Shopping for a truck to take off-road, I ended up buying a Subaru Outback, then modifying it to meet my need for dirt. 14,000km in, how's it holding up? Pretty damn well, actually.
"Confirmation bias" is a person's tendency to interpret or recall information in a way that confirms his or her's beliefs or actions. It's the reason why Camaro owners will unendingly argue that they are actually able to see out of their cars, even though that car ships without windows. It's why people give products on Amazon five-star reviews before they have even opened the box. And, it's one of many reasons why professional reviewers write about stuff they don't pay their own money for. But, earlier this year, I bought a 2015 Subaru Outback. Now I'm going to tell you why that was the right decision, and what I had to do to the car to make its capability match my expectations.
Photo: Corey Hass
I should probably state right at the beginning that it wasn't just me buying this car. My girlfriend and I split it. She needs a car on weekdays to go to castings and shoots and to see her clients. I need a car on weekends to take her and our dogs and friends on adventures. That throws some odd and often conflicting requirements at any car we could possibly share.
We live in LA, so she needs a car that's easy to drive in heavy traffic, easy to park and that's very safe. Good fuel economy, nice looks and plenty of space inside for hauling stuff all help too.
We go on long trips to faraway places. So, we need a car that's quiet and comfortable on the highway, which returns good fuel economy and which has plenty of room for friends and dogs and stuff.
I use the car to support all my outdoors activities. It may have been shared on Gizmodo and Jalopnik, but you're reading this story on IndefinitelyWild, my little blog about adventure travel in the outdoors. So, I need a car that can go off-road and one that can carry stuff like mountain bikes and kayaks and dead animals. One that can serve equally well as a people mover, a camera car and a toy hauler and do that in extreme weather or adverse conditions, a long way from nowhere.
And both of us needed a car that could do all that reliably and affordably. We looked at a couple of SUVs, including the Jeep Grand Cherokee, but my car journalist buddies kept recommending the Outback, so we skeptically took one for a test drive. It was vastly larger inside than the Jeep, much better to drive and, this was the real kicker, returned nearly twice the fuel economy.
So, we walked out of the dealer with a 2.5i Limited. I wasn't excited about its larger, 18-inch wheels, but we wanted the leather, heated seats (in the back, too) and other such niceties. We considered the 3.6R, but its extra performance is marginal and insuring it would have cost more than the car payments.
Photo: Corey Hass
What The Outback Gets Right
Transmission: This was the biggest thing keeping me from considering the Outback, before we test drove it. Previous version's of Subaru's Continuously Variable Transmission have simply been awful, but this one has finally realised the technology's potential and is actually a really good match for the 2.5-litre flat-four. That engine is relatively torquey for its size, but is still a little on the small size for motivating what's a pretty big car. Unlike others of its kind, this new-for-2015 CVT calibration doesn't try to mimic an auto's shift points all the time and doesn't try to operate as a pure CVT, shifting between max economy and max power. Instead, it just gets out of the way and lets the car do what you ask of it. It's not droney, it's not frustrating, it's just right.
Yeah, I'd prefer a manual obviously, but this thing gets the job done without any cause for complaint. Wheel-mounted paddles provide some slow transitions between artificial gear ratios. That may seem a little needless on-road, but proves vital off, allowing you to dial in revs and engine braking where required, while increasing control of the vehicle through tricky terrain.
Weight: In 2.5-litre form, the Outback weighs 1629kg. To put that into perspective, the V8 Camaro convertible weighs 1903kg. In an era of ever-increasing vehicle weights, the Outback is surprisingly light. And it does that while being one of the safest vehicles on the road, seating five adults in comfort and while including AWD as standard.
If you don't take weight into consideration when shopping for vehicles, you really should. Its the enemy of fuel economy, handling, performance and every other performance metric you could ever come up with and is, as such, more important than horsepower.
Vision: Driven a car made in the last decade? Nearly universally, they suffer from terrible vision. Blame fashion for the narrow greenhouses and manufacturers cheaping out on materials and making A-pillars thicker, rather than stronger in the name of safety. In contrast, the Outback's side windows start below your elbow, the windshield cowl sits at chest height and its thin pillars are supplemented by quarter windows and door-mounted mirrors. Outward vision is unrivalled by any other non-mid-engined car produced new in 2015. Its outward vision is my favourite thing about driving the Outback and aids safety, decision making, parking and is a massive factor in outright speed for any vehicle.
Space: At 38.1 inches, the Outback has 2.3 inches more rear legroom than a Mercedes E-Class. So much, in fact, that even at 6'2", I can cross my legs in the back seat. There's also plenty of space for your hips, head and shoulders, no matter if you sit in the front or back. That means, on long trips, that we really can fill the car's five seats with adults, without complaint. More typically though, it's four people and two dogs, who ride in the cabin.
Fuel Economy: I've averaged 23mpg off-road in the Outback. Pickups, Jeeps and similar are lucky to exceed 10mpg when the going gets dirty. Not only does this save me money, but paired with the 18.2-gallon tank, means I haven't yet felt the need to carry a jerry can. On the highway, we get 29mpg.
All-Wheel Drive: I'd never before believed the hype around Subaru's full-time AWD system. But man, living with is believing. I'm getting ahead of myself here, but a big reason for not getting it before was because I'd only driven on the stock tires, which are so bad that the AWD system invests all its capability in fighting them, rather than helping increase performance. Swap them for something better and all of a sudden you have a car that can't put a foot wrong. Unlike pretty much every other AWD of 4WD system in a crossover or SUV, Subarus drive all four wheels all the time, constantly re-apportioning torque as appropriate. Other vehicles have to wait until the driven axle loses traction before trying to fix that by sending drive elsewhere. Those systems are band-aids; Subaru's is a performance enhancer.
Ground Clearance: At 8.7 inches, the Outback has 1/10th of an inch more ground clearance than a stock Grand Cherokee. This is achieved with a flat bottom into which components like the exhaust are recessed, eliminating the potential for anything to catch an off-road obstacle. Look underneath a Ford Explorer and you'll get what I'm talking about. It also helps make up for the Outback's relatively weak approach, breakover and departure angles.
Turning Circle: The Outback is a big car. But, it can complete a u-turn in the width of an average street. That's remarkable and exceeds the manoeuvrability of even compact cars like a Mini. Off-road, that means you spend less time negotiating difficult obstacles, less time backing up and more time driving.
What The Outback Gets Wrong
Tires: The single biggest problem the Outback has are its truly awful stock tires. Make no mistake, the Bridgestone Duelers you leave the showroom with are only good for one thing — saving Subaru money. They're puncture prone, have dangerously poor wet weather grip and blunt steering response in the dry. Off-road, all those problems are exacerbated and and punctures become a real issue. I would not take an Outback alone into a remote area on its stock rubber; doing so would be inviting disaster.
Wheels: The Limited only comes with 18-inch alloys that eliminate off-road tire choice and which are weak. They also sit way too far inboard of the car's wheel arches; view the Outback from behind and it looks like its wearing doughnuts. This leads to a relatively wimpy appearance overall; wheels are important.
Protection: The engine's underside is only "protected" by a thin plastic sheet while its transmission and protruding rear diff are left totally exposed. On a car where every other part is concealed or simply located out of the way of damage, this is a major weak point.
Infotainment: Sourced from Toyota, the stock infotainment system if bloated by unnecessary apps, poor graphics, slow response and low quality audio components. We didn't bother paying for the crappy sat/nav. Luckily, you can fix all this simply by connecting your phone to one of the two provided USB slots and mounting it on your dash.
Styling: Two problem here: 1) this 5th generation Outback is virtually indistinguishable from the 4th gen it replaces. It's now a larger, better vehicle, so why make it look exactly the same?! 2) It has a serious case of the wimps. Just on the boring side of ugly, there's really nothing setting this car apart or making it special in any way. The design simply lacks purpose.
How To Make The Outback A Real Adventuremobile
Wheels: The smallest wheels that will fit over the Outback's calipers are going to be 17-inch. That one-inch difference is luckily enough to deliver some real tire choice.
In general, the current trend for ever larger wheels and ever thinner tires is dumb. Off-road or on, you'll achieve better ride quality and more forgiving handling with the most possible tire sidewall.
At first, I was going to simply swap on the base Outback's steelies. While those would have given me the tire choice, they'd have done nothing for the car's looks. So, I ended up going for a set of Method Race Wheels' MR502s in bronze. Those are based on the wheels used by Subaru Rally Team USA and are massively strong as a result. At eight inches wide, they're also wider than the stock items and combined with the 38mm offset, that helps push them out to really fill out the wheel arches.
I figure the gold wheels and red paint give my Outback a little '90s Subaru retro appeal; this wheels make a huge difference to way the car looks, while also adding some welcome strength.
Tires: Tires are the most important component on your car. It does not matter how much power your engine makes or how good your suspension is, if your tires can't use any of that. Or, in Subaru's case, if your AWD system has to fight your shitty stock tires all the time. Invest in a quality set of tires before changing anything else on any vehicle you own.
I wanted a set of genuinely-capable all-terrains and these Maxxis Bravo A/T 771s deliver. In 235/65-17, they add about an inch of diameter over the stock tires so, in also losing an inch of wheel, I've gained two inches of sidewall. That massively improves ride quality and gives me the ability to air down to low tire pressures while still protecting the (now very strong) wheels from impacts. Doing so increases traction and improves ride off-road, I can now tackle washboard that previously had me going 30mph at 60+ and I'm more comfortable while doing that.
Despite the thicker rubber, additional belts and stronger, wider wheels, I'm only up 9lbs a corner with this wheel/tire setup. Steering response on the road is improved, I now have excellent traction in the rain and grip on loose surfaces is excellent. I can detect no additional road noise.
Most importantly, I now have far, far greater puncture resistance, both on-road and off. Tires are always the first and most frequently damaged thing on your car.
Skid Plates: I once rescued a guy 80km from the nearest road in Death Valley. He'd run out of fuel and torn the front, left wheel off his rental Chevy Impala. Know what he said to me? "Don't worry, I got the insurance!" Dude would have died if he hadn't been lucky enough to find me.
I don't leave my survival or that of my family up to chance. For a little over $US400, Primitive Racing's skid plates have shielded all the vulnerable parts under my car from thrown rocks and obstacles. Nothing is getting through these things, nothing is going to hole my oil pan, break my transmission or whack my differential. And that's real confidence I can apply to going into remote, dangerous environments.
I opted for a 1/8" engine guard. It only mounts in three places, so I figured flexibility over outright strength was a good choice. The transmission and diff guards are 3/16"; all aircraft aluminium. They took about an hour to fit, mount securely and the front one is pretty easy to take off for oil changes. Not bad for total peace of mind.
Roof Basket: The Outback's roof rack can only handle 150lbs. But, with the aid of this Yakima MegaWarrior, I can now shift large, bulky items out of the car and onto the roof. Shifting camp chairs and tables, my big stove and stuff of that nature out of the trunk really frees up storage room inside and the basket is killer for hauling firewood into camp, trash out or just holding any of the big, awkward equipment we often need to take along.
I've also added a Yakima Front Loader bike rack, which holds my Cannonade securely without the need to remove the front wheel. This takes advantage of one of the best things about the Outback — its low roof height — and makes loading a bike as easy as possible.
Recovery Equipment: By now, you've gotten the idea that the name of the game here is the ability to travel into far away places, self-supported. Lacking locking diffs, there's a real chance the Subaru could become stuck in soft sand, mud or similar. By carrying along some basic equipment, that's no longer something I need to worry about.
To free a stuck car, you need to put traction aids under its tires. The ARB X-Jack inflates off the exhaust, allowing you to easily lift the car on loose, soft or angled surfaces. So, get stuck while crossing a sand dune? Throw this thing underneath, spend 30 seconds inflating it, then shove rocks, limbs, carpet or MaxxTraxx underneath your wheels and drive on out. It's that easy.
Of course, I could get stuck in a ditch or high centre the car somehow and require a tow. Rather than leave that up to chance, I've simply stuffed an ARB snatch strap and two D-shackles around the spare tire. That way, all I need is a passing vehicle and I can get that tow no matter what they might be carrying.
I've also bolted a shovel to the side of that Yakima rack; a crucial component of freeing a stuck car. No one should go off-road without.
For tire repair, I carry a little air compressor and plug kit in the trunk at all times, in addition to spare fuses, Fix-a-Flat, a pair of work gloves and some other handy stuff.
All together, that means I can deal with most common problems that may arise myself, without calling for help or relying on other people. Of course, this now means I'm sort of a travelling mechanic, obligated to help anyone I find stuck.
Camping Gear: Out here in the desert, it gets hot. So, it's really nice after a long mountain bike ride or hike or whatever to be able to sit in some shade. Bolting an ARB awning to the side of the roof rack gives me the ability to set up a shade or rain structure in about 60 seconds. An Easy Up would do the same, but this rides seamlessly on my roof, without taking up storage space and mounting it to the car anchors it in high winds.
Paired with some cheap camp chairs and folding tables, this gives me significant comfort and practicality, just minutes after parking in a campsite or at a trailhead. The awning is very well made and has so far resisted high winds and heavy rain without issue. Everything you need to use it just rolls right up inside that cover, including the guy lines and stakes.
We've just added the new Big Agnes Gilpin Falls 4 as our dedicated car camping tent. Unlike a rooftop tent, a standalone, but luxurious and spacious tent like this one offers greater comfort and flexibility, while taking up far, far less space on your vehicle. Better weather protection too; in high winds I can simply use the Outback as a windbreak rather than trying to sleep exposed on top of it.
Would An Outback Work For You?
To test its capability (and shoot a video that we should have up soon) I took it to California's Hungry Vally SVRA shortly after getting the wheels, tires and skid plates on. There, it had no problem fording silt beds or climbing steep hills, but obviously couldn't make it over boulders. We seriously bummed out a group of dirt bikers when we simply drove up their favourite hill climb without drama or effort. They'd tried real hard and had real fun; the Subaru just chugged all the way up it.
You can find terrain that will defeat it, obviously. Choose too steep a hill and the Subaru will just sorta glug to a stop, then refuse to go further. More power and a manual transmission would fix this, but neither is an option.
The Subaru obviously lacks extreme angles, locking diffs and a low-range transfer case and I have no illusions that it's a recreational off-roader. But, that's not how I use it. As a vehicle that's more about facilitating adventures, it's gotten everywhere I've asked it to go, without issue.
This last weekend was a typical trip. A bunch of friends and I wanted to check out a new campsite in Big Sur. Most of them were first timers and I fully outfitted six people with tents, sleeping bags, and pads, then drove that stuff up for them since they didn't have room in their cars. In addition to that stuff, the Outback carried camping gear its three passengers, plus Wiley, a 5-gallon propane tank and large stove. The 6-hour slog up the 101 was handled in comfort and the 10km dirt road at the end was fun. The whole trip cost us $US100 in fuel.
Make no mistake, the Outback is not a truck. But while it may not crawl up rocks as well as one, it's also a much better companion in town or on the highway. One that costs $US28,000 and which you can parallel park anywhere. That makes it as good in the city as it is in the mountains, a mix I think it nails better than any vehicle currently on sale.
IndefinitelyWild is a new publication about adventure travel in the outdoors, the vehicles and gear that get us there and the people we meet along the way. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.