Outback offers safety, space

Today's sport-utility-vehicle shopper faces a bewildering array of models, from the diminutive MINI Countryman to the massive Chevrolet Suburban. For families with limited budgets and an adventurous spirit, the Subaru Outback rates a long look.
Always rugged, and a bit rough-hewn in its early days, the Outback is now a comparatively refined family wagon with an exceptional safety record. But it still lives up to its name, borrowed from Australia's famously untamed, remote Outback region. With 8.7 inches of ground clearance, symmetrical all-wheel drive, traction control and hill-descent control, the Subaru Outback can cross terrain that would stop most of its competitors.

Our Wilderness Green Metallic test car was a high-end 2016 2.5i Premium model that carried a sticker price of $32,035. The base Outback 2.5i has a starting price of $24,995. For maximum luxury, performance, safety and technology, the Outback Limited with the 3.6-liter, 6-cylinder engine has a base price of $33,395.

On the road, the Outback is more agile than most SUVs, including many of the smaller models, in part because of the "boxer" engine's low center of gravity. The engine and continuously variable automatic transmission provide brisk, smooth pickup at low speeds. The engine can be a little loud under hard acceleration, but road noise and wind noise are minimal.

The interior is roomy front and back, and it's well appointed. The ergonomic design is logical; we didn't need to break out the owner's manual to make sense of the controls.

Before options, our car's suggested retail price was $27,695. Standard features included satellite radio, Bluetooth hands-free phone and audio, heated front seats and mirrors, dual-zone climate control, and Starlink entertainment and safety system. A $3,490 option package added navigation system, audio upgrade, power moonroof and power liftgate, as well as a suite of desirable safety features: pre-collision braking, steering-responsive fog lights, adaptive cruise control, lane-keep assist, lane departure warning and lane sway warning, pre-collision throttle management system, blind-spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert and lane-change assist.

Should all these accident-prevention electronics fail to prevent an accident, the Outback is designed to provide maximum protection of driver and passengers. It has a five-star overall rating in government crash tests, and the 2015 model was rated a Top Safety Pick Plus by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. (The 2016 model is essentially the same as the 2015, following a redesign for that model year.)

The Outback is a substantial vehicle, weighing in at more than 3,500 pounds. But it puts up impressive fuel-economy numbers of 25 mpg city, 33 highway, using regular unleaded gasoline. The boxer Six delivers an additional 81 horsepower and smoother performance, but gives up 6 mpg to the Four.

While new Subarus have a reputation for reliability, some owners of pre-2015 models have experienced excessive oil consumption — the subject of a 2014 class-action suit resolved this year — and head-gasket failures. Subaru agreed to extend engine warranties and made other concessions.

Steven Macoy (semacoy@gmail.com) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn.
2016 Subaru Outback 2.5 Premium
Price: $32,035

Engine: 2.5-liter horizontally opposed Four, 175 horsepower, 174 lb.-ft. torque

Transmission: continuously variable automatic

Drive: all-wheel

Suspension: MacPherson struts, front; double-wishbone, rear

Curb weight: 3,596 lb.

Ground clearance: 8.7 in.

Wheels: 17x7-in. alloy

Tires: 225/65R H all-season

Seating capacity: 5

Luggage capacity: 35.5 cu. ft.

Maximum cargo capacity: 73.3 cu. ft.

Towing capacity: 2,700 lb.

Fuel capacity: 18.5 gal.

Fuel economy: 25 mpg city, 33 highway

Fuel type: regular unleaded gasoline