The new 2015 Subaru Outback is now arriving at dealerships, and it's likely to continue the small Japanese maker's striking growth over the past five years.

Like every other maker, though, Subaru has to make all of its vehicles more efficient--and to do so on a considerably smaller development budget than large global makers.

We were curious to see how the latest Outback stacked up against its mid-size SUV competitors.

Those arguably include the Honda Pilot, Toyota Highlander, Ford Edge, Dodge Journey, and Jeep Grand Cherokee--although Subaru owner loyalty is such that many repeat owners never consider any other vehicle.

DON'T MISS: 2015 Subaru Outback - full review

The 2015 Subaru Outback is rated by the EPA at 28 mpg combined (25 mpg city, 33 mpg highway) with the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and continuously variable transmission (CVT).

That's a slight improvement over its 2014 Outback predecessor with the same powertrain, which came in at 26 mpg combined (24 mpg city, 30 mpg highway). Unlike last year's model, the 2015 Outback no longer offers the option of a six-speed manual gearbox--the CVT is only transmission option.

On our 405-mile test drive, with about two-thirds of the miles on highways and the rest in stop-and-go city and suburban traffic, we registered 31.0 mpg on the car's digital display.

For a car with as much interior space as the Outback, that's pretty good.

2015 Subaru Outback - First Drive

2015 Subaru Outback - First Drive

 Big, and safe

We weren't fans of the previous Outback generation's styling (2010-2014 models). It bordered on a caricature, with slab sides, huge exaggerated wheel arches, and a butch-SUV look quite different from the earlier and very pleasant wagon lines of 15 prior years of Outbacks.

The 2015 car is far smoother. It's still a big vehicle, but somehow Subaru has gotten slightly closer to the look of a wagon even though, for all intents and purposes, it's largely the same size as its graceless, trying-too-hard predecessor.

ALSO SEE: 2015 Subaru Outback: First Drive

The Outback habitually does very well in safety-test ratings, though the 2015 Outback hasn't yet been rated by either the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

And like the 2014 Subaru Forester we had as High Gear Media's recent six-month test car--and TheCarConnection's 2014 Best Car To Buy--the outward visibility is as good as you'll get in an age of tougher roof-crush standards and multiple airbags, including those along windshield pillars.

2015 Subaru Outback 2.5i, test drive, Catskill Mountains, NY, July 2014

2015 Subaru Outback 2.5i, test drive, Catskill Mountains, NY, July 2014

Excellent EyeSight

The 2015 Outback has eight airbags, with a pair of new front-seat cushion bags supplementing the six in its predecessor.

It also has Subaru's very well-received EyeSight vision system, which provides data for the blind-spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning, and adaptive cruise-control systems.

Both of those systems worked flawlessly, though we resorted to turning off the lane-departure warning for the small and variably marked winding country roads we tested on.

The Subaru adaptive cruise system, however, worked as well as any we've used on German luxury sedans--and considerably better than that on our present test car from another volume maker (about which more in a few days).

Drive notes

A few things, both pro and con, struck us about the new Outback after our weekend inside it:

  • We're usually fans of Subaru's CVTs, which are generally less obtrusive than other makers' efforts; on our Outback, every once in a while we experienced a lag in response when more power was demanded
  • Subaru has put a lot of work into noise suppression, and indeed the 2015 Outback is quieter than its predecessors and calm inside even at highway speeds
  • It's still got wind whistle past the door mirrors--but it's tradeoff we're happy to make to get the big, rectangular mirrors that other makers keep downsizing
  • The base 2.5-liter flat-four engine can run out steam under extreme high-speed acceleration (to beat that semi from the on-ramp) but no more so than other modern cars--and base Subarus have never been known for rocketship acceleration
  • If you want more performance, the 3.6-liter flat-six remains a high-end engine option, newly fitted this year with its own CVT--and it's faster and even quieter, at the cost of considerably lower gas mileage (22 mpg combined)
  • Subaru has upped its game on interiors lately, and the 2015 car's soft-touch dash and large central touchscreen with big clear graphics bring the Outback's sometimes industrial-looking decor into the modern age
  • We especially liked the star-patterned silver accents and the relative lack of clichéed piano-black trim
  • The cloth interior is basic but pleasant-looking, definitely better than some of the Grandma's-brocade-couch fabrics of a few years ago

2015 Subaru Outback 2.5i, test drive, Catskill Mountains, NY, July 2014

2015 Subaru Outback 2.5i, test drive, Catskill Mountains, NY, July 2014

Premium trim totaling $31,500

The 2015 Subaru Outback starts at $24,895 in its most basic trim, before the mandatory delivery fee of $850.

Our test car was an Outback 2.5i Premium, the mid-level and most common trim package, with a base price of $26,995. It bundles 17-inch alloy wheels, 10-way power adjustment for the driver's seat, dual-zone climate control, heated front seats and wipers, fog lights, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and more.

Added to that were a $3,390 of options, including a power moonroof, a powered rear tailgate, an in-dash navigation system, and the EyeSight system.

Ours being a Northeast state that uses California's tougher emissions regulations, our Outback was a partial zero-emission vehicle (PZEV), which added $300 more to the tab.

With the delivery fee, the bottom line came to $31,565.

2015 Subaru Outback - First Drive

2015 Subaru Outback - First Drive

Outback owners: different

How different are Subaru Outback owners? A story from one of our local Subaru dealers gives some indication.

With the Subaru lineup consisting of compact and mid-size crossovers (XV Crosstrek, Forester, and Outback), economy sedans and hatchbacks (Impreza and Legacy), and low-volume performance cars (the Impreza WRX and WRX STI), dealers have to address three different kinds of customers.

Outback customers, our local dealer told us one slow day last winter, are very different from the buyers of any other Subaru.

"They walk in--whether it's every three or five years, or maybe every 10 or 12, and tell me, 'OK, it's time for a new Outback--what do you have?'," he told us.

"I show them what's in stock, usually they'll pick the one closest to what they have--and then they write me a check and drive away."

He told us he sells fully two-thirds of his Outbacks for cash. No financing, though he usually takes the old and often very heavily-used Outback in trade as a courtesy.

These are owners who could buy any kind of car, including considerably pricier German or Japanese luxury crossover utility vehicles. They're not interested in those.

"They tell me they're happy with their Outbacks, they don't need all that fancy stuff--and that they'll see me again in 10 years or so," he said, chuckling.

You might say Subaru has swallowed the market that used to buy big square Volvo wagons one after the other.

We certainly understand that part.

Full disclosure: This author currently owns a 2000 Subaru Outback, and has had three previous Subarus dating back to the 1980s. They suit his particular set of usage needs well.


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