Subaru Makes an Even Sleeker Outback
Someone shopping for a new car in America has roughly 350 models to choose from. Subaru’s Outback, still weird and wonderful after 23 years, outperforms more than 90 percent of them at dealerships.
The Outback is no longer the esoteric, acquired taste of ski bums and Seattleites. With 183,000 purchased in the U.S. last year, the stately Subaru is about as mainstream as a machine gets these days. Oddly, however, an industry that thrives on imitation has failed to create anything remotely similar.
Most of the rigs that offer cargo capacity and off-road skills akin to an Outback are SUVs or so-called crossovers—tall-bodied utility pods that look increasingly generic. Meanwhile, drivers who insist on a vehicle that approximates the shape of the Subaru have limited options, all of them considerably more expensive than the Outback’s starting sticker of $25,600. Try rolling up to a Portland co-op or the spring ski scene at Arapahoe Basin in a BMW 3 Series wagon or an Audi Allroad: It’s just not the same as a “Subie.”
Now there’s a new one. Subaru pulls the cover off its 2018 Outback at the New York International Auto Show this morning, and we can tell you that the new rig looks, well, pretty much like the old one.
And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
When handling a cultish product, car designers are in a tricky spot. They can fix something that isn’t broken, or do nothing and risk getting dated. Subaru, understandably, is veering toward the latter.
Outback fans tend to be loyal. Take Steve and Jan Cornwell, retirees who spend their time skiing around Frisco, Colorado, and visiting their grandkids in Denver. They keep two cars—a 1974 Porsche 911 and their most recent Outback.
“This current one is our fifth or maybe our sixth,” Steve said. “Up here, the car we drive is important ... and we don’t really feel the need to go taller.”
The new Outback has a “more robust” stance than the Cornwells’ 2017 model, with a wider, lower grill, deeper creases in the side body panels, and “Konoji” LED running lights (such that the car approximates an anime hawk). The headlights will now peek around corners a bit when driving, the steering and brakes are tightened up, and the new Outback will have reverse automatic braking for the first time.
Inside, Subaru dialed up the cushiness. Its top seller will be a bit more serene: The continuously variable transmission will get a quieter chain, side mirrors are streamlined to cut down on wind noise, wheel wells are thickened, and sound-insulating glass has been added to the front side windows.
The voice-activation system is now handled by Nuance, a company that makes dictation apps. The dashboard bot is allegedly smarter and faster than the preceding system and switches languages with ease. There’s also a long-overdue 8-inch touchscreen programmed to sync with eBird, a bird-watching app from Cornell University.
Some brands go for soccer dads; some target urban millennials; Subaru sets its sights on closet Ivy League ornithologists.
There are also four trims to choose from in the new Outback, with the two most luxurious configurations offering the larger 256-horsepower engine. Expect pricing to stretch from a Chevrolet-esque $26,000 to an Acura-ish $40,000.
Although the looks are largely unchanged, the Outback has momentum in its favor. The big wagon has whizzed past a number of America’s best-selling models in recent years, including the Ford Focus, Kia Optima, and the Outback sibling Forester. And its popularity has helped Fuji Heavy Industries (Subaru’s parent) become more of a global player. In 2012 the brand shot past Mitsubishi in revenue and is closing the gap with Mazda and Kia.
The loyal crowd still tooling around in 20-year-old Subarus will, however, have one major gripe: The new Outback is huge. The 2018 iteration is roughly longer, wider, and taller than the 1998 vintage. It’s 4 inches longer and hovers about 1.5 inches higher off the ground. Call it a sellout; call it a station wagon on steroids; just don’t call it an SUV.