What It Is
It's a comfortable family wagon ready for any challenge.
Powerful acceleration makes it easy to pass cars on the highway.
Feature per dollar, it could be better.
Subaru does a good job of appealing to its adventure-seeking buyers.
"Our buyer tends to be a cliché of what you think a Subaru buyer would be like," Subaru communications boss Dominick Infante told us in an interview earlier this year. He went on to say that his customers tend to enjoy mountain biking and the great outdoors, love dogs, and are some of the most likely to take their cars off-roading. Subaru has developed niche status in the automotive industry with excellent branding and a loyal band of followers. But branding aside, does a Subaru offer anything that a Honda or Toyota can't?
What better way to examine this question than with the 2014 Subaru Outback, one of the brand's most popular models. This model really captures the spirit of what Subaru is. During our time with this crossover wagon, we found many notable characteristics that make it stand out from the pack. But there is still a question of whether it is a top competitor in a difficult segment.
What We DroveWe drove the most expensive model, the 3.6R Limited. Exclusive to this trim level is a 3.6-liter boxer six-cylinder engine that puts out more power than the standard four-banger.
The 3.6R Limited starts at $32,095, but our model came with a $4,040 option package that lumped together three smaller packages. This deal gave us a power moonroof, rear vision camera, Home Link, navigation system with Aha infotainment, four months of SiriusXM NavTraffic, and the EyeSight driver safety system. Helping to keep drivers focused on the road, this safety system included pre-collision braking, lane departure warning, and adaptive cruise control. All of these features, combined with a $65 cargo net and a $825 destination fee, came out to a total of $37,025.
A number of safety features are standard on the Outback. A brake override system, various airbags, a rollover sensor, anti-lock brakes, three-point seatbelts, and electronic stability control are on every Outback. These safety features complement the Outback's strong structure. The Outback scored five stars in government crash tests and was awarded the Top Safety Pick + designation from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The CommuteWhen I first stepped into the Outback, the first thing I noticed was the fake 90s-minivan wood paneling that ran through the entire cockpit. This surface, which was plastic to the touch, was a huge eyesore in an otherwise attractive and comfortable cabin. The soft leather-trimmed seats and metallic surround around the infotainment system almost made up for this feature.
Once I turned on the engine and got behind the wheel, I got a more complete view of the car. Driving on the highway was probably the greatest pleasure in the 2014 Subaru Outback 3.6R Limited. While it may look sedate from the outside, this wagon packs a punch. The six-cylinder has plenty of power, and passing other cars on the highway is a breeze. Its powerful acceleration puts it ahead of many competitors in its class, even other six-cylinders. Although powerful, there is a part of the driving experience that seems unrefined. You can definitely feel the shifting of the five-speed automatic transmission in this model. Otherwise, the Outback handles well and can take any pothole or road imperfection with poise.
The Grocery RunAround town, the Outback is surprisingly practical. Loading up for a week's worth of groceries in the Outback is easy. The low to the ground nature of the wagon makes it easier to pack in groceries than in SUVs, which sit higher on the road. Pile in 12 or 13 large grocery bags and you are good to go. And if you happen to spill a little milk? No problem, as the surface is pretty easy to clean. Our model also came with a removable cargo net that helps store small items in the front of the trunk.
Parking the Outback is fairly easy, although it is not the most eager to turn. Still, we didn't have much trouble pulling into tight spots. This is especially true with the rear parking camera that makes it easy to back in and out of spaces.
The Weekend FunThe Outback is a pleasure to drive, but how is it to live with for an extended period? On the weekend, we were able to really put the car to the test. Over the course of a few days, we were able see how much it can fit, how its fuel economy held up, and how well its infotainment system worked.
Subaru makes a point of emphasizing the outdoor capabilities and off-road prowess of the Outback. But how much different is it than the competition? We found the Outback has 34.3 cubic feet of cargo space or a little over 71 cubic feet with the seats folded down. This is about the same as a Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue, and Toyota Venza, but it beats out the Ford Edge. We found that plenty of recreational gear can fit in the Outback, and this is made even easier thanks to the built in roof racks that secure bikes, kayaks, or other equipment. And they fold away when not in use.
Adventurers will enjoy the generous ground clearance of this model. Towing is also easy as the powerful Subaru can haul up to 3,000 pounds. Those looking for adventure will also enjoy the all-wheel drive of the Subaru, although nowadays tons of competitors offer this feature.
We were also able to spend some quality time with the infotainment system. It is easy enough to operate the radio, and switching between AM, FM, and XM is a breeze. But there were notable downsides. Turning up the volume reveals a cheap subwoofer. The screen also sometimes fails to respond to touch, and the navigation controls have too many menus.
Overall, we thought that while the Outback no doubt was a quality product, we didn't necessarily think it was the best value. Over $37,000 and no keyless ignition? Optional rearview camera even on the highest trim level? Cheap wood paneling? We think competitors like the CR-V are more competitive in terms of features per money.
When the weekend was done, we checked our fuel usage. Our numbers were pretty close to what is expected. Unfortunately, this vehicle receives an EPA estimated 17/25 mpg city/highway, unimpressive numbers for a practical family vehicle. This may be due to the all-wheel drive and powerful engine.
SummaryAt the end of the day, we found some clear advantages to buying the 2014 Subaru Outback 3.6R Limited. Its powerful acceleration and subtle off-the-beaten-path capabilities are somewhat unique in its segment. However, for everyday driving around town, we didn't find it had any particular benefits over models from Toyota, Honda, or other automakers. We think Subaru's cars truly appeal to what its buyers are looking for, off-road capability in a conservative package. Subaru has successfully created a niche market with its quality vehicles, but we think mainstream buyers will want to consider other models before making a final decision. Or check out the all-new 2015 Subaru Outback, which will be making its way to the market fairly soon.
Spec BoxPrice-as-tested: $37,025
EPA City: 17
EPA Highway: 25
EPA Combined: 20
Cargo Space: 12-13 Estimated Combined Range: 370 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Above Average