2024 Subaru Outback

  • January 11, 2024

Subaru used to have its market niche mostly to itself – because (for many years) almost no other car manufacturer made cars (sedans and wagons) with all-wheel-drive and enough ground clearance to go where you generally needed a 4×4 SUV to go.

Now almost no one makes cars – and every brand sells crossovers with (or that at least offer) all-wheel-drive and enough ground clearance to go places you used to need a 4×4 SUV – or a Subaru – to get to. 

So where does that leave Subaru? 

There’s brand loyalty, of course. Just as there are Ford and Chevy people, there are Subaru people – who like (and buy) Subarus because they are Subarus.

And then there are Subarus like the Outback. Which is also a wagon (rather than a crossover) and that’s one thing that’s still different or – at least – unusual.

Also the Subaru’s unusual kind of engine.

It’s enough to keep this Subaru going.

What It Is

The Outback is a mid-sized wagon with standard all-wheel-drive and a standard boxer (or flat four) engine – as opposed to the usual in-line (and upright) four cylinder engines that come standard in most crossovers.

Prices start at $28,995 for the base trim, which has a 2.5 liter boxer engine paired with a continuously variable (CVT) automatic transmission. A more powerful (but slightly smaller) 2.4 liter turbocharged boxer engine is standard in XT and Wilderness trims; the latter also comes standard with almost 10 inches of ground clearance, a modified version of the AWD system with a low-ratio feature similar in function to the Low range gearing of a 4WD system’s two speed transfer case, skid plates and  17 inch wheels with all-terrain tires. It stickers for $39,960.

A top of the line Touring XT with the turbocharged engine, heated leather seats (and steering wheel) as well as a 12 speaker Harman Kardon audio system and a sunroof stickers for $42,795.

What’s New

Other than a few minor trim tweaks and shuffling of standard/optional equipment, the Outback carries over into 2024 mostly unchanged.

What’s Good

Wagons aren’t what everyone else is driving.

Wagons have lower rooflines (making it easier to load things on the roof).

Boxer engines have their own unique personality.

What’s Not So Good

Automatic (CVT) only.

Turbocharged engine only available in the more expensive XT and Wilderness trims, which all start about $9-$10k higher than base and next-up Premium trims.

Badgering “driver assistance” systems.

Under The Hood

Every Outback comes standard with something you can’t get in any other make/model vehicle that isn’t a Porsche:

A boxer – or horizontally opposed – engine.

This type of engine is also known as a flat engine, because its cylinders lay flat rather than in a line (or a “v”). Subaru’s boxer engines are flat fours (Porsches are flat sixes) meaning that there are two cylinders on one side and two on the other side. These box each other across the centerline of the engine’s crankshaft.

What are the advantages of this layout?

The engine is flat – which means it sits lower in the car. Generally speaking, getting the weight of the engine closer to the road improves a car’s balance. And distributing the weight of the engine evenly on either side of the car’s centerline (front to rear) improves handling. This is one reason why Porsche sports cars like the 911 have flat/boxer engines. And Subarus with the same type of engines benefit from the same.

Flat/boxer engines are also – generally – lighter than upright engines because they are naturally balanced and so don’t need heavy crank balancers to dampen what would otherwise be noticeable vibrations. This reduction in the weight of the reciprocating assembly also usually means an engine that revs faster and higher – another reason why Porsche uses this type of engine. Also, they make a uniquely growly sound.

What are the disadvantages?

If the engine lays flat, the oil may not fully drain back into the sump when the engine isn’t running and that can lead to excessive oil consumption (in the cylinders) resulting from oil collecting around intake/exhaust valve guides and so on. Keeping up with oil changes (and using the right oil) will usually prevent this problem from developing.

The Outback is available with either of two four cylinder boxer engines. The standard 2.5 liter engine makes 182 horsepower at 5,800 RPM and 176 ft.-lbs. of torque at 4,400 RPM. It is paired with a continuously variable CVT automatic transmission and Subaru’s “symmetric” all-wheel-drive system, which can route engine power side-to-side as well as front-to-back. The latter (which is what most other manufacturer’s AWD systems do) improves traction by routing power from slipping front wheels to rear wheels that have more . . . traction. The former (side-to-side) improves handling by correcting for under-and-oversteer during cornering, by applying power to the inside (or outside) wheels.

The optional engine is a smaller (2.4 liter) boxer four that’s turbocharged; this one makes 260 horsepower at 5,600 RPM and 277 ft.-lbs. of torque at 2000 RPM. It’s also paired with the CVT automatic and AWD.

Interestingly, there’s very little gas mileage difference between the standard 2.5 liter four and the optional 2.4 liter turbo’d four. The latter rates 22 city/29 highway; the former 26 city, 32 highway.

But there is a big performance difference. The base-engine Outback needs about 8.7 seconds to get to 60 while anOutback equipped with the stronger 2.4 liter turbo’d engine can make the same run in about 6 seconds.

There’s also another difference.

Outbacks with the 2.5 liter engine are rated to pull up to 2,700 lbs. Outbacks with the 2.4 liter engine are rated to pull 3,500 lbs.

On The Road

The Outback, like pretty much all new vehicles, is easy and pleasant to drive. But it could be more fun to drive. Especially versions equipped with the standard 2.5 liter engine – which isn’t especially strong but is pretty revvy. Recall that it makes its peak power at just-shy of 6,000 RPM. It would be fun to be able to work the gears getting it there (and back) 5-6 times during a 0-60 run or even from stop light to stop light.

Alas, there are no gears to work; no clutch to play with, either. Just put the CVT in Drive. It doesn’t shift, because it has no gears. You can pretend to, though – via the eight stepped ranges that Subaru programs into this transmission.

So, you push on the gas pedal and the engine’s revs increase – but there’s not much to do other than watch the progression – which is less fun than being part of the progression. It used to be more fun, in a very meaningful way, to drive a car like this without the optional (and much stronger) engine but with a manual transmission.

Now, it isn’t.

To have fun in this Outback (on the road, that is) you’ll probably want one with the optional turbo’d 2.4 liter engine, which makes up for the boring-as-wallboard CVT with the horsepower that’s lacking in Outbacks with the 2.5 liter engine.

It’s not just the horsepower difference that makes the difference. Note how much sooner (in the powerband) the 2.4 liter engine makes its peak horsepower – and torque. This is an engine that doesn’t need to rev to be fun and that’s why driving an Outback so equipped isn’t as boring as looking at wallboard.

Even if you don’t get the 2.4 engine, you will get the excellent AWD system that endows this Soobie with impressive sideways tenacity. This is a different kind of fun that’s absent from other AWD transportation appliances – and it’s standard in the Outback.

There is also fun to be had when people who drive other AWD appliances get nervous – because it’s snowing or looks like it might. Or because the road has ended.

Wilderness models of this Soobie have 9.5 inches of ground clearance but even the base Outback still has 8.7 inches and that (along with the AWD) will make you feel confident because it can carry you over the snow and through mud/standing water that would not be fun to try to wade through in a lesser vehicle.

One thing that’s not fun about this vehicle – with either engine – is the “safety” technology, especially the “distracted driver” system that tracks eye movements and sounds the alarm if it thinks you’re not paying attention to the road ahead. The problem is the system gets upset if it sees you paying attention to the sides. Glance left/right too often – to see what’s possibly entering your driving circle – and the system will flash an “eyes on the road!” warning in the main instrument cluster, along with a chime. Both can be distracting in and of themselves.

And both can be unwarranted, which is the real beef.

Looking ahead is – generally – sound policy. But it is also sound to look around. This system seems to encourage one – but not the other.

An Off button would be welcome.

At The Curb

Wagons used to be the alternative to sedans – for those who didn’t want a truck (or an SUV based on one). This was also before there were crossovers – which became the alternative to SUVs based on trucks.

Subaru’s wagons have survived through these evolutions, probably because Subaru buyers love Subaru wagons like the Outback. It is better-known than the steakhouse chain that uses the same name.

Probably because it’s meatier.

This one has always had an extra measure of capability in addition to the versatility that people buy wagons for. Others have begun to imitate the look of that capability, too – offering their own takes on the lifted/roof-racked/fender-flared, ready-to-go-anywhere stance of the Outback.

Which, as you probably know already, is also a mid-sized wagon now (rather than the compact-sized wagon based on the Impreza sedan that it was). The current model is a sibling of the Legacy sedan and shares a common underlying platform and drivetrains. But it has what the Legacy doesn’t – room for several times more than what will fit in the Legacy’s 15.1 cubic foot trunk. The Outback’s wagon layout offers an SUV-like 75.6 cubic feet of cargo carrying capacity with its back seats down – and even with them up you still have 32.5 cubic feet behind the back seats, or more than twice as much space for stuff as in the Legacy’s trunk.

The Outback also comes standard with Hill Descent Control and fog lights, as well as 8.7 inches of ground clearance (the Legacy has 5.9 inches and so sits several inches closer to the ground).

You can get additional driver-selectable off-road modes by opting for the Onyx Edition, which also comes with water-repelling seat covers and larger (18 inch wheels). The Wilderness trim gets an upgraded roof rack rated to handle up to 700 pounds, as well as the mechanical/functional upgrades mentioned earlier, which includes a low-ratio (similar to 4WD low range) for the CVT automatic that increases leverage for slogging through deep, unplowed slow and mud, etc.

Premium, Limited, Touring and Wilderness trims get a larger (11.6 inch) LCD touchscreen that’s easier-to-use while driving because it has larger icons that are easier to accurately tap while driving. There are also (thankfully) still rotary knobs on either side to make volume/channel adjustments.

The Rest

In addition to dropping the option to go with the manual transmission that was once available in the Outback, Subaru has also made its Eyesight suite of “safety assists” unavoidable as they come standard in all trims. This includes the “drowsy/inattentive driver” nanny that gets bothered when you’re not looking directly ahead rather than looking around.

It’d be interesting to see how many buyers would opt for this – if they still could.

The Bottom Line

The Outback would be more fun if you could still get it with a manual – and without the Eyesight nanny. But it does still offer things you can’t get in other wagons – and that’s probably enough to keep the wheels turning.

. . .

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