Tough, go-anywhere capability can go together with a streamlined wagon design, class-leading safety, and a comfortable ride: The 2016 Subaru Outback is a conceptual mashup that's better than the sum of its parts.
Last year Subaru gave the Outback a full redesign, making it even less of a compromise, in just about every way; and the 2016 Outback brings a few more features to this model's already top-notch EyeSight active-safety suite, plus a few more upgrades and refinements. All that makes the 2016 Outback pretty close to the ideal family-adventure vehicle, as it's nestled in an ideal spot between brawny wagon and lean crossover utility vehicle.
It's arguably the way that Americans like their wagons—more rugged and butch than a sport wagon, yet not nearly as imposing and tall as the imposing SUVs that also work for active households. When Subaru sized up the Outback six years ago, it marked a sea change for that model, as it graduated from more of a specialty/niche model to one that families actually cross-shop against the likes of the Toyota Highlander or Honda Pilot.
That said, it's not tremendously surprising that Subaru didn't mess much with its design basis in the fully redesigned version of the Outback that made its debut this past year. The Outback is again based on the Legacy sedan, although it's more family-oriented than ever. And its 190-inch length makes it easy to park. While there's no third row, there's plenty of configurable space for outdoor types, assisted by the nifty roof rack. Frankly, the Outback does what most SUVs are supposed to do—albeit with better fuel efficiency, a better ride, and more nimble handling.
Last year's comprehensive changes made the design both a little more assertive and a little more space-and-functionality focused. The Outback carries a look that's more rakish and swept back, yet simultaneously more blunt and SUV-like, although with mirrors moved back from the front pillars. Inside, just as outside, the new design changed in evolutionary ways. It wasn't a radical rethink, but we see it as better in nearly every respect, and universally easier to use. Inside, the 2016 Outback can feel more upscale inside than you might have expected from the rugged exterior, and the upgrades to the seats and the trim materials themselves helps top Limited models be a lot more convincing.
Across the lineup, you can choose between 2.5i and 3.6R models. The Outback 2.5i models come with a 175-horsepower, 2.5-liter horizontally opposed 4-cylinder engine, while the 3.6R models get a 3.6-liter flat-6, making 256 hp and 247 pound-feet of torque. In real-life driving it feels as if the 3.6R doesn’t quite serve up the wall of torque offered by the Subaru Forester XT's turbo-4. Both engines now have a Lineartronic continuously variable transmission (CVT) that, for this generation of the Outback, might have you fooled as being a conventional 6-speed automatic. And the Outback can tow up to 3,000 pounds with the 3.6R or 2,700 with the 2.5i, provided you keep the tongue weight down to 200 pounds.
Like a good trail-running shoe, the Subaru Outback has always managed to handle it all—from dusty, rocky trails and stream beds to freeways, suburban boulevards, and mountain roads. What sets the 2016 Outback apart, however, is that it has two different performance modes—including a new mode that makes the Outback more trail-savvy when needed, while offering more on-the-road responsiveness the rest of the time. And for that sort of thing—or even just deep snow in the driveway—the Outback maintains 8.7 inches of ground clearance—more than some taller crossovers with more rugged profiles.
The Outback still rides and handles like a mid-size car, jacked up a few more inches. For most people that's going to be a good thing; the driving position remains more relaxed and carlike, and even though there is more ground clearance versus many serious-looking SUVs—it's not as upright or high up (it's an ideal height for getting in and out, really). We've found the front seats of the Outback to be a little more comfortable than before (thanks to just a little more thigh length in the cushions, we were told); meanwhile, the upholstery has been upgraded across the model line (Limited models get some impressive perforated leather), and models with heated seats now have warmers for the length of the back area as well as the lower cushion. In back, expect plenty of space for adults; leg room isn't abundant, but there should be enough for most passengers. Thanks to additional width, the Outback is a vehicle where three adults can sit in back without feeling too crammed-in.
With five-star federal ratings plus top "Good" crash-test results from the IIHS and its Top Safety Pick+ nod, the 2016 Subaru Outback is one of the best-rated family vehicles for safety. A rearview camera system is now included, and Subaru's EyeSight suite of active-safety systems—already highly rated by the IIHS—has been upgraded to include lane-keep assist. That feature will detect when the vehicle is drifting from its lane and steer it back into the lane at speeds over 40 mph. The system can also effectively warn of hazards and, in some situations, brake to help avoid an accident.
The 2016 Subaru Outback is offered in 2.5i, Premium, and Limited models. Each of these trim levels adds progressively more standard equipment, with a requisite step up in price. And at the top of the lineup, you can opt for the 3.6R and its 6-cylinder engine, but only in top Limited form. Premium models are the value centers of the lineup, as you step up to dual-zone automatic climate control, a 10-way power driver's seat (including power lumbar), a leather-trimmed steering wheel, fog lamps, privacy glass, air filtration, heated front seats, a windshield-wiper de-icer, and heated mirrors. Outback Limited models, in addition to a list of additional comfort and trim upgrades, get a new 576-watt premium audio system that includes HD Radio, 12 speakers, a front center speaker, and a rear subwoofer. Infotainment systems are far better than they were a couple of years ago; last year's redesign brought a 6.2-inch touchscreen system to the base model.
Additionally this year, Subaru has introduced telematic features to the Outback lineup. With a subscription, owners get an emergency SOS services and roadside assistance, plus automatic collision notification and maintenance notifications. Upgrading the subscription brings stolen vehicle recovery, remote locking/unlocking, a vehicle locator, and other services.
The Outback has better fuel efficiency than other off-road-capable crossovers, most of which are much heavier and taller to achieve the same sort of capability (and ground clearance). Outback models with the flat-4 now manage 25 mpg city, 33 highway, 28 combined. That's a significant improvement over the 2014 model, thanks mostly to a completely reworked engine, but also to a tuned transmission. Outbacks with the larger flat-6 now return an EPA-estimated 20/27/22 mpg—a big improvement over the 17/25/20 mpg of the 2014 model.