Road Test: 2018 Subaru Outback 3.6R Limited

Imagine, in 2018, that there is a station wagon that sells. It exists, and it is the Subaru Outback. In today’s fractured market, with crossovers and teeny 2.0L turbocharged Singer sewing machines powering a vast majority of new cars, the Subaru comes with boxer four- or six cylinder engines. And although Subaru has joined the CVT transmission party, both powerplants are-GASP!-normally aspirated. Imagine that.

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About a month ago I was wandering around the showroom at McLaughlin Cadillac-Subaru-Volvo when I leaned in the open window of a black Outback Limited. I hadn’t really paid much attention to these wagons, although I noted their regular presence in traffic. It was rather nice inside. The beige leather was pleasing, and the wood trim on the doors and dash were attractive.

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Intrigued, I got in behind the wheel. This was pretty cushy. It was especially nice with the light beige leather, and wood trim. Airy. No Bat Cave interior, with loophole windows, this! I thought perhaps it would be a good candidate for a test drive for Riverside Green.Outback 06

And so over this past weekend I emailed Brian Cox at the dealership and relayed my interest. Brian and I go back several years. He sold me my first Town Car, and unlike many sales people, he knows the cars through and through. As per usual, he went above and beyond, not only arranging a car for me to try, but also topping it off with fuel and running it through the car wash. As I parked the Cartier at McLaughlin, there it was right out front, looking neat and tidy.

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Now, for regular readers here at RG, you know I’m more partial to American lux cars, and am not particularly rah-rah about Japanese cars. Primarily Toyota, as their styling for the past decade seems to be ‘willfully ugly.’ But I’ve always had a grudging respect for Subaru. Their cars just seem to be well thought out and engineered. They have been going more mainstream over the past fifteen years, though.

97 SVX

1997 Subaru SVX

They used to be the offbeat, weird choice from the 1970s to the 1990s, with four-wheel drive cars decades before the dreaded word ‘crossover’ was thought up, let alone uttered, the BRAT pickup, the XT coupes in the ’80s, and the cool yet doomed SVX, which last appeared in showrooms in 1997.

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But going more mainstream seems to have worked out for Subaru, because I see a lot more on the road than I used to. And a hell of a lot of Outbacks.

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I think one of the reasons I was drawn to that black over beige Outback in the showroom is that it camouflaged the approximately 42 pounds of matte black plastic ‘outdoorsy’ rickrack on the exterior.

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Same as the Volvo V90 Cross Country, they take a clean design, then add all the fake-SUV stuff on the outside. I didn’t like it on the XC70 and Outbacks in 1998, and I still don’t like it now. But buyers want the look. As sales of the standard V70, and later on the V90, are a fraction of the ABS-plasticked variant.

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Volvo will sell you a clean, aesthetically pleasing V90 in 2018, but you have to order it. Dealers don’t stock it. Because no one buys them. I don’t know why, but I guess people can be fooled into thinking their station wagon is really an SUV if it has cheap-looking plastic wheel arches and rocker trim. Subaru finally killed the regular Legacy station wagon for the same reason. Although it may still be available in the home market, where people actually buy wagons because they like wagons.

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I see I have digressed, but it is a real pet peeve of mine. But never mind, I’ve vented enough for one day!

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I also liked the light beige interior of this car. I can’t stand the black and gray interiors. They make a car’s interior look like a cave, and in the summer, you roast in the seat until the air conditioning can catch up.

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The color is called ‘warm ivory’ in Subaru speak.

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The tester was painted in Crystal Black Silica, although it wasn’t obvious it was metallic paint, even on a bright, sunny day.

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Black, along with silver and white, take the lion’s share of the color palette on new cars, making for a very colorless environment when you’re on the road. I’ll never own another black car, but it contrasted nicely with the beige leather.

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Initially I thought the wood trim was genuine, but a look at the brochure disproved that. But it’s pretty convincing. On some other cars I’ve seen genuine tree trim that looked fake. Go figure.

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Pulling out of the dealer lot, the transmission seemed a little herky jerky. Or maybe a sensitive accelerator pedal? As this was the 3.6R, it had the boxer six-cylinder engine, normally aspirated, with 256 horsepower. It had good torque and acceleration-as you would expect with a six.

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Too bad most sixes are being killed off by most manufacturers. Well, a lot of them anyway. Not everyone wants a Singer sewing machine-sized turbo four. And while Subaru’s styling can be, wagon model notwithstanding, termed nondescript, they do still use the boxer engines. And I’ve always heard Subaru people are like Volvo people or Saab people – fiercely loyal to the brand.

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Thus my curiosity. So, what’s the verdict? Well, it was nice. But as my friend Carmine says, pretty much any 2018 car is pretty nice. True. We’re not really in an era of unreliable junk. Many of them may be ugly, but they’ll get you from Point A to Point B.

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And while the Subaru isn’t ugly, and has a conventional front end and grille-none of that Predator-style crap like over at Toyota-it is not especially distinctive. But I think it looks all right. Damning with faint praise, I know! But when so many ’18 and ’19 models suffer from TSS (Tortured Sheetmetal Syndrome), that is a good thing, ha ha!

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I do like wagons, and owned a Volvo V50, so I liked the Outback for that reason alone. Still, it impressed me more than I thought it was going to.

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I took it on an extended loop through the Quad Cities, going on Interstate 80 for a while, stopping in LeClaire, then heading back via city streets instead of the expressway. As this was a Limited, it was well equipped, with power seats, windows, you-name-it, sunroof, backup camera, and blind spot monitoring.

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I was surprised at how quiet it was on the highway. And while the engine makes itself known in traffic, at a consistent highway speed it’s silent. Even tire noise wasn’t noticeable, and a lot of new cars have cheap OEM shoes on them.

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One thing I didn’t notice until I was loading the photos for this article was how tall and awkward the roof rack is. I’m guessing it’s bulky to look ‘outdoorsy’ or something. Like all the lower-body plastic cladding, it would look much better if it was just gone.

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One funny thing happened. While I was taking pictures at the John Deere World Headquarters, as I got in the car to leave, I noticed a tiny toad on my side window. I stopped to get him off, then he hopped into the windshield wiper recess. Dammit! So there I was, trying to use a Subaru brochure to goose him off the car so he wouldn’t get squished. Then he hopped under the car. Great. Several minutes later, I finally shooed him into the grass and was able to leave. Stuff like this only happens to me. Or my dad!

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One final word. What I really appreciated about the Outback is that it has a rare commodity in this day and age: Glass area. Yes, glorious, common-sense glass area. Unlike the rental Fusion I drove last autumn, the A-pillars do not block a significant portion of the real estate between the side windows and windshield. The Fusion A-pillars were horrible. You could smuggle crockey in those things! I’ve always felt that increased glass area is far superior to the false feeling of security small windows sometimes give, and then ‘fixing’ things by adding cameras and sensors everywhere. Just seems like a belt-and-suspenders deal, but apparently I’m in the minority on that.

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So there you have it. A genuine wagon available in the U.S., built in Indiana, and unlike some other imported wagons, readily available at the dealership. If that floats your boat, the Outback is worth a look.

15 Replies to “Road Test: 2018 Subaru Outback 3.6R Limited”

  1. John C.

    Subaru has had much success with the Outback by doing exactly the things I don’t like. Jacking it up, all that black fading to grey cladding, and the needless complexity and friction of AWD. Of course I am one of those wierdos/ independent thinkers who took the 4 months to order through the online concierge service a 2018 Volvo V90 T5 Inscription in Denim Blue over tan. I took delivery at my local dealer in July of last year.

    Tom I love how you build relationships with dealers over many years and we all get rewarded by your access to the cars.

    Reply
    • stingray65

      John – you should write up your 1 year review of the V90 – I for one would be interested in a real world review of what I think is a very attractive looking car.

      Reply
      • John C.

        Here is a short one. The car has been trouble free. The 250hp front drive has plenty of power so no need for the way heavier 316hp AWD version. The mileage is 23-25 around town and 32-34 on the highway with the required premium gas. The seats are now heated and cooled but I think are not as well shaped as the real thrones our old 98 V90 had. The best feature is the pilot assist that takes over steering on the highway. You still have to rest your hand on the wheel. The parking assist is no good for me as the parking deck of my condo is too confined for it to find my assigned space. The interior is quite luxurious but the center screen is slow to react and I would have preferred old fashioned controls. Mine has 19 inch wheels and I might have preferred the 15s my old V90 had. The car is still sits kind of tall so would look better.
        I cannot recommend Volvos online buying service. The dealer seeing a rare V90 on their order list tried to change the color and take it as a dealer manager car. The lady from Volvo changed it back but there was a lot of wondering by all of what color they built. I also had to pay list and rely on the dealer to give a good trade value for my old Buick. They did but I was worried about it as the dealer had changed hands since my last Volvo and was now teamed with Mitsubishi.

        Reply
        • stingray65

          Thanks for the review. I have often wondered if the movement towards heating and cooling seats would possibly compromise the basic structure of the seats. My parents had Volvos for years primarily because they thought the seats were the best, but they weren’t so impressed with the last S60 (about 2003) they had, and switched to Saab and BMW, which they liked better in both cases. So maybe it isn’t just the cooling, but a general change in the Volvo seat design.

          Reply
  2. stingray65

    Nothing says off-road prowess like simulated metal skidplates made from cheap plastic. My fashion sense must be totally off these days, because I was always told you shouldn’t wear brown/beige with black/grey, but it seems so many car designers disagree. I still think a very light grey interior (with red highlights) would look better with a black exterior, but such a combination seems to be increasingly hard to find. Tom, did you try the Subaru Safety Suite, and if you did how did you like it?

    Reply
  3. Shocktastic

    I think that most of the former Saab & Volvo demographic has migrated to Subaru. I live in the Pacific Northwest and without a distinctive sticker on my rear window, I would be hard-pressed to find my grey 2010 Forester hiding amongst vast herds of grey Foresters in the staff parking lots of a hospital or a college campus. I would be hard-pressed also to differentiate my base-trim 2010 Forester from a mid 1970s Saab 99. Both cars have a lot of glass for great visibility, upright seats, good brakes, narrow toque curve, and a ton of NVH. Tom’s review reflects Subaru’s recent push to reduce NVH.

    Reply
    • Eric H

      My wife loves her 2017 Forester XT. Lots of glass area was a big selling point.
      An SUV is exactly the opposite in what I’m looking for in a vehicle but that’s why it’s ‘hers’ and not ‘ours’.

      Reply
  4. Disinterested-Observer

    I got a 3.6 Legacy as a loaner and between the tip-in and the transmission I thought it was a dog. I literally had to look at the badge (and then under the hood because I didn’t believe it) to confirm that it was not, in fact, the 2.5

    Reply
  5. Mozzie

    I’ve been thinking about the plastic cladding lately and wonder if it similar to the fake wood paneling. The single practical purpose I can see is to protect the paint on gravel roads, however, as I think about it, a clear bra will achieve similar results.

    Reply
  6. hank chinaski

    I found the retractable cargo cover quite obtrusive, and had to remove (and store) it in our rental to fit our luggage.
    The turbo diesel had respectable grunt and good mileage. Despite the ride height, it high centers fairly easily.
    Subaru’s audio cluster hates my thumb drive.

    Reply
  7. Fred Lee

    My ex- and I fell into the Subaru habit for quite a while. Starting with her 2007-era Outback XT with manual transmission. That was a hell of a car, and I would still have it if she hadn’t totaled it. Her next was the next generation of Outback which had become a bulbous mess and wallowed like a land yacht. A couple years later she replaced that one with the current body style, which is a little less bulbous and handles light-years better.

    My brother and I took one of them on a road-trip with bicycles. The kind of bicycles that you don’t want to put on a roof rack for long highway drives. The amazing thing about the Outback: In the trunk area alone, even with the back-seat still fully upright, we could fit *two* 62cm road-bikes by simply removing the wheels. Stacked the bikes on top of each other with a blanket between, and four 700c wheels on top. That and the ability to hit 30MPG on the highway even in 3.6R guise was outstanding.

    The price-point has been slowly creeping up; that original XT, very nicely equipped, was $31K if I remember correctly. The last one we bought stickered just south of $40k. I wouldn’t buy another, at least not for myself. I went through the Impreza -> STI -> BRZ cycle as she was cycling through the Outbacks and I’ll admit that Subaru’s willingness to cater to the enthusiast market figured into our purchases. But with the STI and BRZ left to wilt on the vine, I find myself looking more toward the Volvo or BMW wagons of late. The V90 and V60 are both great looking cars, and I continue to be tempted by the BMW 328d offering.

    Reply
    • Disinterested-Observer

      I feel like the interior space of our ’09 compares unfavorably with a Focus wagon (not hatch) that I had in the early aughts. Manual transmission with an LSD in the back is pretty cool though.

      Reply
  8. Daniel J

    I refuse to call it a wagon. It drives and rides nothing like a proper wagon. It’s a CUV by any other name.

    Reply
  9. Dachs

    I don’t get the hate for plastic body cladding. After 11 snow+ salt+ gravel winters body coloured plastic cladding still looks good, but clear bra looks like crap.
    Tin fenders are for people that don’t keep their cars for very long or don’t see gravel + salt in winter.

    Reply

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