published Saturday, August 30th, 2014

Test Drive: Outbacks rock on mountain roads

The redesigned 2015 Outback is quieter and generally more refined than the outgoing vehicle.
The redesigned 2015 Outback is quieter and generally more refined than the outgoing vehicle.
Photo by Mark Kennedy.

FAST FACTS

* Model: 2015 Subaru Outback 2.5i Premium

* Exterior color: Carbide Gray Metallic

* Interior color: Black

* Engine: 2.5-liter four-cylinder boxer

* Horsepower: 175

* Transmission: continuously variable

* Fuel economy: 33 mpg highway, 25 mpg city

* Dealer: Kelly Subaru

* Price (as tested): $28,887

Kelly Subaru sales manager Steve Marlin reports an eager customer recently spotted a tractor-trailer truck hauling 2015 Outbacks over Monteagle Mountain and tailed it all the way to his Chattanooga dealership.

Wow. How's that for pent-up demand?

It certainly explains why the local Subaru dealership had only a couple of the new-for-2015 Outback wagons on the lot last week. It may be a few weeks yet before Outback supply catches up with demand -- a situation that's become common at Subaru stores when the company introduces hot new products. Most of the Outbacks in the pipeline at the moment are already spoken for, Marlin says.

With sales of more than 120,000 units last year, there's no more important model for the Japanese automaker than the Outback, the popular cross-over wagon that handles like a car and scampers up our mountain roads like a big cat.

Thankfully, we were able to snag a 2015 Outback 2.5i Premium for a test drive last week before it escaped the Kelly lot. Our tester was a Carbide Gray Metallic copy with a 2.5-liter, four-cylinder boxer engine -- so named because if you could peek inside the motor the horizontally opposed pistons would actually look like two boxers swapping punches.

Our 2.5i Premium tester, a mid-priced model, stickers for $28,887. Base prices start at $24,895 for a lightly-equipped four-cylinder model and range up to $32,995 for a six-cylinder Outback in Limited trim.

A little trivia for readers who lean green: Outbacks are assembled in Lafayette, Ind., at one of the world's few zero-waste automobile plants.

STYLING AND FEATURES

Subaru fans will notice some subtle, but important, visual improvement in the Outback's sheet metal for 2015. The grille is more vertical, the roof pillars have been slimmed down to improve visibility, and a redesigned interior has moved the needle on quality and comfort.

Looking at 2014 and 2015 Outbacks side by side, the new wagon looks more buttoned-down, more refined. Hood sculpting is less busy and the creases in the doors add character. There's still some plastic cladding on the rocker panels, an Outback trademark, but it's less prominent than before. Subaru even manages to make the roof rails on the Outback look attractive. Maybe it's just me, but an Outback almost looks naked without a bike rack or kayak lashed to the roof?

Instead of opting for oversized wheels for visual effect, our Outback tester had 17-inch rims which leave room in the wheel wells for higher profile tires that deliver a more compliant ride.

Our test car is equipped in 2.5i Premium trim which includes standard all-wheel drive, a rear-vision camera, heated front seats, satellite radio compatibility, wiper de-icer, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and 60-40 split rear seats.

Inside, the Outback has undergone significant improvements. If we didn't know better, there even seems to be a little German influence here as the dash has flattened out and the touch surfaces have become softer. Subarus have always been a bit Spartan inside -- it's part of their no-nonsense charm -- but better styling is what separates the Outback from its more pedestrian stablemate, the Forester small SUV.

DRIVING IMPRESSIONS

Sliding into the front seat of the Outback, I was reminded of the just-right feeling you get behind the wheel of a Subaru: the snug bucket seats, the intuitive dash switches and dials, the sumptuous handling of a vehicle with a low center of gravity -- credit that boxer engine.

I immediately headed for my favorite Subura test track, the W Road up Walden's Ridge. I've made it my mission in life to get a Subaru's wheels to spin on the switchbacks. Alas, I was foiled again. The Outback's standard all-wheel-drive sticks to the road with a tenacity that seems almost other-worldly.

Subaru's all-wheel-drive is easily among the best available. I once owned an Outback as my daily driver, and I actually looked forward to snowfall.

The Outback's standard CVT transmission makes mountain driving a pleasure, as it never has to hunt for the right gear. The engine seems to always be working exactly as hard as it needs to -- no less, no more. I know some mountain-dwellers like the added horsepower of a six-cylinder engine, but I found the 2.5-liter four cylinder felt perfect for the W Road ascents. Granted, this was under a light load with no passengers or gear in the back.

BOTTOM LINE

Subaru took a good wagon and made it better. More and more consumers seem to be coalescing around a brand that consistently offers great value, top-notch safety features and dependability. Come to think of it: What's not to love?

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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