3,500 lb weight. And the CVT automatic doesn’t do any favors either, constantly bouncing the engine from reluctant lug to unproductive thrash. Worse still, the warble of horizontally-opposed cylinders is stifled, making the Outback sound and feel as homogenized as it looks. Paddle shifters help keep the pace up and the engine frantic, but never inject even an iota of fun into the experience.
But even if the engine were up for a lark, the Outback still wouldn’t be. Aimed directly at a segment defined by consumers who need, but don’t want, a minivan, the Outback delivers the snoozy ride and handling its new target audience will never object to. Though the chassis feels solid, the high seating, soft springs and anesthetized steering lends itself to lobotomized cruising and little else. Outbacks have never been performance machines, perennially held back by weight and softness, but the older models were car-like enough to be enjoyable on a back road. The new model loses this versatility, never feeling less than its swollen size.
And this lack of versatility is what defines the new Outback. Extra interior room and interior-design ambition do little to further the Outback’s original role of a car that could jump from commuting to camping without ever feeling like the compromise it always was. The new model might carry its passengers through the snow in more refined comfort, the trashable, thrashable appeal that made the old models a default choice for the Pacific Northwest’s single-car-families is dead and buried.