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Pros: More passenger and cargo space than comparably priced SUVs; big-time ground clearance; low roof with versatile rails; fuel efficient
Cons: Imprecise steering; odd power delivery; Wilderness’ on-road handling and fuel economy
It may seem contradictory, but one of the most capable SUVs you can buy is actually a wagon. The 2023 Subaru Outback checks off all the boxes many people buy an SUV for: ample space, cargo-carrying versatility, standard all-wheel drive and extra ground clearance. It also has an undeniable rugged look and vibe. The Outback then goes further than simply checking the normal boxes. It actually outdoes the space, versatility and ground clearance of most similarly priced crossover SUVs, while boasting a notable wagon-specific advantage in a lower roof that makes it easier to load things (and yourself) up onto the lid.
In other words, the Outback is a great choice for those who actually intend to take their outdoor adventure vehicle on adventures outdoors. There’s a reason it’s so darn popular in the Northeast, Pacific Northwest, Colorado and Alaska. Seeing one without some sort of accessory rack on top is rare, while the bumper or windows will inevitably be festooned in stickers for national parks or outdoor brands.
Last year, Subaru double-downed on the Outback’s outdoorsy popularity by introducing the even more rugged Outback Wilderness. Owners were already lifting their Outbacks even further off the ground and fitting all-terrain tires, so Subaru basically figured it would offer a version like that from the factory, complete with unique styling that remains intact for 2023 even though the rest of the Outback line gets a facelift. The Wilderness is definitely the coolest Outback, but its unique capability has its downsides (on-road handling, fuel economy), so don’t write off the regular versions as your go-to, SUV-besting wagon.
What’s new for 2023?
Every Outback but the Wilderness gets a redesigned front end for 2023 (before and after pics are above). The grille is larger, the LED foglamps are round and more pronounced, and it’s all bracketed by big, black cladding similar to what you’ll find on the new Solterra EV. From our perspective, it’s a bit much and just makes the Wilderness that much more visually appealing. Other updates include the Onyx Edition now available with the base 2.5-liter engine in addition to the previously standard 2.4-liter turbo. The top-of-the-line Touring trim gains a rearview camera mirror and an extra EyeSight camera that enhances the forward collision warning system’s pedestrian and cyclist detection. The latest version of Subaru’s Starlink 11.6-inch touchscreen interface is also added to all but the base trim. It includes wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, plus the ability for the navigation system to use what3words location identification. That’ll make navigating to a specific spot off the grid that much easier.
Nearly every 2023 Outback comes with a vertically oriented 11.6-inch touchscreen. We found it to be flawed in the past with cartoonish graphics, but we haven’t had an opportunity to test the updated version of the interface for 2023. It should still be just as easy to reach and to see, however, thanks to that gigantic screen. The base Outback’s system, which oddly consists of two 7-inch screens, is unchanged.
In terms of design, we can’t say the interior is especially attractive, but materials quality is stronger than it was in the past. The buttons and switches have a high-quality feel to them, while even the base trim gets simulated leather stitched together on the dash, doors and center console. There’s also a welcome injection of color found in the Onyx Edition (gray and black “StarTex” vinyl accented in electric green), the Wilderness (textured “StarTex” upholstery with bronze accents throughout, shown above left) and the range-topping Touring (tasteful brown leather, shown above right). The Wilderness also gets special all-weather floor mats with emblems and mountains embossed on them.
Think a wagon is smaller than an SUV? Think again. With its substantially longer wheelbase and overall length, the Outback exceeds the space you’ll find in compact crossovers like the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4 and Subaru’s own Forester. This is especially noteworthy for parents with rear-facing child seats (see our Outback car seat space test here).
Cargo volume, meanwhile, is exceptional. True, it’s a bit less with the back seat raised (32.5 cubic feet) than some larger compact crossovers (RAV4, Tucson, Sportage), but their numbers are a bit deceiving since so much of an SUV’s space is up high in the greenhouse where filling it can block rear visibility and pose a danger due to items flying forward. The Outback’s space, by contrast, is more reliant on its generous width and depth. Its maximum cargo capacity with the seats down also provides greater length, countering the extra height of SUV competitors. In our experience, this makes the Outback more useful overall.
Even better, most versions of the Outback includes unique roof rails that swing inward to become their own crossbars (pictured below). There are also sturdy tie-down points front and back, and since the Outback’s roof is lower than an SUV’s, it’s easier to load stuff up there (including yourself in a roof-top tent). The downside to these roof rails is that they have a lower weight capacity and limited crossbar placement. As the most hardcore Outback, the Wilderness therefore has stronger, fixed roof rails (below, bottom left) to meet more demanding needs.
The Outback comes standard with a 2.5-liter horizontally opposed “Boxer” four-cylinder that produces 182 horsepower and 176 pound-feet of torque. This amount is mid-pack when compared to most compact crossovers. Midsize crossovers like the Honda Passport have far more standard power, but also get worse fuel economy. The base Outback engine returns 26 mpg city, 32 mpg highway and 28 mpg combined, which is excellent considering every Outback comes standard with all-wheel drive. A continuously variable transmission (CVT) is also obligatory.
The upgrade engine is designated by the name XT and is optional on the Limited, Onyx Edition and Touring trim levels. It’s standard on the Wilderness. This turbocharged 2.4-liter boxer-four produces 260 hp and 277 lb-ft of torque, which is a far more compelling output. It’s definitely a box to check if you plan on putting all that space to good use and especially if it’ll happen at altitude, where naturally aspirated engines lose power. Fuel economy can still be quite good with an estimate of 23 mpg city, 30 mpg highway and 26 mpg combined. The Wilderness takes a significant hit due to its higher ride height and all-terrain tires with estimates of 21/26/23.
The Outback’s steering is quite numb on center, which doesn’t promote a sense of driver-machine control. It’s easy to turn at low speeds, and actually well-suited to loose off-road surfaces, but for those hoping a wagon will be more involving to drive than a small SUV, the steering is a real letdown. And it actually gets worse. The Wilderness has Yokohama Geolander all-terrain tires, which look cool and are certainly beneficial off-road, but on-road they create a squishy, delayed response off center (as is typical for all-terrain tires) and significantly reduce grip on pavement. The amount of slide we experienced in a damp hairpin turn was almost comical. Interestingly, we did not experience the same response issues in the Forester Wilderness, which has the same tires, though a different suspension and steering tuning.
As for the Outback Wilderness suspension, the ride is acceptably firmer than the notably soft tuning you’ll find in other Outbacks. We didn’t notice a degradation in handling due to the lift, but that’s because the tires didn’t really give us the opportunity to push the thing. No Outback is ultimately much of a handler. At the same time, though, you can tell that it’s lower and wider than the small SUVs it’s bound to be compared with. That’s a good thing for those of us who prefer the feel of driving a car and being a bit lower to the ground (even if the Outback has more ground clearance than most SUVs at 8.7 standard or an almost-absurd 9.5 for the Wilderness). Its longer wheelbase also helps provide a smoother, more composed ride.
The base engine provides sufficient power, and the CVT helps keep revs relaxingly low at dawdling, around-town speeds. Push it, however, and this engine quickly loses steam and wails as the CVT does its best to keep revs beneficially high. Though it attempts to create a more traditional driving feel by simulating upshifts, it does so at unusual times that don’t exactly mitigate the unusual feel and sound of a CVT. These attributes remain in the turbocharged XT, but are at least mitigated by the more powerful engine that doesn’t have to work as hard. That said, the turbo engine is also a bit old-school in its power delivery. It feels pretty pokey and slow until about 3,000 rpm, and then bam, the turbo kicks in. We’re guessing this is more the result of promoting good fuel economy by limiting boost at low rpm rather than old-fashioned 1980s turbo lag.
What other Subaru Outback reviews can I read?
The full scoop on the Outback Wilderness with more detailed information about its special features and what it’s like to drive.
Subaru uniquely sells two similarly sized crossovers: one more wagon-like, the other more SUV-like. We test them side-by-side.
We test the Outback’s unique roof rails that become their own crossbars using the new Yakima CBX Solar.
We take a deep dive into the Outback’s cargo capacity in this luggage test, finding out how much stuff fits in the cargo area.
Our contributing engineer Dan Edmunds takes you underneath the new Outback to explain why it’s better to drive than the previous generation and how it differs from the Legacy.
How much does the Outback back seat have for a giant rear-facing car seat, and importantly, how much is left over for mom and dad up front? This provides the answers.
Our first drive review of the new Outback, including more information about what’s new and its revised design and engineering.
We sample the new Outback with its base engine in the top-of-the-line Touring trim level.
Standard equipment is generous. Besides the abundant safety tech described in the section below, you get allow wheels, steering adaptive LED headlights, fog lights, automatic climate control, a rearview camera washer, roof rails with integrated tie-downs and crossbars, two 7-inch touchscreens, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, satellite radio and a four-speaker sound system.
As is usually the case, stepping up to the second trim level rung is a good idea. For an extra $2,250, the Outback Premium extras include a power driver seat, heated front seats, a leather-wrapped wheel, dual-zone climate control, rear air vents, a cargo cover, the vertically oriented 11.6-inch touchscreen, two rear USB ports and six speakers.
As we see it, the main reason to step up to the upper trim levels is to gain access to the XT turbo engine upgrade. Among those, we think the Onyx Edition is the one to get, mostly because its water-repellant “StarTex” vinyl upholstery will wear better and is easy to clean (and it’s cow free). As for the Wilderness, its compromised on-road handling would give us serious pause, but we can’t deny the appeal of its special looks and increased capability. It adds 0.8 inch of ground clearance, Yokohama Geolander all-terrain tires, special black wheels, a matching full-size spare, ladder-type fixed roof rails, hexagonal LED foglights, different bumpers and fender flares, bronze color accents inside and out, and special X-Mode calibration.
All prices below include the $1,225 destination charge.
Onyx Edition: $34,720
Onyx Edition XT: $39,810
Limited XT: $40,920
Touring XT: $43,520
Every 2023 Outback includes forward collision warning with pedestrian detection and automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, a rear seat occupant reminder and adaptive cruise control with lane-centering steering. Blind-spot and rear cross-traffic alert are optional on the base trim and standard on all others. The DriverFocus distraction mitigation system is optional on the Limited and standard on the Touring. The Touring also gets an extra camera that enhances the pedestrian and cyclist detection of the forward collision warning/prevention system.
These systems all accomplish the task of keeping you safe, which is the point. However, they are also a bit over-eager and vocal about their warnings – there’s an awful lot of beeping and blinking lights. Comparable systems of rival brands tend to do the same jobs with less annoyance.
Government crash ratings are a perfect five stars across the board. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety also named it a Top Safety Pick for its best-possible crash protection and prevention ratings. Its headlight ratings were also better than most and its LATCH child seat anchors received the best-possible “Good+” rating (part of that is the fact the Outback has a rare middle LATCH anchor).