In New Delhi, it's the rickshaw. In Bangkok, the tuk-tuk. In Taipei, it's the scooter. In Eastern Africa it's the Land Rover, and in the Middle East, it's the Land Cruiser. Every place around the globe has one vehicle that is so much a part of the backdrop, it might as well qualify as official landscape. And, for the imaginary country of Cascadia, located West of the Pacific Northwest's coastal mountains, that car is the Subaru Outback.
The theoretical flag of Cascadia is a trio of blue, white and green bars, with a proud Douglas fir emblazoned in the centre. What nonsense – the thing should be two-tone beige and green with the Latin inscription Planus Mundo Est: the world is flat. Or however you conjugate that.
The national animal would be the labradoodle. The national flower would be the daisy chain. The national anthem would feature a bluegrass banjo solo, and local militias would be equipped with cargo shorts and Birkenstocks. Basically, there are two types of Subaru owners: those of the turbocharged “hold my Red Bull and watch this,” persuasion, and those who enjoy birdwatching. The Outback is built for the latter.
Those are the stereotypes anyway, but the growing popularity of Subaru across all market segments means that Outback owners are increasingly less likely these days to drop granola crumbs between the seat cushions. There's still a whiff of socks-n'-sandals outdoorsyness to the car, but it's a slicker, more broadly appealing car than before. This one was the very top-end Limited Trim, which meant sumptuous leather interior, a 6.2-inch touchscreen display with swipe-and-pinch functionality, a 12-speaker Harman/Kardon audio system, and stylish matte-finish wood trim. This in comparison to my own decade-old Subaru, which features rattles, scuffed plastic, and cat hair. The first thing I did was jump out and double-check the badge to make sure I hadn't accidentally been handed a Lexus.
The Outback isn't Mad Max, or even Slightly Annoyed Max. It's Max Chill, the outdoor-loving Merrell enthusiast from central Oregon.
So that's a bit of a surprise, but from the outside, the Outback is still the same chunky wagon on stilts it always was. The new front end, shared with the Legacy, is a handsomer snout than before, and tide levels are at an all-time low on the black plastic cladding: no more two-tone beige.
Some might wonder why you wouldn't just buy a Forester instead, but there are a few reasons. Firstly, the Outback is a little longer in cargo capacity than the Fozzie, but more importantly, if you're a paddle-sport enthusiast, then the lower loading height for the integral roof rails on the Outback is a boon. Er, I should probably qualify what “paddle-sports” are – kayaking, canoeing, or SUPing.
Also, and this is a bit surprising, the Outback is flat-out nicer inside than the Forester. The fit and finish seem a little tighter, and around the back where the seats fold down, the Outback's cloth is just a little better attached. I like the black floor mats for those who are going to jump in and out of the lighter interior with grubby shoes, but the Outback seems nicely put together for less rugged exploits.
With lots of space, a family getaway seemed the perfect test for the vehicle. But then my parents said they'd babysit our two-year-old for a few days and we were outta there in a poof of dust, yelling “Freedom!” as if auditioning for Braveheart II: Beneath the Kilt.
Well, I say “outta there.” Truth be told, when pitted against a 1,600+ kilogram chassis plus luggage and two adults, the Outback's 175-hp 2.5L flat-four engine and Lineartronic CVT are somewhat overwhelmed. Or, if not overwhelmed, then whelmed to within an inch of their cubic capacity. The 3.6L flat-six's 256 hp and 247 lb-ft of torque sound like it'd be more than up to the task of punting the Outback down the road, but then again, that's driving this car all wrong.
The Outback isn't Mad Max, or even Slightly Annoyed Max. It's Max Chill, the outdoor-loving Merrell enthusiast from central Oregon. The old Legacy GT wagon gave you a bit of corner-carving to go with your cargo-hauling, but this car is a bit soft labradoodle of a thing, and rolls about a bit if you pitch it into a corner too hard. Just because your name is Ken doesn't mean that you're Ken Block, ye ken?
Speaking of labradoodles for the third time, the cargo area in the back of the Outback is as follows: roughly 100 cm in depth, 107 cm between the wheel wells, 75 cm in height to the lowest point, and a 65 cm load height for poochy to scramble up. The seats fold down to double the total capacity to just over 2,000 L and you could always attach a Thule box to the roof for your most irritating child.
Leaving Vancouver, we scarpered through the border at Aldergrove and were soon out on the I-5 in America: the land of cheap fuel. It's $3.79 a gallon in places, which roughly translates to a buck a litre compared to $1.41/L this morning in Vancouver Metro. Strewth.
Happily, the Outback's CVT works with a few aerodynamic tricks to achieve official fuel ratings of 9.4 L/100 km in-city and 7.1 highway. Real-world observed economy actually dipped into the 6s, thanks to the relaxed driving style that the big Subie encourages.
On the interstate, two things were immediately evident. First, despite this car having framed-in windows as opposed to the old frameless ones, there is quite a lot of wind-noise at speed. While the cabin is as nice as you might find in a Lexus, it's quite a bit louder than a luxury ride. However, the engine and transmission are fairly muted, as long as you don't ask too much of them.
Secondly, Subaru's new Starlink infotainment is probably the easiest system to use either I or my co-pilot had experienced outside of Uconnect. Voice commands worked. Connectivity worked. The smartphone-like pinch-and-swipe controls worked. The only fly in the ointment came when we actually reached Portland, at which point the tall buildings seemed to block the signal and the car thought we were driving through the middle of a four-storey mall. Hey, JC Penney's having a sale!
But that's getting ahead of things a bit. First we wound our way out to the Washington Coast, and down the water as the sun set, turning the marshes into rivers of molten gold. It was double yellows nearly the whole way, so while a WRX could have blitzed past in the short openings, with the Outback we just pulled over and glanced at the scenery from time to time, munching on a Clif bar.
We crossed into Astoria, an old cannery town, where I'd picked out an attic apartment through Airbnb. The local craft brewery was just a short stroll away, so we walked through the empty streets hand in hand, idly wondering if our child was missing us – when of course she wasn't because Grandma was loading her up with high-end lemon pastries.
The next morning, the Outback ventured out onto a local pier and its two occupants refuelled on coffee. Despite the previous day's long drive, the Subaru was still a third full, so we wandered out into a distinctly cloudier day, turning inland towards Portland as the traffic began to crowd up.
On the way into Weirdsville, USA, we stopped off at several McMenamins along the way to get our “passports” stamped. McMenamins is kind of an Oregon institution: having started out as a brewery, the company buys up historic buildings and tarts them up with the help of local craft artists. You get these delightfully odd structures filled with swirls and murals and hidden nooks; they're really neat, and the main one at Edgefield (an old poor farm) is a must-visit on the west coast.
Scavenger hunts and craft beer and collecting stamps – this is all very Subaru stuff. It's like geocaching, or peak-bagging, or fun-runs where you dress up like squids; it's a bit outside the norm, but surprisingly enjoyable. Then, in Gearhart, we headed out onto the actual beach, where the Outback stood as a single blip on the line between shore and sea and sky. You can drive up the coast for miles here, and the brief test of the Subaru's X-mode (a sub-40 km/h traction aid capable of braking a spinning wheel) made plowing through the soft dune sands a doddle.
Our hotel in Portland was nice enough – a Kimpton property based around wine in all its variety. They had a free-wine hour around five, and we traipsed on down to find a dozen crisply suited men and women chatting about stocks and bonds and politics. Meanwhile, across the street at the Hotel Monaco, another Kimpton, the kitschy lobby was thronged with all ages of folks from grandparents to new babies. Here, there was a paint-your-own picture booth, as much Pepperidge Farms Goldfish as you could eat, and beer. Sweet, sweet beer. Step over your own mother to get one and so on.
To me, this is a bit what the Outback is like. It's refined now, to a degree that a CGA could show up at a client's house in a 3.6R version and you'd know his firm was successful, but the charm is still there. It's a bit quirky and funky, there's the sense that its owner would be just as happy in a tent as in a hotel with high thread-count sheets. It's into food trucks, not so much fine dining.
I'd like to see the power-dense 2.0L turbocharged engine available as an alternative to the flat-six, but other than that, criticisms of the Outback are reduced to the poor placement of the clock, and the lack of keyless entry and push-button start on a thirty-six thousand dollar vehicle (you have to get the Technology package), and the irritating slowness of the power rear tailgate.
Other than that though, this thing's fair dinkum. Put a blue-ribbon bird on it, Subaru, well done.
Pricing: 2015 Subaru Outback
Base Price: $27,995 (2.5i)
Base Price: $35,895 (2.5i Limited)
A/C Tax: $100
Price as Tested: $37,645