Today we take the proliferation of jacked-up sedans, wagons, and blobs known as “crossovers” almost for granted, but there was once a time when these family-friendly rides were outliers, not the norm.
Named after Australia’s famed desert interior, the Subaru Outback was intended to sop up some of the sport-utility vehicle cash that was starting to fall from the sky and splash around the auto industry roughly 25 years ago. Without a truck or even a trucklet in its lineup, the small automaker had to get creative in courting the adventure-seeking set, and what it eventually came up with would last well into the next millennium and eventually become the brand’s flagship vehicle.
1995-1999: The Original Outback Years
The version of the Subaru Outback that was introduced at the 1994 New York Auto Show was positioned as a trim level on the Legacy wagon. Most current Outback owners wouldn’t recognize the very first 1995 model year Legacy Outback, which lacked the additional ride height found on later versions of the car and was distinguished from the base Legacy trim by its unique interior, two-tone paint job, and a factory luggage rack. It wasn’t until 1996 that the Outback gained an SUV-challenging 7.8 inches of ground clearance, along with tires better suited to gravel roads as well as the outsized fog lights that became instantly familiar to Subaru fans. Also in the mix was Australian actor and Outback pitchman Paul Hogan (of Crocodile Dundee fame), who would stick around for most of the decade.
Under the hood, the Legacy Outback initially offered a horizontally opposed 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine good for about 135 horsepower, while later versions of the wagon would graduate to a 2.5-liter unit that added an extra 30 ponies. All-wheel drive was standard, but not homogenous: if you specified a five-speed manual transmission, you benefited from a mechanical system that featured a 50/50 power split, while four-speed automatic cars came with a front-wheel biased, electronically managed design.
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An interesting footnote to the first-generation Outback was its compact twin, the Impreza Outback Sport. Also released as a 1995 model, and available exclusively as a hatchback, the Outback Sport rode marginally taller than the base model, and largely aped the outdoorsy styling of the larger Legacy-based wagon (adding a non-functional hood scoop in the U.S. that spoke to the turbocharged Impreza WRX that was exclusive to Japan at that time). The Outback Sport would continue until the end of the third-generation Impreza’s production in 2011.
2000-2004: The Second Generation Leaves The Legacy Nest
By the end of the decade, there were two major changes in store for the Outback. The first was the addition of the SUS, or “Sport Utility Sedan,” which was the brainchild of Ernie Boch, a man who had taken a big chance on Subaru in the 1970s by purchasing Subaru of New England and building an empire that would account for a significant percentage of the brand’s national sales as everyone from Vermont to Rhode Island fell in love with the brand’s all-wheel drive offerings.
Boch convinced Subaru’s Japanese leadership that he could sell oodles of four-door Legacys simply by adding the Outback’s plastic body cladding, raising their ride height, and emphasizing their rugged appeal, and after paying for a prototype to be built, he convinced the automaker to produce 300 examples of his “SUS” as a test case to sell to New Englanders near the end of the decade. The company allowed him to test out his theory for two years on the East Coast, during which he achieved so much success that Subaru was convinced to roll out an official sedan version of the Outback once the second-generation design hit the market around.
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In addition to the Outback wagon gaining a four-door sibling, for the 2000 model year it also broke away from its Legacy branding and became a unique product in Subaru showrooms. Longer, wider, and roomier inside than the model that preceded it, a revised rear suspension system added considerable additional cargo space to the Outback equation and helped it challenge traditional SUVs more directly. The new Outback also gained access to the brand’s 3.0-liter flat six-cylinder engine (matched with a four-speed automatic), which pushed out just over 210 horsepower. The larger motor was mated to a more robust electronically controlled AWD system that backed away from the 90/10 front-to-rear power split associated with previous automatic-transmission in favor of a 45/55 distribution.
2005-2009: Turbo Power
Although it no longer wore the Legacy badge, the Subaru Outback’s development was still tightly coupled to that of the sedan and wagon, which meant it, too, benefited from an all-new platform for the 2005 model year. Again the crossover grew bigger, but the real story was the addition of the Outback XT with its 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine adding a significant performance boost to the vehicle. Rated at 250 horsepower and borrowed from the Subaru WRX STI, the automatic-only XT offer a near 100-horsepower advantage over the (also-new) base 2.5-liter naturally aspirated editions of the Outback.
The lack of a clutch pedal might have kept some enthusiasts away from the Outback XT, but it’s worth nothing that the crossover’s autobox had graduated from a four-speed to a five-speed design for 2005. Despite its extra size, the third-generation Subaru Outback was also lighter than the model it replaced, and its handling and ride quality were also improved by way of the vehicle’s revised suspension layout. Four-door fans were saddened by the loss of the SUS, which left the American market at the end of 2007.
2010-2014: Outback Grows Up
After years of fraternity with the Legacy wagon, the Subaru Outback parted ways with its long-roof companion after that model was discontinued from the American market. Also gone? The XT edition’s turbocharged engine, leaving the 2.5-liter four in its wake but introducing a new 3.6-liter horizontally opposed six-cylinder good for 256 horsepower or roughly what the outgoing turbo had to offer. Also new: the option of a continuously variable automatic transmission and a six-speed manual for the four-cylinder drivetrain.
Although the mechanical changes were important, a far more noticeable difference between this generation of Outback and the one before had to do with its size. Subaru went all-in when it came to styling the new crossover to better compete against the burgeoning crop of plus-size SUVs which were taking over the family car segment. The end result was a much larger version of the crossover that provided better interior room, more cargo space and another inch or so of ground clearance.
2015-Present: More Gear, More Tech
When the revised 2015 Subaru Outback hit the scene, it wasn’t nearly as dramatic a departure from the mold as it was in 2010 — but it did mark the end of an era, as the Legacy wagon that had carried on in other corners of the globe was sun-setted in favor of all Outback, all the time. Again the size of the vehicle grew, keeping it inside the footprint of the current crop of crossovers but still presenting as much larger than when it first debuted all the way back in 1995.
Under the hood, the same engine pairing of four and six-cylinder options continues on largely unchanged, although a continuously variable automatic is now standard for each. Subaru also invested in higher grade materials throughout the cabin and addressed long-standing complaints about its infotainment system while also adding a high degree of active safety gear through its EyeSight suite of equipment.
The Subaru Outback started its journey by presenting buyers with something outside the norm of what they could expect from other automakers, and despite having evolved into a more mainstream offering, it’s still unique enough to serve as Subaru’s strong-selling brand ambassador. Is there a car company that’s been better served by the market shift to SUVs and crossovers than Subaru? Probably not. But a key part of taking advantage of opportunity when it’s presented is being prepared to do so, and the Outback has been a key aspect of Subaru’s growth strategy for the past two decades.