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New Subaru Outback rivals all other cars in its class

The 2015 Subaru Outback is great on or off-road.


We're either going to blow our tires, bottom out or tip right off the jagged, unforgiving cliffs that form the Avalon Peninsula.

These are the panicked thoughts running through my head as my driving partner pushes the "X-Mode" button tucked into the neat console of our 2015 Subaru Outback and repositions both his hands on the steering wheel as we prepare to navigate a bizarrely rugged slice of the Newfoundland coast.

The patch of "road" eked out between tall, salt-worn pines looks impassable to the human eye. It would daunt even a mountain goat and make mincemeat out of the common ATV. I'm expecting both our bellies to shake like bowls full of jelly as we start moving over the combination of rocks, rocks and more rocks.

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But they don't. We've done the course – tires, undercarriage and passengers fully intact – before I even break a sweat. The Outback, Subaru's fifth-generation edition, is no worse for wear. I suspect it has a mind – somewhere deep inside the technological abyss that made split-second decisions on which wheels to devote power to and which gears to use just now – that is truly thirsty for another go.

At its essence, the redesigned 2015 Outback is designed for just that. Original marketing for the first-generation Outback, which hit Canadian markets in 1994, featured actor Paul Hogan, better known then as Crocodile Dundee, being pursued in his Outback by a gang of traditional sport utility vehicles. Of course, his crossover sport wagon, one of the first in the market, won the day.

In the 2015 model – an improvement on last year's redesign, which was aimed squarely at increasing market share in North America (and it did, more than doubling average annual sales to more than 6,500 models) – the Outback has hit its stride. With the same towing capacity, durability and versatility it has built its name on, this iteration is inspired by the comforts that come standard in upmarket competitors. Rear heated seats and backrests are standard, as are single-touch flat folding back seats. LED rear lights have been added, as have colour backup cameras. This Outback is quieter, smoother, and more tech-savvy than ever before, with optional SMS text capability and a 18-centimetre touch screen designed to mimic a smartphone's functionality. One might even go so far as to call the interior looks slick – a quality that the Outback has not historically been known for.

Adjustable roof racks and more tie-downs translate to more versatility for drivers who tote kayaks, canoes, bikes and other wonky outdoor gear (the rear antenna has even been repositioned to accommodate sea kayaks). A power rear gate is also optional.

While I wouldn't go so far as to call the new Outback sporty, this crossover has been transformed into a true contender that will rival all else in its midst, from downmarket mini-utility vehicles to crossovers and larger SUVs. Those who can afford to spring for the 3.6-litre model will be rewarded on the road, although both models can more than handle unstable surfaces.

The writer was a guest of the auto maker.

2015 Subaru Outback

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Tech Specs

Engine: 2.5-litre four-cylinder; 3.6-litre four-cylinder

Base Price: $27,000 (2.5i); $35,495 (3.6R)

Transmission: Six-speed manual option in Canada only; optional Lineartronic Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) with paddle shift controls

Fuel Economy (litres/100 km): 2.5-litre CVT, 9.3/7.1/8.3 L/100 km; 3.6-litre, 12/8.6/10.5 L/100 km

Alternatives: Toyota Venza, RAV4, Highlander; Ford Edge; Honda CRV; Audi A4 Allroad

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Looks: The fifth-generation Outback has emerged from its adolescence. This model boasts a meatier, more balanced and streamlined look.

Interior: Pleasant and unified with additions of soft-touch trims, matte faux-wood detail (limited edition).

Performance: While both the 2.5i and 3.6R performed flawlessly on rocky off-road terrain, the smaller engine felt underpowered on highway ramps without any load to tow.

Safety: Top marks here: new X-Mode electronically manages grip in poor road conditions; four roof tie-downs and retractable roof crossbars have been added along with a new seat cushion airbag that inflates behind the driver's knees, auto-dim mirrors, lane change assist detecting vehicles 4.5 seconds away, standard colour back-up camera, collision mitigation.

Cargo: One-touch flat-folding rear seats enable maximal use of rear cargo space; roof rack can accommodate up to 150 pounds; towing capacity is 2,700-3,000 pounds.

Infotainment: Lacking in the base package, but upgrading to Limited will get you all the usual bells and whistles.

The Verdict: 9.0: The Outback works hard to make up for previous design shortcomings and is so reliable on tough terrain it's a must-consider for anyone going off the beaten path.

You'll like this car if: You regularly traverse uneven roads – a gravel-strewn hill up to the cottage, campsite or chalet – with a full load of gear, or you have an old Subaru you can't bear to part with. Trade it in for this and you'll be pleasantly surprised by how much of a trade up it is.

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