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Subaru redesigns family favorite Outback

Twenty years after its debut the 2015 Subaru

Twenty years after its debut the 2015 Subaru Outback arrives later this year. Credit: Subaru

Canada's 10th province is called "The Rock" for good reason. From its craggy shorelines to its Appalachian Mountain Range peaks, Newfoundland is a place of discovery for geologists and archeologists who have uncovered evidence that the Vikings stepped foot in North America hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus.

Newfoundlanders, as it turns out, are also huge Subaru fans, which is understandable considering they endure some of the harshest weather and suspension-torturing backwoods roads on the continent. In short, the province is ideal for putting the 2015 Outback through its paces.

Hard to believe it has been 20 years since Aussie Paul "Crocodile Dundee" Hogan's catchy TV spots helped to successfully launch the all-wheel-drive Outback. Since then, the plucky wagon has remained true to its roots, while undergoing continuous improvements with each of its five successive generations.

For 2015, the Legacy-sedan-based Outback, which arrives later this year, steps up its game with a number tweaks and major updates. Visually, the car appears similar to the outgoing version, although a revised grille, lightweight aluminum hood, reshaped headlights and door-mounted mirrors are evident. Subaru's designers also increased the windshield rake my moving the front roof pillars forward by a couple of inches. Overall there are only modest changes in most key dimensions, which means a bit more interior space for passengers and cargo.

Inside, the upgrading continues with a quieter cabin containing a reshaped dashboard, larger front seats and a more cavernous floor console that can easily hold a full-size tablet device or a small laptop computer.

Underneath, the Outback's suspension has been retuned to improve the ride and add greater agility to what was already a pretty agile wagon. Subaru also added Active Torque Vectoring that applies slight brake pressure to the inside front wheel for greater turning precision. It's an effect you'll sense more than feel, but the Outback certainly feels at ease traversing twisty switchbacks.

There are only slight adjustments to the Outback's available powertrains. The base 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine returns with a bit more peak horsepower  - 175 versus 173 - but with the same 174 pound-feet torque rating. The optional 3.6-liter six-cylinder maintains its 256-horsepower and 247 pound-feet torque ratings.

Each engine is connected to a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The six-speed manual gearbox that was available in the previous 2.5-liter Outback has been discontinued in the United States, but remains available in Newfoundland and the rest of Canada. Lucky them.

The CVT helps the Outback achieve 25 mpg in the city and 35 on the highway (previously 24/30).

Many automakers' CVTs have been given bad raps, but the Outback's unit, including paddle shifters and six simulated ratios, is the best by far and could fool most drivers into thinking it was a regular six-gear automatic.

Subaru says the Outback's standard all-wheel-drive system has been updated for improved slippery road performance but without an A-B comparison, it's not evident. A new driver-controlled X-Mode adjusts the transmission and engine output plus the AWD system to reduce wheelspin. X-Mode also adds Hill Descent Control (keeps vehicle speed to a crawl), Incline Start Assist (briefly holds the vehicle when starting on hills) and a Hill Holder System that prevents the Outback from rolling backward when stopped, until the accelerator is pressed.

When combined with the Outback's 8.7-inch ground clearance, X-Mode makes the Outback more fit for rugged off-road duty. To prove the point, Subaru personnel laid out an extreme, middle-of-nowhere torture course consisting of steep boulder- and tree-stump-strewn paths that would challenge any serious off-road driver and machine. The Outback survived unscathed and left this driver suitably impressed.

What's really amazing, though, is how rapidly vehicles such as the Outback have evolved. Blending impressive comfort, content and go-anywhere competency into a $25,750 (base price with destination charges) package is a feat unto itself, whether you live in Newfoundland, North Carolina, Nevada, or anyplace in between.

What you should know: 2015 Subaru Outback
Type: Four-door, all-wheel-drive mid-size wagon
Engines (hp): 2.5-liter DOHC H4 (175); 3.6-liter DOHC H6 (256)
Transmission: Continuously variable (CVT)
Market position: The Outback straddles the line between traditional station wagon and car-based sport utility vehicle, with an impressive amount of standard and available comfort content dialed in for good measure.
Points: Revised design is more attractive; Improvement in Subaru's all-wheel-drive technology is impressive; Upgraded interior places greater emphasis on luxury; Six-cylinder engine seems an unnecessary purchase, given the four-cylinder's performance; On- and off-road prowess plus inviting base price puts competitors on notice.
Safety: Front airbags; side-impact airbags; side-curtain airbags; front seat-cushion airbags; anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.
MPG: (city/hwy) 25/33 (2.5)
Base price: (incl. destination) $25,750

By comparison

Jeep Cherokee
Base price: $24,000
New-for-2014 model has heritage and high style on its side. Go with V6 option.

Kia Sorento
Base price: $25,000
Underrated wagon can seat seven. Optional 290-hp V6 is tops in class.

Volvo XC70
Base price: $35,400
While pricier, this wagon remains the Outback's primary competition.

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