Wagon Master: A History of the Subaru Outback
How the Outback went from being hawked by Crocodile Dundee to an American-market staple.
The Subaru Outback may not have pioneered the lifted station-wagon look, but it certainly popularized it. From its humble beginnings as a Subaru Legacy variant hawked by Crocodile Dundee as an SUV alternative, the Outback has changed perhaps more than you might have expected over its six generations. But the adventure-loving spirit of the original carries over to the new 2020 Subaru Outback, the largest and most advanced iteration yet. Read on to find out how the Outback has changed over the years.
First Generation (1995-1999)
The first Subaru Outback arrived as a trim package for the second-generation Subaru Legacy L wagon. The very first model in 1995 was essentially just a Legacy wagon with plastic body cladding and a more durable cloth interior. The suspension lift the Outback is known for today wouldn't arrive until 1996, along with a larger 2.5-liter flat-four good for 155 horsepower. The first-gen Outback is perhaps best known for its ad campaign featuring Crocodile Dundee star Paul Hogan, who pushed the then-new model as a smart, rugged alternative to SUVs of the day like the Ford Explorer and Jeep Cherokee. After the updates for the 1996 model year, the Outback at least looked more rugged with its 7.3 inches of ground clearance and chunkier mud and snow tires. By 1997, the first Outback sedan was sold in limited numbers to see how a "Sport Utility Sedan" might be received. It must've been considered a success, because the Outback sedan continued for two more generations.
Impreza Outback Sport
To build on the momentum of the Legacy-based Outback, Subaru gave the same two-tone body cladding treatment to the first-gen Impreza wagon and called it the Impreza Outback Sport. The first Impreza Outback Sports (1994-2001) also got the same hood as the sportier Impreza 2.5 RS model, complete with vents and a nonfunctional (but cool looking) hood scoop. Over the next two generations of Impreza, the Outback Sport was sold as a separate model without the Impreza badging until finally ending production in 2011. However, the model's spirit lives on in the form of the Subaru Crosstrek.
Second Generation (2000-2004)
The Outback was officially spun off from the Legacy as a separate model in its second generation, although the two continue to share basic architecture to this day. The new wagon was longer and wider, and offered a 3.0-liter six-cylinder boxer engine as an option for the first time. That engine produced a healthy 212 horsepower, and the updated base 2.5-liter flat-four now made 165 horses.
Third Generation (2005-2009)
Once again, the Outback grew in size, gaining in nearly every dimension. It also got a new look that was more upscale than those of the last two models. The venerable EJ25 2.5-liter flat-four now made 175 horsepower, and the optional flat-six's output jumped to 245 horsepower. But the big news was the addition of a third engine option in the Outback XT—a turbocharged 2.5-liter flat-four that produced 250 horses and 250 lb-ft of torque, more than the six-cylinder's 219 lb-ft. The Outback sedan was discontinued for the 2008 model year, as was the Legacy wagon in the U.S., making the Outback the only Legacy-based longroof option in this market.
Fourth Generation (2010-2014)
The fourth-gen Outback saw the biggest wheelbase gain yet at 2.8 inches, and its width also expanded by 3.6 inches. Those changes helped grant the new Outback a more spacious cabin, which helped bring the Outback further into midsize crossover territory. The turbo engine was dropped, leaving the North American Outback with naturally aspirated flat-four and flat-six choices once again. But the six-cylinder option was new, with displacement increased to 3.6 liters and output up to 256 horsepower and 247 lb-ft—and on regular gas rather than the premium fuel the old 3.0-liter required. A CVT was also new, available on the four-cylinder Outback along with a new six-speed manual (the previous manual option was a five-speed). Sadly, this would be the last generation to offer a manual in the U.S.
Fifth Generation (2015-2019)
The Outback's dimensions increased slightly for its fifth generation, with its wheelbase growing 0.2 inch and overall length by 0.6 inch. Width increased by 0.7 inch over its predecessor. But those changes, however small, resulted in respectable growth in interior space. Cabin volume increased from 105.4 cubic feet to 108.1 cubic feet, and the cargo area gained an extra 2 cubic feet. Engine options carried over for the most part, but the 2.5-liter was updated for improved efficiency and quieter operation. A CVT was now the only transmission choice. The new model received the latest version of Subaru's EyeSight advanced safety suite, and also got a new infotainment system with up to a 7.0-inch touchscreen. Later models would get Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability.