After touring Subaru’s zero-landfill plant in Lafayette, Indiana last year, where vehicles like the Outback and the new Impreza are built, it’s interesting testing out the automobiles we watched being manufactured. For years, Subaru sales have seen an unprecedented spike in popularity, and while talk surrounding WRX, BRZ, and STI performance models are the glamorous topics of discussion, it’s sales of cars like the Outback that keep the lights on.
While a high-rolling, off-road-ready, $38,000 approach to a nearly extinct station wagon segment seems like a foolhardy direction in theory, Subaru has seen unprecedented success with the Outback, as well as with its lower-slung Legacy brother. Engineered to be an equally capable alternative to the increasingly popular CUV, sales of the Outback have gotten to the point where dealerships are having trouble keeping them in stock, and after driving the top end 3.6R version, we can see why.
From an appearance angle, the Outback has kept a lot of the same lines over the years. Roof racks, raised ride heights, contrasting lower plastic trim guards, a raked rear hatch, and round fog lamps are all still present, but in a more finely sculpted and attractive form. The 3.6R Limited in particular has some really nice touches, and although the all-new Touring trim trumps it in certain ways, we feel that most Outback buyers will find this model to offer more than enough appeal and practicality.
Powered by a 3.6-liter horizontally-opposed six-cylinder engine that comes attached to a Lineartronic CVT gearbox, the 257-horsepower 100% Japan-built drivetrain propels the wagon to the tune of 27 miles per gallon highway and 20 city EPA ratings, for a 22 MPG average. While buyers can opt for a less potent four-cylinder, 2.5-liter that gets 175 horsepower, we found that the larger engine complemented the chassis nicely, and our only regret was that we were unable to see what this drivetrain was capable of tackling off-road with its symmetrical all-wheel drive setup.
Jaunting down dusty country roads offered a pretty good feel for the Outback’s fully independent suspension and brakes, both of which offered cabin calm, as corners and dirt encrusted side roads alike were traversed. Steering inputs felt acute for something so far off the ground and 4×4 focused, and even on rough terrain unpleasant noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH) were masked nicely. Although we would prefer to have a spunky six-speed manual gearbox over paddle shifters and a CVT, the way in which the Outback’s 3.6-liter engine and transmission work in harmony with the vehicle’s suspension and weight distribution seemed nearly spot on.
But what really makes the 3.6R Limited version of the Outback such a hit in our book is its finely honed interior. Featuring 35.5 cubic feet of rear stow space, and a whopping 73.3 cubic feet of room with the second row folded flat, the Outback is the undisputed king of best-in-class cabin storage, with rugged rubber mats aplenty awaiting muddy hiking boots and canines alike.
Having been disappointed by Subaru’s approach to quality interior components in the past, it’s exciting for us to see a two-tone cabin with softer materials, a heated rear bench, Lexus-grade wood trim inserts, and a sharply split instrument cluster. Digital color driver read-outs, cushy armrests, an intuitive and responsive touchscreen, and dual zone climate controls add even more to the Limited’s bottom line, as automatic windows and an electronic e-brake round out a few of our favorites.
For an additional fee, buyers can get one of Subaru’s many packages, with the $1,595 option No. 23 offering an active tech suite that starts with a 7-inch infotainment touchscreen, but primarily focuses on things like automatic braking, adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, and pre-collision avoidance. Those who are disinterested in this addition need not worry though, as the Limited’s standard safety features are also quite numerous, and include things like cross traffic alerts, blind spot monitoring, and lane change assist.
According to The Wall Street Journal, “Subaru has the highest owner loyalty among major automakers in the U.S.,” and after driving the 2017 Outback 3.6R Limited (albeit briefly), we can see why. What was once deemed rugged, endearing, and relatively unrefined has retained the first two descriptors and ditched the third for a more competitive approach to appealing to wagon and CUV buyers. For a brand that is struggling to keep up with demand, things are looking better for both Subaru and its practical Outback, with each passing generation giving buyers further reason to believe that vehicles like this truly are “confidence in motion.”