Car Reviews First Tests

2018 Subaru Outback 2.5i First Test Review: Safe, Slow, and Spacious

Testing Subaru's latest (crossover-wagon) hybrid

Testing Subaru's latest (crossover-wagon) hybrid

SUVs project a different impression about their owners than cars, but what do you do when everyone on your block is saying more or less the same thing? You go Outback. For years, the Subaru Outback has served drivers who want a spacious and capable ride that’s ready for any weather or road condition—like an SUV—but in a body style that’s not the same as the standard crossover shape an increasing number of buyers choose. We tested the newly refreshed 2018 Subaru Outback to find out whether the automaker’s updates have improved the crossoverlike raised-wagon’s appeal.

All Outbacks except the top Touring trim get chunky-looking and functional retractable crossbars (the Limited trim is shown here). The Touring gets lower-profile silver rails and offers available detachable crossbars from Thule.

Before the three-row Ascent crossover arrives, the Outback sits at the top of Subaru’s crossover lineup. The midsize two-row crossoverlike wagon (or wagonlike crossover, depending on how you see it) has standard all-wheel drive and is offered with four- and six-cylinder powertrains both mated to a CVT. Most buyers stick with the more affordable and efficient flat-four, so we tested a 2018 Outback 2.5i Limited to see how its performance matches up to other wagons and crossovers in the four-cylinder model’s $27,000-$37,500 USD price range.

Like the prerefresh car, the Outback 2.5i remains one of the slowest cars in its class. Powered by a naturally aspirated 175-hp flat-four engine with 174 lb-ft of torque, the 2018 Outback 2.5i accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 9.4 seconds, which is a tenth quicker than our 2016 Outback 2.5i long-termer but slower than a 2016 Forester 2.5i Limited we’ve tested (8.7 seconds), about a second slower than a front-drive 2018 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport 2.4 and an AWD 2018 Santa Fe Sport 2.0T (8.3 and 8.4 seconds, respectively) and nearly two seconds slower than a 2017 Honda CR-V 1.5T AWD (7.5 seconds). No one is drag racing Subaru Outbacks, but we’d still like to see the next-gen Outback be a tad quicker with its base engine. The extra acceleration will help when entering a freeway from a short onramp or when making a quick right turn from one city street to another.

That won’t be a huge concern to most Outback 2.5i buyers, but the touchy throttle tip-in might be. As with the pre-2018 model, the Outback 2.5i’s throttle pedal is too sensitive when you first step on it, and accelerating smoothly from a stop with a moderate amount of throttle is more difficult than it should be. Having said that, the driving experience is otherwise good, with a comfortable ride and good steering that communicates, but the Outback never feels smaller than it is or encourages spirited winding-road driving. The engine mostly keeps to the background except at wide-open throttle, when it gets much louder.

On the track, testing director Kim Reynolds said the 2018 Outback 2.5i exhibited “resolute understeer” and was “a rather nondescript thing to drive,” but commented that turn-in was “clearer than I would have predicted.”

On the Motor Trend figure-eight course, which measures different driving characteristics such as acceleration, braking, cornering, and the transitions between them, the Outback 2.5i turned in a 28.3-second time at 0.58 average g. That’s about even with the two previously mentioned Hyundai Santa Fe Sports (2.4 FWD and 2.0T AWD) but slightly slower than the 2016 Subaru Forester 2.5i (27.8 seconds at 0.60 average g) and 2017 Honda CR-V (27.9 seconds at 0.60 average g). From 60 mph, the Outback came to a stop in an acceptable 126 feet, though both Reynolds and associate road test editor Erick Ayapana noticed a lot of dive under hard braking.

If you want a two-row crossover with great safety ratings, definitely add the 2018 Outback to your short list. The 2018 model has a five-star overall rating from the NHTSA, and the Subaru is an IIHS 2017 Top Safety Pick+ (when equipped with EyeSight active safety tech), excelling in every test as well as or better than its competitors. The Outback even received a Good+ rating (the highest rating available) for the LATCH ease-of-use test, thanks to the 2018 model’s revised LATCH anchors for simpler child-seat installation.

Even if you don’t use the Outback’s capable standard all-wheel-drive system for off-roading, the 8.7 inches of ground clearance will help you avoid scraping steep driveways or raised shopping-center entrances, as we noted in our long-term verdict of a 2016 model.

EyeSight is available on the Premium and Limited trims and standard on the top Touring trim. One of EyeSight’s features can automatically apply the brakes to avoid or lessen the impact of a collision the system senses, and another feature can keep the vehicle from veering out of its lane. The lane keeping assist system worked well in the real world, and we appreciate that Subaru offers a reverse automatic braking system. Like front collision auto-brake systems, the reverse system (available on Limited, standard on Touring) can be helpful when you’re backing out of a driveway or mall parking space with limited visibility, taking things one step further than the rear cross-traffic alert systems offered on lower-trim Subarus and from other automakers. The Outback’s adaptive cruise control system works well and could be used on a regular basis, but I found it too aggressive when pulling away from a stop in traffic. Even so, the feature proved useful when I spent nearly half an hour trying to enter a Disneyland parking structure. Because the Outback doesn’t have an auto-hold braking feature like other cars with electronic parking brakes, I engaged the adaptive cruise control, rested my feet, and flicked the resume button any time the car ahead inched forward.

The 2018 Outback is spacious inside, with plenty of rear-seat space for outboard passengers, soft front seatbacks, and space under the front seats for rear passengers’ feet. The controls to recline those rear seats are located midway up the side of the seats, and there are two USB outlets front and rear for all but the base Outback trim. Helpfully, the 60/40-split rear seats can be folded down from the cargo area with a quick pull of a latch. The crossover-wagon offers 35.5 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats in place and 73.3 cubic feet when they’re folded down. That compares to 31.5-34.4/68.5-74.7 cubic feet on the Subaru Forester and 37.6-39.2/75.8 for the Honda CR-V. Higher trims of the Outback facilitate access to the cargo area with a power liftgate, which can be programmed to remember how high you want it to open but lacks a hands-free opening feature such as the one on our long-term Hyundai Tucson that doesn’t require waiving your foot to open like some systems.

The Outback’s seating position is higher than your average car or wagon but not quite as high as some SUVs.

Move to the front seats, and you’ll find the 2018 Outback is a pleasant space to spend a commute. The materials are good, the faux matte wood looks decent, and the armrests between driver and front passenger as well as the ones on the doors are among the most comfortable you’ll feel in any car at any price. We wish the front seats had more aggressive bolstering, and maybe a next-gen Outback will shift the central infotainment screen higher on the center stack for better visibility. Subaru makes an easy-to-use 8.0-inch screen standard on every trim except the base model, which gets a 6.5-inch screen, yet even that trim gets Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. With those systems, as long as your compatible phone has service, you can voice-command text messages, easily get directions to places for which you only know the name and city, and make calls quickly. If you stick with the Outback’s integrated TomTom-based system, redundant directions can appear at the top of your instrument cluster screen (in addition to displaying on the 8.0-inch screen itself), and a pinch/pull zoom feature works just like it does on your phone. Owners of pre-2018 Outbacks can rejoice in a basic but cool update—the addition of automatic locking/unlocking doors with a few customizable settings. Also, the car’s tire pressure monitoring system now displays readouts for each individual tire, which increases convenience and safety.

Our Outback 2.5i Limited tester included a new-for-2018 option (available on 2.5i Limited and standard on more expensive trims): LED headlights that aim in the direction you’re turning. It’s a neat feature on a nonluxury-branded vehicle, and although the LED headlights are appreciated, our tester had a recurring issue in which a blinking alert in the instrument cluster communicated that the steering-responsive headlights were disabled—it’s unclear what caused this issue on our tester.

The 2018 Outback isn’t as quick as its competitors, but the four-cylinder model does boast a driving range of nearly 600 miles (966 km), thanks to a large 18.5-gallon gas tank and EPA ratings of 25/32 mpg (9.4/7.3 L/100km). That’s well beyond what you’ll get in the all-wheel-drive Forester, CR-V, or Santa Fe Sport. If you’re set on a wagon and need all-wheel drive, there’s also the new Buick Regal TourX and the smaller, quicker, and less efficient Volkswagen Golf Alltrack.

In the 2018 Outback’s lineup, our $35,695 USD 2.5i Limited with EyeSight hits the sweet spot, thanks to feature omissions on the Premium trim. The 2.5i Limited costs less than the 2.5i Touring—which adds gorgeous Java Brown seats—but more than the base and Premium trims that lack a power passenger seat and hands-free keyless access. We hope Subaru can make the latter feature standard on the Premium trim in the next model year or two. Once you use the feature on a daily basis, you’ll never know how you lived without it.

The 2018 Subaru Outback is as well-rounded as it’s ever been. The interior is spacious and filled with high-quality materials, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard on every trim, and the crossover-wagon’s “I’m different” appeal is matched by a decent-sized cargo area, capable all-wheel drive, and retractable crossbars. Where the story hasn’t changed is its frustratingly aggressive throttle tip-in behavior and the 2.5i’s slow acceleration. Quickness isn’t at the top of the list for consumers in this segment, but the Honda CR-V is quicker and offers more cargo space yet is just as efficient. The Forester is worth considering, too, especially if its available enormous glass roof impresses you. Neither of those crossovers, however, have the otherness that support the Outback’s position as one of Subaru’s best-sellers year after year.

2018 Subaru Outback 2.5i Limited
BASE PRICE $33,610
PRICE AS TESTED $35,695
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, AWD, 5-pass, 4-door wagon
ENGINE 2.5L/175-hp/174-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve flat-4
TRANSMISSION Cont variable auto
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 3,720 lb (56/44%)
WHEELBASE 108.3 in
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 188.8 x 72.4 x 59.0 in
0-60 MPH 9.4 sec
QUARTER MILE 17.2 sec @ 82.6 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 126 ft
LATERAL ACCELERATION 0.78 g (avg)
MT FIGURE EIGHT 28.3 sec @ 0.58 g (avg)
EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON 25/32/28 mpg
ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY 135/105 kW-hrs/100 miles
CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB 0.70 lb/mile