Ah, Subaru. For over 45 years, the automaker has offered up alternatives to the mainstream, giving us egg-shaped microcars, center-mounted fog lamps, rear-facing jumpseats, massive spoilers, and all-wheel-drive wagons tailor-made for New England winters.
It was with that history in mind that I approached the all-new Outback with some trepidation. With its promises of stylish design, a quieter interior, and updated technology, it sounded an awful lot like every other car on the market. Was Subaru pulling a Liz Phair?
Well, I'm relieved to say that the 2015 Outback 2.5i Premium (MSRP $26,995, $30,340 as tested) is 100 percent faithful to the Subaru formula. It's also an excellent vehicle in its own right, and should appeal to both brand loyalists (Loyale-ists?) and newcomers alike.
Traditionally, the four-cylinder Subaru Outback offered drivers three guarantees: ground clearance, all-wheel drive, and a Boxer engine—so named because its pistons move horizontally, like a boxer throwing a punch. The new car still promises all three, although buyers can also opt for a more powerful six-cylinder engine.
While the old Outback had fewer available options, harsher noise and vibration, and a less-refined interior than crossover competitors like the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape, and Hyundai Santa Fe, the new car remedies many of those issues.
The 2015 Outback gets a new, streamlined exterior that's still unmistakably recognizable as a Subaru. Compared to last year's model, the interior adds nearly four cubic feet of volume, but its wheelbase is only 0.6 inches longer. Fuel economy is up to 25 city, 33 highway, and 28 combined, and all-wheel drive and a continuously variable transmission (CVT) are both standard.
Inside, the first thing you won't notice is noise. Subaru has added some technology that makes the Outback sound more refined, such as liquid-filled engine mounts and a windshield with an added layer of sound-absorbent material.
You'll also feel soft-touch materials, and notice how well they all fit together. If you upgrade to at least the Premium trim, the centerpiece of the stylish-yet-straightforward dashboard will be a 7-inch touchscreen.
The navigation-equipped Outback I drove had no trouble getting me to parts unknown, though I had some issues with voice recognition, and would've preferred the ability to zoom the display in even tighter on some dense tangles of roadways.
Delving into the Outback's menus, I was excited to see a logo for MirrorLink, a protocol that lets smartphone owners mirror their screen's display on a car's infotainment system, with buttons and menus customized for in-car use.
Unfortunately, that button was greyed out. As it turns out, Subaru doesn't officially support MirrorLink in the U.S. Some owners have reported success with certain phones, but I couldn't pair any of the iOS or Android smartphones in use at the Reviewed.com office.
That's a shame, because Subaru's own clunky StarLink app isn't quite ready for prime time. In theory, it uses your phone's data plan to connect to the internet to access news, weather, and Clear Channel's iHeartRadio app. In reality, it took forever to download information and frequently timed out.
StarLink also has its own interface for playing music off your phone, but I found it sluggish and buggy. At one point, it refused to stop playing Caribbean Queen, and I almost drowned in a sea of Billy Ocean until I turned the car off. Stick with the default music player, and you should be fine.
The real treat was Aha, Harman's in-car streaming service. I wasn't impressed when I first tried Aha back in 2013, but software upgrades and a more intuitive user interface have made a big difference.
For instance, using the Aha app on my phone, I could set podcasts and streaming radio stations as favorites, which would then show up in the car. On the road, I could use either the touchscreen or steering wheel controls to select an archived episode of Fresh Air, or listen to New York's WNYC live, even though I'm in Boston.
In addition, Aha uses an artificial voice to create audio summaries of Yelp reviews for nearby businesses, so you can find a good coffee shop without looking at your phone or screen.
Aside from infotainment, the Outback has some other features that make life easier. Rear seats can recline, and also fold forward with the pull of a trunk-mounted lever. A powered rear lift gate lets users set a maximum opening height, so it won't bang into garage doors. Active torque vectoring sends slightly more power to the outermost wheels in a turn, and active grille shutters make the front of the car more aerodynamic at high speeds to save fuel.
EyeSight, one of my favorite active driver assist systems, got some upgrades, too. A new color camera system increases the accuracy of its pre-collision braking, lane-departure warning, and adaptive cruise control systems.
A Subaru with Yelp on the dashboard and alarms that tell you if you're swerving out of your lane might sound like a sellout. But the 2015 Outback is still a Subaru at heart, from its all-wheel drive to its roof rails.
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