If there were one station wagon success story worth telling, it would likely be that of the Subaru Outback. While wagon versions of the Taurus, Caprice, Camry, Accord, and countless others have disappeared, Subaru’s popular puppy dog hauler has remained relatively untouched by America’s waning interest in the iconic family-hauler.
Some say it’s because the Japanese automaker has rebranded the Outback as a crossover or CUV, even though it’s obviously still all wagon. Regardless of what you might call it, Subaru dealers can’t keep these cars on lots, and the success of the Outback proves that despite what you may have heard, the wagon’s days aren’t quite over.
So what’s the big deal? Is the Outback really the Starship Enterprise of station wagons? In order to grasp why this machine remains a hit, we took a top of the line 3.6R Touring model out for a week of practical use, and then subjected it to a muddy adventure in the pouring rain.
At nearly $40,000, the 3.6R Touring model is about six grand more than a loaded Golf Alltrack, and borderlines on crossing into Audi A4 Allroad Quattro territory with the right set of aftermarket options and a few additional factory add-ons. But Subaru isn’t concerned; people are still buying Outback Tourings regardless of price.
So is it good? Without a doubt. Does it run the risk of getting the guillotine like so many other station wagons that came before it? Absolutely not. Here are a few reasons why the latest and greatest Subaru Outback is worth the money, along with a handful of arguments regarding why it won’t be the ideal option for everyone.
Put the Outback side-by-side with its European competition and its 8.7-inches of raised ride height suddenly seems proportionally appropriate next to the Volvo V60, Audi A4 Allroad, and Golf Alltrack. Like the XV Crosstrek, the Outback blends rugged styling, a ride height that’s just right, and an aesthetic design language that is appealing to a point. We found the lifted war wagon to be an attractive addition to our driveway, and despite a few small styling missteps, we feel it hits all the right off- and on-road notes.
Exterior pros and cons
+ 18-inch alloy wheels, silver lower rocker trim pieces and center-mounted front lip, minimal amounts of chrome, and a Touring exclusive “Brilliant Brown” paint make an attractive picture.
+ A sturdy roof rack, tough-looking fog light surrounds and lower rear bumper plastics, and a sill protector plate all add purpose-built curb appeal.
+ 8.7-inches of ground clearance, rugged skid plates, sharply angled approach and departure angles, and all-terrain truck tires mean one thing: Camping season is upon us, no matter what season it actually is.
– Keyless entry on front doors only, and if you let your Starlink services expire, warming up the car will suddenly become a chore. One must manually eject the key from the fob, lock the driver door, and then deal with keys, kids, groceries, pet leashes, and so on when it comes time to unlock everything.
This wagon has “3.6R” on the rear hatch for a reason. With six-cylinder vitality mating with horizontally-opposed precision, the 3.6 liter flat six makes 256 horsepower and 247 pound-feet of torque. It may not boast the biggest numbers in the segment, but the Outback does offer a nice linear transition as you climb from down-low grunt to top-end tempest. We like that both X-Mode and downhill descent control come standard. While some may not care for the incessant CVT whine or its bland performance feel, we found this powertrain to be perfectly suited to this chassis, especially once the paddles shifters were engaged.
Powertrain pros and cons
+ Top marks for balancing power with efficiency and smoothness. 256 horsepower and 247 pound-feet of torque overlap nicely, 20 city/27 highway mile per gallon ratings are competitively placed, while acceleration and cruising are both confident and quiet.
+ Standard X-Mode and descent control: Two things that will safely get you out of sticky situation and safely back to the campground.
+ From a fun perspective manual mode is more enjoyable than one might think, with paddle shifts offering respite from CVT monotony.
– No terrain selection options, competition offers more powerful motors, and no hybrid option.
Out of all of the Subarus we’ve encountered, the 3.6R Touring has the nicest cabin. It’s leather trimmed, heated, and loaded with classy wood finishes, a touch most buyers would not expect to find in a Subaru. 3.6R Touring models feature unique Java Brown perforated leather-trimmed upholstery with ivory contrast stitching, and audiophiles will dig the standard 12 speaker, 576-watt Harman Kardon premium sound system.
The Outback also boasts 73.3 cubic feet of cargo volume once the seats are folded, a set of cargo-area release levers for easy unloading, and a rugged cargo cover for transporting things like dirty dogs and firewood. It’s an interior that’s smart, sturdy, and surprisingly swanky.
Interior pros and cons
+ Both the 10-way adjustable power driver’s seat with its 2-position memory function and the 4-way power passenger seat come heated and are quite comfortable. Other nice touches include a heated leather steering wheel, ornate wood trim, and materials that borderline on being luxury-grade.
+ Eight cup holders, ergonomic pockets at every turn, underfloor cargo-areas and storage bins, and charging ports aplenty make this a real road trip winner.
+ A height adjustable power liftgate, 143.6 cubic feet of interior space, and quick-release levers mean hauling stuff is easier than ever.
– No ventilated seats, some knobs feel loose, wasted space in between seats, and due to their position, viewing the series of buttons to the left of the steering wheel requires taking one’s eyes off the road for long periods of time.
Tech and safety
Subaru’s Starlink multimedia system just keeps getting better and better, and once paired with the latest Eyesight safety suite, it turns the Outback into a safe and smart daily driver. Manually controlling your car via smartphone, checking news, navigation, weather, and everything else contained within the center stack is easier than ever, regardless of whether you prefer Apple or Android connectivity.
There’s also Siri Eyes Free for cutting down on distracted driving, the EyeSight suite features the latest autonomous tech for keeping you out of harm’s way, and it will even let you know if a car in front of you has moved from a standstill. Altogether, this earns the Outback a Top Safety Pick+ rating from the IIHS.
Tech and safety pros and cons
+ The complete Subaru Eyesight suite comes standard on Touring models, so lane keep assist, variable cruise control, and all manner of monitoring system earns the Outback a Top Safety Pick+ rating from IIHS.
+ 7-inch touchscreen is vibrant, well laid out, responsive, supports pinch-to-zoom touches, and comes with three years of complimentary SiriusXM sports, weather, stocks, and more.
+ Phone syncing is a breeze with Starlink, and automatically pairs when you start the car again, picking up right where you left off.
– Overly sensitive safety systems fire-off loud warnings at the slightest sign of trouble, and both adaptive cruise and lane keep assist can be a bit too forceful at times.
The Lineartronic CVT transmission in the Outback offers a manual mode that allows drivers to snap through six fabricated “gears,” and with the pedal to the floor jets you to 60 in just a hair over 7 seconds. While CVT gearboxes typically tend to be less than exciting, we feel that the paddle-shifting Subie will offer a drive experience that’s engaging enough for the average Outback buyer. The 3.6R badge also means the big, horizontally-opposed six-cylinder engine feels plenty spry beneath the hood of the Outback.
Zipping down the interstate is surprisingly sophisticated feeling too. After four hours on the open road we still found the Touring’s leather seats to be incredibly comfortable, and admired at how easy it was to locate and toggle controls as we saw fit. Road noise sounded muffled to the point of being Lexus-grade, the powertrain remained both quiet and acute, and the combination of having a raised suspension and all-terrain tires made bump absorption feel like an Outback specialty.
Another big surprise for us was the Outback’s agility. Despite having a ride height that’s taller than most SUV options, handling remains nimble due to the Outback’s rigid construction and well-balanced steering system. Being a bit on the taller side also gives drivers outstanding outward visibility, and once off-road returns an impressive amount of prowess, especially when in “X-Mode.” A lot of engineering time was set aside for the development of the Outback’s independent suspension and AWD capabilities, which is not always easy to find in a vehicle that’s also delivers sophisticated highway mannerisms.
Primary drive complaints include a brake pedal feel that has a bit too much give, and the angled position of lane departure warnings, blind-spot monitoring, collision alerts, and various other controls. This means drivers must take their eyes off the road for prolonged periods of time in order to hunt for a particular button. While we found Subaru’s Eyesight safety system to be a bit overly sensitive and noisy, it slowed, accelerated, and nudged our Outback around without hesitation and even notified us if the car in front of us had moved forward at a stoplight.
We have to hand it to Subaru, it really has turned the Outback into a comfortable and capable automobile, and their latest “Confidence in Motion” slogan could not be more appropriate for the average 3.6R owner. The Touring model in particular offers plentiful amounts of driving confidence thanks to its broad sweep of safety features and capable all-wheel drive system, which gives lifted wagon fans even more reason to roam.
It’s an all-inclusive cruise ship that’s a station wagon disguised and branded as a CUV, and we find that it makes a fantastic alternative to SUV ownership. While door lock woes, interior layout misses, and hyperactive safety systems certainly don’t win points, this fully loaded Outback remains a strong contender in the small but competitive station wagon segment. It may not be as attractive as the Volvo V90 or as feisty as the Volkswagen Golf Alltrack, but with sales numbers this strong, Subaru shouldn’t feel too concerned.
So if you don’t mind dropping $40,000 on a Subaru and then waiting to take ownership, then definitely make the 3.6R Touring version of the Outback a must-drive vehicle. It’s not the most exhilarating machine in the station wagon segment, but that’s not why people buy Outbacks. Reliability, safety, practicality, and symmetrical all-wheel drive agility are this machine’s specialty, plus with a cabin of this caliber, it’s hard to not like this top-shelf Subaru.