The rest of the country might think we’re crazy, but Southern Californians think that snow is awesome. We regularly bask in some of the most enviable and temperate climates in the world, but in winter, we’ll drive for hours to trod upon, throw, and play in the white stuff, even when it’s been bespoiled by road grime, diesel fumes and whatever that yellow stuff is.
And while the snow gods disappointed us with a shallower layer of powder than usual, along with high temperatures to melt what there was on the weekend of our trip, we headed north from our suburban Los Angeles domicile and made our annual trek to take in some of the white stuff. A cozy cabin in the woods? Check. Snow gear? Check. A 2018 Subaru Outback? Check.
We specifically chose the Outback as our road-trip vehicle for its cargo capacity and all-wheel drive capability. It looked the part, too. With its gray lower cladding, raised suspension and high-profile roof racks, the Outback appears ready for adventure. This year, it also has a revised front grille, new front and rear lights, and reworked bumpers. Not a huge difference, but it looks pretty handsome.
The Outback’s front seats were very comfortable, with enough thigh support and bolstering to hold you in, and decent power adjustments for the driver. The front passenger, however, had to make do with sitting lower in the vehicle because there is no height adjustment to be had at any price.
Along with the two kids and a booster seat, the rear seat also held various down puffer jackets, a camera bag and a small cooler with snacks to ward off peckishness, so things were a bit tight, a feeling exacerbated by their clunky snow boots. Their father issued stern warnings against getting things dirty or messy back there, but that’s hardly realistic given the muddy conditions and the kids’ general clumsiness.
Still, the black leather of our test vehicle cleaned up quite nicely when we had to return it to Subaru. It sure made the cabin dark and boring, though. I prefer a lighter interior, like the available Warm Ivory color that Subaru offers. Or maybe the new-for-2018 Titanium Gray hue.
When it comes to function, the Outback delivers, with some finagling. Its 35.5 cu.-ft. of cargo space behind the second-row seats swallowed up several suitcases, duffle bags and a couple of sleds. It took some Tetris-like maneuvering, but we made it all fit, with no impediment to rear visibility.
We were a bit perplexed as to the 60/40-split rear seat configuration, as logic would dictate that a 40/20/40-split would be the obvious choice for those toting skis or snowboards. An aftermarket ski rack for the roof should definitely be on the purchase list for ski or snowboard enthusiasts.
Without the kids along, the rear seats fold down to reveal 73.3 cu.-ft. of space, which is about what you get in the larger compact crossover SUVs on the market.
Highway 395 is considered the backbone of California, trailing along the edges of both the Mojave Desert and the Sierra Nevada mountains along some of the most spectacular displays caused by the fomenting cauldron that is Planet Earth. It’s also a ribbon with countless frayed threads of deserted roads where you can safely explore the limits of your vehicle.
Unfortunately, none of this proved tempting, as the Outback 2.5i’s 175-horsepower, 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine often felt outmatched by the demands of my right foot. Weighing in anywhere from 3,622 to 3,902 lbs. (depending on how it’s equipped), the Outback is not a lightweight, and with a full house and all of my family’s snow-adventure accouterments on board, the engine regularly labored on our trip.
In almost every situation this Subaru felt underpowered and wheezy, and I dearly wished for some force-fed air or the thrust provided by two additional cylinders. This was especially true as we gained elevation. I would definitely spring for the 3.6R model and its 256-horsepower 6-cylinder engine if I were in the market for an Outback, but really, Subaru should strap a turbocharger on the 4-cylinder and call it the 2.5T.
Further irritation with the engine surfaced at the fuel pumps. The EPA says that the 2.5i should get 32 mpg on the highway. On our trip, the Outback got 27.5 mpg, which is closer to the rating for the more powerful 3.6R model. That’s disappointing, though it is worth noting that the car was loaded down with people and stuff.
Subaru touts numerous changes for 2018 that are intended to reduce road noise. These modifications are effective at quelling some of the racket, but not all of it.
Standard all-wheel drive is one of the most appealing traits of any Subaru (save for the BRZ), and we were a bit disappointed that we didn’t have the chance to test its enhanced grip, as the roads at our destination were as dry as the desert.
We did, however, seek out a dirt road with some gnarly washes, and the Outback’s AWD, paired with its 8.7 inches of ground clearance, neatly dispatched of it with zero drama. Enhanced traction and off-pavement abilities are pretty much why the Outback exists, and it shines in this regard.
Also new for 2018, Subaru has tweaked the suspension to provide a smoother ride. Although this latest Outback is indeed suppler over pavement anomalies, it also exhibited more wallow than I recall from the stiffer previous versions.
Usually, Subarus are good at transmitting road feel to give you greater information about the road surface, a trait I like about them. Now, while the new-for-2018 lightened steering and softened suspension work together for a more comfortable ride, it comes at the expense of communication from the road.
My Outback test vehicle was the 2.5i Limited ($35,695 including the $915 destination charge), and was equipped with useful features like a power liftgate, a sunroof, and a navigation system. Subaru has improved the functionality of the Outback’s infotainment system, and it’s a lot faster and more responsive than previous iterations.
While you can’t control the weather, or other drivers, you can give yourself the best odds possible of surviving a crash, and you can take it for granted that Subarus are engineered to achieve the very best crash test safety scores in case of a collision.
Of course, it’s even better to avoid a crash in the first place, and my test car was bristling with the latest in active safety technologies. The EyeSight safety package gives you adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, and a lane departure warning and keeping system, among other items. My test vehicle also had blind spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert systems.
Subaru also supplies the Outback with an automatic reverse braking system, and if I don’t reverse slowly out of my sloped driveway it slams on the brakes even when no threat exists. This is, as you might imagine, startling and nerve-wracking, an unpleasant way to start your commute.
This is the second Outback in which I’ve experienced this phenomenon. It did not occur as frequently this time around, thanks to the redesigned rear bumper and modified sensor placement, but on the three occasions that it did activate, it rekindled frustration. The system turns on automatically each time you start the engine, so you have to remember to turn it off every time you enter the vehicle using the RAB Off button on the Starlink infotainment display. Alternatively, you just need to slow your roll.
Despite its flaws, the 2018 Outback was a great companion for our trip. Its main strengths of AWD combined with significant ground clearance, top-notch safety ratings and technologies, and undeniable practicality remains present in abundance.
Shortly after our return to L.A., the Sierras got dumped on with several feet of fresh snow. While our family can’t just up and take off for the mountains any time we feel like it, those who have the flexibility in their schedules combined with the versatility and capability supplied by the Subaru Outback can. And the freedom to go where you want, when you want, is undeniably appealing.
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