2015 Subaru Outback

"We like producing cars that are different." That's the company line trumpeted by several Subaru executives during the launch of the 2015 Outback – one of Fuji Heavy's most successful vehicles to date. Managing Editor Jeremy Korzeniewski accurately noted that while Subaru has never really found salvation with its mainstream sedans, it's the higher-riding, butcher offerings like the Outback and the Impreza-based XV Crosstrek that have been sales stars for the Japanese company. In 2013, for example, Subaru sold nearly three Outbacks for every Legacy it moved. And in 2014, the XV is on pace to outsell the Impreza upon which its based.

But Subarus have always been different, catering to unique customers that desire something a bit more special than your run-of-the-mill sedan or crossover. It's clearly worked, with Subaru having posted 30 months of year-over-year sales increases as of this writing. And even as the automaker's portfolio goes more mainstream, smoothing out its serially awkward styling and gunning for a larger market share here in the United States, that intrinsic Subaru differentiation is still baked in to each and every product.

It's that new Outback we're here to talk about today, a vehicle that's been comprehensively redesigned for the 2015 model year while not shaking up the formula that's made it successful since its inception in the mid-1990s, back when it (arguably) launched what we now know as the crossover utility vehicle segment. It's still plenty different – and plenty good, too.

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The Outback's lifted, tough design is all for the sake of function.

So while there's nothing truly radical about the 2015 Outback formula, it's still all-new, with a more refined design that's less awkward than before. The shapes have been smoothed out and the revamped proportions of things like the headlamps, grille, and taillamps all work well to create a rugged, handsome package. It's still wholly evident that there's a Legacy underneath that chunky gray cladding, more prominent foglamps and roof rack, but we're guessing most of the brand's customers don't know or don't care. Besides, Subaru has always done a nice job of making the Outback look complete on its own. Nevermind its family sedan roots; nothing about this car's design gives the impression that it's simply a Legacy add-on. It's absolutely evident that the Outback and Legacy were designed side by side to make two fully cohesive vehicles.

The thing about the Outback's lifted, tougher design is that it's all for the sake of function. There's 8.7 inches of ground clearance on hand – more than any of its competitors, and as we found out during some pretty robust off-roading, that added height really comes in handy. (More on that in a minute.) Compared to its predecessor, the new Outback isn't much larger – Subaru says that it really figured out the model's "right size" in the last generation. Overall length is up by 0.6 inches and width has increased by 1.3 inches. The new Outback is a fair bit taller, though, at 66.1 inches compared to the outgoing model's 63.9. Ground clearance hasn't changed, and the Outback still rides on either 17- or 18-inch alloy wheels, so it's the added width and height that's largely responsible for the increase in interior volume – 108.1 cubic feet of passenger space compared to the 2014 model's 105.4.

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The wagon configuration is good for a whopping 73.3 cubic feet of storage space.

The cabin is where differences between the Legacy and Outback really end – it is, for better or worse, the exact same interior. The layout, colors, controls, materials – they've all been carried over. Korzeniewski said of the Legacy, "Materials are of high quality, with nary a squeak or rattle to be heard" (one Subaru official saying the Outback has "the nicest fake wood you'll ever see"), "all controls are logically placed," and, "all pieces the driver interacts with feel good." We won't offer a single disagreement in regards to the Outback, and add that here, too, the interior feels absolutely huge, with no shortage of head-, leg-, shoulder- or hip-room for both front and rear occupants. It's roomy, logical and of appreciably high quality, but exactly nobody will call the new dashboard stylish or even particularly modern-looking in design.

Even so, we must commend the Outback (and Legacy) on the revamped infotainment interface, with a seven-inch touchscreen standard on all models but the base 2.5i. Finally, Subaru has designed a system that works well, is very intuitive, and looks fresh and modern. This was always a sour point with the outgoing car, but it's not a problem, here. Other bits of praise go to the optional Harman/Kardon audio system, which sounds lovely, and Subaru's third-generation EyeSight collision mitigation system. We even had the chance to sample the latter (in a controlled environment, natch), and it had no problem bringing our car to a halt from 30 miles per hour with absolutely no driver interaction.

Where the Outback offers added functionality is, of course, at the rear, where the wagon configuration is good for a whopping 73.3 cubic feet of storage space with the rear seats folded flat – two more cubes than its predecessor. There's a power liftgate available on higher trims with programmable height memory (helpful for shorter drivers or low garages), and all Outback models come standard with the roof rails that feature collapsible crossbars and integrated tie-down points.

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For our money, we'd just buy the 2.5 ... with either engine, the Outback's dynamics are surprisingly good.

Underhood, it's, again, all Legacy – the 2.5-liter boxer-four and 3.6-liter boxer-six engines carry over unchanged, the former putting out 175 horsepower and 174 pound-feet of torque, and the latter offering up a healthy 256 hp and 247 lb-ft. Both engines are mated to a continuously variable transmission, but the 3.6-liter engine gets the "high-torque" Lineartronic CVT that's used in the WRX. That particular unit is actually quite good, with ratios that feel more like planetary gears with proper shift points – this CVT won't just drone up in the power band like most others.

Both engines are really nice, and that boxer-six is plenty powerful, but for our money, we'd just buy the 2.5. Models equipped with the four-cylinder engine are anywhere from 177 to 217 pounds lighter than the 3.6R Limited, depending on trim, and any way to save weight is good since, at 3,593 pounds, even the base 2.5i is some 170 pounds heavier than its predecessor. Besides, with the flat-six only available in Limited guise, you have to get spendy if you find six-pot power an absolute necessity. The lower weight of the 2.5 can really be felt from behind the wheel in terms of handling, and as you can probably guess, the smaller engine is way better in terms of fuel economy, too. 2.5-liter models are estimated to achieve 25 miles per gallon in the city and 33 mpg highway, while the 3.6 is only good for 20/27 mpg city/highway – that's a substantial efficiency penalty.

Of course, the 3.6R is a bit more lively out on the road, Subaru estimating a 0-60 time of 7.3 seconds compared to the two-second-slower 2.5i. But with either engine, the Outback's dynamics are surprisingly good. The now-electric power steering is appropriately tuned – it's somewhat dead on-center, but serves up plenty of feedback while turning. Helping all of this is the increased steering ratio, now 14:1, up from 16:1. It won't turn with the sharpness of a WRX, but it isn't really meant to, and it's still much better than we had anticipated.

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Subaru's Symmetrical all-wheel-drive system is as blissful and invisible as always.

The 2015 Outback offers a 59-percent increase in torsional stiffness and a 35-percent increase in bending rigidity, and with its traditional front MacPherson strut-type suspension and rear double-wishbone setup, overall stability while cornering is not vastly improved, but still a bit better. There's still body roll, thanks in part to the higher center of gravity, but it's nothing absurd considering the Outback's mission. Subaru's Symmetrical all-wheel-drive system is as blissful and invisible as always, serving up perfect amounts of grip to all four corners. The Outback's active torque vectoring (a modified version of what's in the WRX STI) deserves some credit here, too – even at higher speeds on dirt and gravel roads, the Outback never slipped around (unless we asked it to, which we may or may not have), and remained stable and confident. But on asphalt, the Outback offers a smooth, confident ride with better dynamics than the majority of the competitive set. We'd much rather pilot an Outback than other two-row CUVs like the Hyundai Santa Fe Sport, Ford Edge, Toyota Venza or Honda Crosstour.

Off road, most CUVs in this genre aren't particularly capable, but the Outback really excels. Subaru's X-Mode system, first seen on the Forester, helped us trudge through some really nasty bits of trail – terrain we wouldn't have thought an Outback can handle. This Subaru was downright impressive as we traversed steep hills, deep ruts, sizable rocks and muddy streams, and its aforementioned 8.7 inches of ground clearance – identical to a Jeep Grand Cherokee in its default setting – was a real confidence builder. Of course, SUVs like the Jeep would surely do a better job in such circumstances, and more hardcore off-roaders would laugh at the paths we took to in the Outback, but they aren't necessarily as capacious or efficient, either. The best part is, with the Outback it's all one-touch: Press one button, and X-Mode alters the engine output and controls the CVT ratio positioning, while remapping the AWD logic and traction control. Other aids like hill start assist and descent control were quite helpful when the going got tough, as well.

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Subaru owners are 190 percent more likely to engage in outdoor activities than other car buyers.

We mentioned it before, but this off-roading prowess isn't just to woo us journalist types. Subaru offered up J.D. Power data stating that its products are driven off road more than any other brand, save Jeep and Ram. Furthermore, similar data states that Subaru owners are 190 percent more likely to engage in outdoor activities than other car buyers. And considering how many civilian Subarus we saw during our test drive, all covered in dirt and mud, with kayaks and bikes on the roof, we don't doubt those stats for a minute. (The Pacific Northwest is one of the company's largest markets – go figure.)

Pricing for the 2015 Outback starts at $24,895, not including $850 for destination. That'll get you the 2.5i, with a whole mess of standard equipment including 17-inch alloys, X-Mode, a 6.2-inch infotainment screen with Subaru's Starlink smartphone integration, and too many other features to list here. Moving up the ladder, the 2.5i Premium adds stuff like foglamps, the seven-inch touchscreen, dual-zone climate control and more, for $26,995. The 2.5i Limited gets things like 18-inch wheels, leather seats and the power liftgate for $29,995, and finally, the top-end 3.6R Limited comes in at $32,995. Option a fully loaded 3.6R Limited like the car you see pictured here and you'll come out at $36,835.

Obviously, we don't anticipate the new Outback doing anything but good for Subaru – it's already the company's second-best-selling model, and this redesigned 2015 version is vastly improved in every way. It doesn't shake up the Outback formula, and it isn't even a departure from the outgoing version. But that's fine. The good-to-drive, ready-to-play nature of the Outback has always made friends, and this new model addresses the negative points of the outgoing model while improving upon what's made it successful. Say what you will about its non-traditional form – here, it's good to be different.