The Subaru Outback is pretty much legendary among Subaru loyalists, but it is also quite well regarded by those living in snow-frequented states like Vermont, Maine, and Montana. With its standard Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive, increased ground clearance, and additional body cladding, the Subaru Outback very much treads on terrain usually reserved for big SUVs. To its credit, the Outback’s wagon body makes it feel less truck-like, and for many people, that’s a positive.
Over the years, the Outback has evolved, growing larger and more luxurious, with some top-grade models compared with cars like the Audi Allroad and the Volvo V60 Cross Country. The Outback also largely has the genre it created all to itself, with no other wagon offering the same level of style, comfort, features, price, and off-road ability.
It should be noted that from 1994-2011, the Outback name was also applied to a trim level of the Impreza Wagon. That model, known as the Outback Sport, has no relation to the larger Outback covered in this review.
1st Generation (1995-1999)
When the Outback first debuted at the 1994 New York Auto Show, it was barely distinguishable from the Legacy L wagon upon which it was based. There was no additional cladding, no elevated ride height, just a 2-tone paint job, an upgraded interior, and Outback badges. Power came from a 2.2-liter boxer engine that generated 135 horsepower.
Successful sales convinced Subaru they were on to something, so in 1996 the Outback gained a taller ride height, more aggressive tires, oversized fog lights, and gray lower body cladding. It also got Australian heartthrob Paul Hogan as its official spokesperson and was given a more powerful 2.5-liter boxer engine good for 165 hp.
A 5-speed manual was standard and came with a 50/50 division of power between the front and rear wheels. The optional 4-speed automatic used an electronic system that favored the front wheels for better fuel economy. In 1997 the Limited trim was introduced, bringing leather seats, fancier wheels, and more upscale options. In 1999 a 30th Anniversary model was offered, but changes to the Outback remained minimal. Find a 1st generation Subaru Outback for sale
2nd Generation (2000-2004)
In 2000, the Outback became its own model, gaining the now-familiar tall ride height, protective body cladding, and SUV-like attitude. During this time, Subaru also created a sedan version of the Outback, retaining much of the wagon’s looks and features but with a trunk in place of an open cargo bay. Over its 5-year model run, the second-generation Outback gained more high-end features, like a power driver’s seat, a dual-panel sunroof, and heated seats, as well as a more powerful 3.0-liter 6-cylinder engine that bumped output to 210 hp.
A number of specialty trims arrived during this time, including the L.L. Bean, VDC, and Audio. It has recently been reported that the 2000-2004 Outback has become extremely popular with the well-off in places like Boulder, Colorado, and Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It’s become sort of a cult classic, which may push prices higher than some newer Outbacks. Trouble spots to watch for include a history of blown head gaskets around 100,000 miles, air and water leaks around the frameless door windows, and some transmission and center differential issues on high mileage cars. Find a 2nd generation Subaru Outback for sale
3rd Generation (2005-2009)
The third-generation Subaru Outback rode on an entirely new platform, up again in size and weight, but with roughly the same interior volume as the previous generation. The sometimes problematic frameless windows remained, but the rest of the 2005 Outback saw a significant update to its looks, with a sleeker front end, more aggressive wheels, and a more luxurious interior. This is also the generation that received the turbocharged XT trim. Rated at 250 hp, the 2.5-liter turbocharged engine in the XT could be paired with a 5-speed manual or a 5-speed automatic. Output from the turbo matched that of the 6-cylinder, but with more low-end torque.
The 2.5-liter four-cylinder models saw horsepower rise to 175 and could still be equipped with a choice of manual or automatic transmissions. During this time, Subaru expanded the Outback’s feature set to include a power passenger seat, navigation, and a Harman/Kardon audio upgrade. In 2008, the Outback sedan was dropped, leaving only the wagon. Also gone was the popular L.L. Bean edition. Head gasket issues remain for both the 4- and 6-cylinder cars, and Consumer Reports noted multiple issues with the turbocharged engine relating to engine cooling and transmission issues. Find a 3rd generation Subaru Outback for sale
4th Generation (2010-2014)
The introduction of the 2010 Outback marked the most radical change in the wagon’s history, growing in height and width but ironically ending up one inch shorter than the 2009 model. The look was far more aggressive and even a bit polarizing when compared to the sleek and tastefully 2-tone colored models of the previous generation.
The turbo model was dropped, replaced by an all-new 3.6-liter engine mated to a 5-speed automatic transmission. The 2.5-liter models were paired with a CVT automatic, a first for the Outback and one that greatly improved fuel economy. A 6-speed manual was also available. The biggest improvement to the 2010 Outback, however, was inside, where rear-seat legroom became copious with only a slight reduction to rear cargo space. Major milestones for this generation include a set of unique roof rack fold-away crossbars, the introduction of the EyeSight collision avoidance system in 2013, and the use of framed door glass, which improved both interior noise levels and weatherproofing.
CVT models suffered some early issues with reliability, and the head gasket failure issue continued to plague some early cars. Some 2010-2012 models suffered from an odd wheel vibration at speed, while the 2013 model had an issue with excessive oil consumption due to defective piston rings. Subaru had to settle a class-action lawsuit by extending the warranty on the engine and reimbursing owners for any expenses related to the flaw. Find a 4th generation Subaru Outback for sale
5th Generation (2015-2019)
The fifth-generation Outback worked on polishing the rough edges found on the fourth-generation car starting in 2015. The engines were made a bit more powerful and smoother, a CVT was now standard with the 3.6-liter engine, and the manual transmission option was dropped. The interior was vastly more sophisticated, with better materials, seats, and fabrics. The ride was made smoother, and interior sound levels dropped, while EyeSight was expanded and improved and became standard starting in 2019.
Issues with the infotainment system, a Subaru sore point, were finally addressed, with the 2018 models gaining Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Looking out on the web, we found some issues regarding creaking rear suspension trailing arms, issues with the Starlink infotainment system not working with older generation iPods, batteries that failed to hold a charge, and some annoying squeaks and rattles inside the cabin after a few years use. Another issue to consider on any Outback with the EyeSight system is the cost to replace the windshield. Because of the placement of the EyeSight cameras behind the windshield, the cost to replace the glass and recalibrate the cameras can be more expensive than a standard windshield. Find a 5th generation Subaru Outback for sale
6th Generation (2020-Present)
An all-new Subaru Outback was introduced for the 2020 model year. To the untrained eye, this won’t look much different from a 5th generation model. It retains the same basic look but has a few subtle tweaks that make the look more modern. It’s what’s on the inside that counts. It has a decidedly more upscale interior than its predecessors. It also retains the excellent off-road capability and a roomy interior.
The standard engine is an efficient naturally-aspirated flat-four. The six-cylinder is gone and replaced with a turbocharged flat-four, which delivers performance similar to the old six-cylinder, but with better fuel economy. Find a 6th generation Subaru Outback for sale
Which Subaru Outback is Right For Me
The Outback has certainly grown larger and more luxurious over the years, but depending on your budget and concern for such things as advanced driver assists and cutting edge infotainment, you can’t go wrong with a well maintained older model.
The first-generation cars are going to be pretty high mileage vehicles, likely with significant interior wear and more than likely new or rebuilt engines. You’d be better off starting out with a second- or third-generation model, which as we said have gained a bit of a cult following. These Outbacks have the ground clearance one needs to get through deep snow, offered the option of a more powerful 6-cylinder engine and were generally nicely equipped.
For those wanting to upgrade their car with modern convenience like Bluetooth and Apple CarPlay, it should be noted that the 2005-2009 models have the HVAC and audio controls integrated into a single faceplate, making upgrading to a newer audio system rather problematic, not to mention expensive. If you’re a fan of the big panoramic moonroof, these models were last to have one.
The fourth- and fifth-generation Outbacks are definitely the ones to get if you need lots of rear seat room and a more versatile cargo carrier. These models are also the most comfortable, most fuel efficient and most off-road capable, but they’ll also cost a fair bit more than an older model.
If you go with model older than six years, a private party sale may be advantageous both for the ability to negotiate a better price and the possibility that the owner kept meticulous repair and maintenance records. A car only a few years old might be better bought from a dealer than can provide an inspection as well as some type of warranty. Find a Subaru Outback for sale