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BBC Autos

Subaru Outback, the unlikely show-stopper

About the author

Deputy editor of BBC Autos, Jonathan was formerly the editor of The New York Times' Wheels blog. His automotive writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Details, Surface, Intersection and Design Observer. He has an affinity for the Citroën DS and Toyota pickup trucks of the early 1990s.

2015 Subaru Outback

(Greg Jarem)

“Something you should never do is mess with success.” So spoke Tom Doll, president of Subaru of America, on 17 April at the New York auto show.

Fuji Heavy Industries, Subaru’s parent, nevertheless messed with the Outback – a strong-selling if awkwardly styled all-wheel-drive family mover – and the results are decidedly clean. In fact they’re downright handsome.

The Outback is once more a wagon, a label once embraced by Subaru but shunned in favour of the marketing-friendly “crossover” during the car's fourth generation. Gone are that model's excessive plastic cladding, blocky bodywork and drab interior. In their place is a vehicle with all the attributes that made the Outback the de facto conveyance of buyers with all-weather needs but SUV aversions: utility, quality, value and looks.

Granted, Subaru isn’t rushing to call the Outback a wagon.

“It’s less SUV-like, more grown-up,” allowed Dominick Infante, a Subaru of America spokesman. Translation: Subaru will call the 2015 Outback, whose circa-1995 ancestor was memorably branded “the world’s first sport-utility wagon” by Australian actor-spokesman Paul Hogan, anything but a wagon.

The Outback has nearly 9in of ground clearance, and exhaust pipes have been tucked underneath the rear approach to avoid scrapes during the occasional trail run. Matte-charcoal plastic cladding outlines the prominent fog lamps but does not mar the body sides like on the fourth-gen model, letting the sheet metal breathe a bit. Headlamps on higher-spec models are outlined by bright filaments coiled like twine around the main lenses. A neat crease now defines the beltline of the car, finishing tucked and tight at the tail lamp. The doors shut with the kind of Vacu-Seal whoomp common of a Bentley. The Outback has indeed grown up.

Nothing changes under the hood, with a 2.5-litre 175-horsepower flat four-cylinder and a 3.6-litre 256hp in-line six-cylinder carrying over from ‘14. EPA fuel-economy figures have yet to be verified, but Subaru maintains that the four-cylinder model will achieve a 33mpg rating on the highway, aided by a more fuel-efficient continuously variable transmission. Real-world around-town mileage in the low 20s is common for the '14 models, though it has been known to dip into the teens in mountainous regions. These engines can be thirsty, betraying the politics broadcast by many a Subaru driver's bumper stickers.

In typical Subaru fashion, the interior breaks no aesthetic ground while looking utterly inoffensive. The touch points, from headliner to carpets, are of noticeably improved materials, with a richer wood grain on the displayed 3.6R’s dash. Subaru’s EyeSight passive safety technology has performed well in tests conducted by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS), a non-profit funded by the insurance industry, and it too carries over.

Though its engineering might suggest otherwise, the Outback has been utterly transformed. Call it a wagon, a crossover, the anti-SUV or a floor wax – it’ll go about its work either way.

2015 Subaru Outback

(Subaru of America)

2015 Subaru Outback

(Subaru of America)