Sales of the Subaru Outback have been on an upward trajectory over the past five years, with calendar year 2017’s results of 11,490 units showing 87.7 percent growth since 2013. The “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mantra no doubt came into play for this 2018 model year refresh, but despite only receiving a subtle redo I have to say the iconic mid-size crossover looks better than ever.
Over the years the design has slowly evolved from beefed up wagon to low-profile SUV, with this latest iteration the most rugged looking yet. The 2018 model gets a reworked grille, revised lower front fascia, new door mirrors, and a much more aggressive rear bumper design, making it just as appealing to adventure seeking, wilderness conquering daddies as it has always been to reality-minded mommies.
While the grille gets a stronger strikethrough in its upper section, the 2018 Outback’s redesigned headlights might be the most dramatic visual enhancement up front. Now each cluster is more sharply angled with a unique scalloped treatment at the topmost inner point, as well as a more defined signature LED element inside, whereas the matte black lower fascia’s fog lamp bezels protrude upward in a more pronounced fashion, or at least they appear to do so now that more body-colour surfacing separates them from the centre vent.
New mirror housings with slimmer more sophisticated looking LED turn signals aside, there’s not much to distinguish the outgoing Outback from the new one when viewed from the side, although if you look very carefully from this vantage point it’s possible to pick out some augmentation to the new taillight lenses and rear bumper, the latter feature getting additional black cladding extending upward at each corner. That bumper cap makes the most obvious difference from the rear view too, giving the Outback most of the rugged visual upgrade mentioned earlier. Outback faithful should be well pleased with the exterior changes made to this 2018 model, although improvements made inside might elicit even broader smiles.
The renewed interior features higher-grade materials, greater comfort, reduced engine, wind and road noise due to acoustic front door glass, and more advanced electronics, with some key upgrades including a redesigned steering wheel with reorganized switchgear, standard dual USB charging ports for rear passengers, a new 6.5-inch STARLINK infotainment touchscreen for base 2.5i trim that supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration plus Aha radio, a centre display that grows from 7.0 to 8.0 inches in just-above-base 2.5i Touring trim and higher, plus a new voice-activated dual-zone automatic climate control interface featuring digital readouts for easier legibility and greater overall functionality also comes standard with the same 2.5i Touring and upper trims, as does a redesigned centre vent grille, centre panel, air conditioning panel, and instrument panel. Lastly, Limited and Premier trims get steering-responsive LED headlights, while more functionality gets added to these models’ navigation system.
All 2018 Outbacks get a retuned suspension that makes a noticeable improvement in smoothing out pavement imperfections and quieting the ride, while it certainly doesn’t seem to have upset the mid-size crossover’s always stable and confidence-inspiring handling. The Outback isn’t just a strong performer, but possibly even more importantly it feels a lot more premium than its mainstream-branded peers. There’s a genuine solidity to its overall build quality, while the inherently smooth 3.6-litre H-6 adds to this upscale ambience in ways only a six-cylinder can.
I don’t know how long Subaru will support this engine now that the even more potent 2.4-litre turbocharged four-cylinder has been introduced for the larger 2019 Ascent, up 4 horsepower and 30 additional lb-ft of torque over the 3.6R, but for now the refined powerplant does a good job of helping the Outback imitate a luxury CUV in quietness and performance, its output measuring a meaningful 256 horsepower and 247 lb-ft of torque.
Performance off the line is very strong, although it’s more of a smooth linear power than anything WRX-like. Still, the high-torque Lineartronic continuously variable transmission (CVT) offers nice positive shifts, plus you can slot the lever over to a new seven-speed sequential manual mode before swapping gears via steering wheel paddle shifters in order to maximize performance or short-shift to minimize fuel usage, the latter good for a reasonably efficient claimed 12.0 L/100km city, 8.7 highway and 10.5 combined as-tested or 9.4, 7.3 and 8.5 respectively with the base 175-horsepower 2.5-litre four-cylinder.
The steering is substantive feeling, meaning that it’s not too loose and light, but it certainly isn’t overly heavy or ponderous either. In fact I found its weight just right no matter the speed, and extremely easy to turn into tight parking spaces.
Speaking of easy, visibility is superb in all directions thanks to a tall SUV-like ride-height and expansive glass all the way around, while rearward visibility and safety is improved by a very clear backup camera with an especially good wide-angle view, not to mention dynamic guidelines.
Improving driver ease yet further, Subaru includes an electromechanical parking brake with auto-release, plus the brand’s well-proven Symmetrical all-wheel drive system incorporating hill descent control and X-mode to overcome rougher off-road sections as well as deeper snow, either of which is made easier due to an impressive 220 mm (8.7 inches) of ground clearance.
We didn’t have any snow to slog through during my time with the car and had no opportunity to take it up the mountain for winter testing, only encountering some West Coast spring showers, but previous experiences with the Outback in inclement weather have always been positive so there’s no reason this one would be any different. In fact, the new model’s improved suspension compliance should be a benefit for dealing with such situations, on top of providing the superb ride mentioned earlier.
Not affecting my tester yet still important to note for the majority of Outbacks being sold, all four-cylinder trims are now Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (PZEV) rated, which translates into one of the lowest emissions ratings in the mid-size SUV class. Important for safety, all Outbacks get a revised brake booster to improve stopping performance, while Subaru’s acclaimed EyeSight suite of advanced driver assistance systems remains available with all trims above base and standard on the top-line the Premier model.
EyeSight, at just $1,500, includes pre-collision braking, pre-collision brake assist, pre-collision throttle management, lane departure warning, lane sway warning, lane keep assist, lead vehicle start alert, reverse automatic braking, adaptive cruise control, and new high beam assist, which incidentally let Subaru remove the third camera from the other side of the Outback’s rearview mirror.
Of course, a full array of active and passive safety features come standard across the line, while the Subaru Rear/Side Vehicle Detection System (SRVD), which includes blindspot detection, lane change assist, and rear cross-traffic alert, is standard with all models above the base 2.5i. Additional safety upgrades include a collision detection feature that can automatically unlock the doors if required, plus automatic door locks that do the opposite when getting under way, a window off-delay timer, and improved child safety seat anchors. Fully equipped with EyeSight and the Limited/Premier models’ full LED headlights, which are now steering-responsive as well, the 2018 Outback’s collective safety kit once again receives a best-possible Top Safety Pick Plus rating from the IIHS.
Along with the Outback’s lengthy list of safety equipment and aforementioned mechanical prowess, my Limited model was beautifully finished inside, plus roomy and comfortable for the five-seat mid-size crossover class. Cream-coloured contrast stitching enhanced the soft-touch instrument panel, even extending to the halfway point of the centre stack, and crossed the nicely revised door panels as well, albeit without the contrast stitching which is instead used for the door inserts and armrests, while new shift panel detailing and attractively redesigned leather upholstery join features like fabric-wrapped A-pillars that were already doing a good job of pulling this mainstream volume-branded crossover SUV closer to premium status.
The new steering wheel is a really attractive leather-wrapped design with sporty thumb spats to enhance comfort and grip. Switchgear is very good as well, and includes audio controls, voice activation, and phone controls on the left spoke, plus multi-information display controls below that, while the right spoke is taken up by dynamic cruise control functions, with a switch under that for the heatable steering wheel.
Possibly the biggest overall improvement to Subaru interiors is on the digital front, with the Outback’s displays very high in resolution, its colours bright, and graphics benefiting from wonderful depth of contrast. This is most noticeable with the new larger infotainment touchscreen, but it’s also true within the driver’s primary gauge cluster that features beautifully bright backlit analogue dials surrounded by an even brighter full-colour 5.0-inch multi-information display in EyeSight-equipped models (a 3.5-inch display is standard), this filled with plenty of premium-level functions, such as EyeSight those features including adaptive cruise control, the ECO gauge, additional fuel efficiency info, etc.
Back to the centre stack, infotainment functions include AM, FM and satellite radio, CD, USB, Bluetooth and aux media capability, Bluetooth phone, very accurate navigation with nicely detailed mapping, Starlink, Aha, Pandora, Travel Link, plus the aforementioned Apple CarPlay and Android Auto apps, car info, car settings, plus more, while it’s all organized from a stylishly colourful Apple-like home menu.
Features in mind, a quick glance at any Outback’s wheel and tire package can help distinguish its trim level, as base 2.5i and Touring models get 17-inch rolling stock and Limited/Premium trims receive larger 18-inch alloys. On that note, pricing for the base 2.5i starts at $29,295 plus freight and dealer fees, as found on CarCostCanada.com, while moving up through the line shows Outback 2.5i Touring trim priced $3,500 higher at $32,795, 2.5i Touring trim with EyeSight at $34,295, 2.5i Limited trim at $36,795, 2.5i Limited trim with EyeSight at $38,295, and 2.5i Premier with EyeSight at $39,195.
If you want the 3.6R six-cylinder engine in base Touring guise you’ll be asked to pay $35,795, whereas the 3.6R Limited starts at $39,795, the same package with EyeSight that I drove will set you back $41,295, and finally the 3.6R Premier with EyeSight is priced at $42,195.
Features exclusive to Limited trims and above that were not yet mentioned include brushed aluminum front doorsill protectors, silver and authentic looking matte woodgrain interior accents, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, a Homelink garage door opener, rear climate controls, a great sounding 576-watt, 12-speaker Harman/Kardon audio system, two-way driver’s seat memory, a four-way powered front passenger seat, a heated steering wheel, two-way heatable rear outboard seats, and more.
As yet unmentioned items pulled up from lesser trims that enhance the Limited model’s experience include auto on/off headlamps, LED daytime running lights, fog lamps, welcome and approach lighting, LED turn signals on the side mirror housings, a windshield wiper de-icer, proximity-sensing keyless access, pushbutton ignition, auto-dimming side mirrors, illuminated vanity mirrors, a sunglasses holder in the overhead console, a powered moonroof, a rearview camera with dynamic guidelines, a 10-way power-adjustable driver’s seat with powered lumbar support, a rear centre armrest, a powered rear liftgate, three-way heated front seats, a retractable cargo cover, four chrome cargo tie down hooks, two utility bag hooks, a cargo tray, a sub-floor compartment, 60/40-split rear seatbacks with one-touch flat-folding capability, plus more.
As noted earlier the Outback is spacious, with plenty of room for large adults front to back. It’s comfortable too, the front seats superbly supportive, especially in the lower back and from side-to-side. What’s more, the Outback is as nicely finished in back is it is up front, and includes a large and wide centre armrest that flips down at the ideal height for optimal adult comfort (or at least it was perfect for me), while it comes filled with sizeable cupholders featuring grippy rubber clasps to help keep drinks securely in place. A covered compartment on the backside of the front centre console includes two USB charging ports plus an auxiliary plug, but other than aforementioned rear ventilation, good reading lights overhead, and big bottle holders moulded into the lower door panels that’s about it for rear passengers.
As for rear seat roominess, I had about six inches ahead of my knees when the driver’s seat was set up for my five-foot-eight height, plus loads of space for my feet. There was also a good five inches above my head and about the same next to my shoulders and hips. In other words, there’s loads of room in back for two average sized adults and one child, or three smaller adults. Likewise, the cargo compartment is accommodating thanks to 1,005 litres (35.5 cubic feet) behind those rear seatbacks, or 2,075 litres (73.3 cubic feet) when they’re laid flat.
Thanks to Subaru making this already excellent crossover SUV better with each makeover, it’s hardly a mystery why Outback popularity continues to grow.