Subaru introduced the Outback, its all-wheel-drive SUV-style wagon, in 1994 as a variation of the Legacy.Outback became a separate vehicle in 1996, replacing the Legacy Wagon, and included sedan and wagon versions; now it’s only offered in wagon form – more technically a crossover utility vehicle these days.The Outback entered its fourth generation in 2008, then was slightly reworked for 2013, with a new base 2.5-liter boxer four-cylinder engine and front fascia, plus a stiffer body and suspension.There are six trim levels, five of them with the 2.5-liter engine and either a six-speed manual transmission or chain-driver continuously variable automatic; and the 3.6R Limited, with a 3.6-liter boxer engine and five-speed automatic. Boxer is the designation for a horizontally opposed cylinder layout, and is a hallmark of Subaru.For 2014, starting prices range from $23,495-$32,095. As with all Subarus, all-wheel drive is standard across the board.There are lots of options, from illuminated sill plates ($365) to a combination package with navigation, moon roof and Eyesight Driver-assist System ($4,040).EPA estimates range from 17-24 mpg in the city to 25-30 mpg on the highway. My 3.6R Limited tester was rated at 17/25 and I managed 19.5 mpg with lots of stop-and-go rush-hour mileage. Information for miles-to-empty and miles per gallon was displayed on a small digital screen on top of the dash.My Outback’s 3.6-liter engine had 256 horsepower and 247 foot-pounds of torque, and it also came the symmetrical all-wheel drive and the five-speed automatic with paddle shifters.The exterior was Venetian Red Pearl, and it had Off Black leather seating, wood-grain trim on doors and dash, and the combination package.EyeSight is like a second pair of eyes using cameras mounted at the top of the windshield and monitoring the road ahead for potentially dangerous situations. If an imminent collision is detected, EyeSight provides audio/visual warnings and is capable of applying automatic braking when necessary. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gives Subaru EyeSight the highest rating for front crash prevention systems.Key features of EyeSight include pre-collision braking/brake assist, pre-collision throttle management (reduces acceleration), adaptive cruise control (maintains safe distance from vehicle in front), lane-departure warning and lead-vehicle start alert (lets the driver know when traffic is moving again). There are lots of “chimes” and I don’t usually have enough time in any vehicle to become accustomed to which sound applies to each warning.Pre-collision braking/brake assist and throttle management were surprising at first as my Outback slowed unexpectedly without my input when a car pulled out from a parking lot into my path. The “lead vehicle start alert” gently reminded me to “move on” in stop-and-go traffic.The navigation system with Aha Infotainment (a cloud-based platform that organizes your favorite content into personalized, live “radio” stations using software on your smartphone and operated by controls and displays in the vehicle) had lots of folders and pages, making programming time-consuming and sometimes confusing.Directions were easy to follow on-screen and audibly. My Outback had a clear, deep masculine voice (I named him Bruce).Satellite radio was included in the package with SiriusXM NavTraffic, touch-screen operation, and voice-activated controls. The standard audio system is a 440-watt Harman Kardon with nine speakers, USB port, iPod connection, and Bluetooth hands-free phone.The other parts of the option package were a laminated UV green-tinted power moon roof, rear vision camera, and auto-dimming rearview mirror with universal garage/gate opener.Outback seats five, four comfortably, with 43 inches of legroom in the front and 37.8 inches in the rear. Legroom in the middle rear is compromised by the floor hump, and the seat is hard. Front headroom is 40.8 inches and rear headroom is 39.3 inches.The rear seats include LATCH for child safety seats, with tether hooks mounted in the ceiling above the cargo area; the front seats are heated and have seat side-impact air bags.Outback also has side-curtain air bags and advanced frontal air bags; heated outside mirrors; and windshield wiper deicers. Thanks to the latest wave of the “Polar Vortex” of 2014, I needed the wiper deicer to loosen the blades frozen to the windshield.The rear cargo area is 34.3 cubic feet and can be increased to 71.3 cubic feet by folding the 65/35 split rear seatbacks, which also recline. The cargo area is deeper and wider than many larger SUVs, helpful for bulkier items such as a large stroller, a desk or a rocking chair.A removable rubber tray protects the carpeted cargo mat. The tray and mat can be removed to open up more storage in the floor.The all-wheel drive allows the Outback to handle limited off-road driving with confidence, but there is no low-range gearing for serious trail driving. The Outback is more nimble than a larger crossover, and therefore more capable off-road. The 8.7 inches of ground clearance is higher than many CUVs, while the step-in height feels more like a sedan. Adjustable roof rails can accommodate even long items such as kayaks, with movable rear cross bars.On the road, Outback handles like a spirited sedan, with plenty of power on acceleration, and confidence in the curves. Acceleration from a standstill could be somewhat touchy, however – not always smooth.For $36,960, including $825 destination charges and options, my Outback 3.6R Limited tester delivered a family-friendly, functional, versatile, eye-catching vehicle.
The automotive columns of Emma Jayne Williams appear weekly in the Star-Telegram. Contact her at email@example.com.