When someone hit my 2013 Subaru Outback from behind last year – totaling it – my first reaction was to be pissed that I’d soon be back to making a car payment. Still – as I looked for the silver lining – I rationalized the car had over 130K miles on it and would soon need significant maintenance if I wanted to keep it “forever” – as a great many Subaru owners do. It never occurred to me that I’d not be happy having a new car. However, since replacing my baby with a 2019 Outback, that’s the opinion I’ve come to. Does that sound ridiculous? It should. But here’s why I think Subaru has taken a lot of the joy out of the Outback – a car that I was once so in love with that people couldn’t get me to shut up about it.
Why I loved my 2013
For years, quite a few reviewers have opined that the standard Outback with its 2.5-liter engine is underpowered (they make a 3.6 version), but I don’t feel that way. For me, they have enough pickup to overtake or get up to speed fast on an interstate on-ramp, which are about the only two places I really notice engine power and acceleration. While I have some longevity concerns, I even like the ease of the quirky continuously variable transmission which is anathema to stick shift purists (I will admit the paddle shifters supposed to mimic a manual transmission seem extraneous, and I never use them).
My 2013 mainly felt fast and nimble to me because I was blown away by the handling. Despite being a relatively heavy station wagon, it had a low center of gravity — thanks to the boxer engine – and took corners better than some sports cars I’d owned in my youth. Its uncannily stuck-to-the-ground feeling in the worst of rainy or snowy conditions totally won me over. That handling assurance extended to high-speed interstate turns where the car resolutely remained glued to the pavement even if it was pouring rain or there were dips or other unevenness in the surface.
A white-knuckle ride in the mountains
That is not how the 2019 feels. A few weeks after I bought it, a Thanksgiving road trip to see family took me through the West Virginia mountains on the very twisty I-77. I literally had to back way off my normal speeds in a cold sweat as the car repeatedly gave me the sensation it was about to leave the road in turns – even when traveling at or below the speed limit in some cases. Despite being a brand-new car, it leans over in bends like the suspension is worn out, and it wallows and squirrels around like your grandfather’s Buick if you hit a bump or dip at interstate velocity – even when moving in a straight line. A little internet research revealed that Subaru intentionally softened the suspension on the latest Outback models, and I couldn’t be less happy about it. The only cure seems to be spending hundreds of dollars on beefier sway bars and springs, which is a ridiculous investment to have to make in a brand-new car, especially as the older models didn’t have the problem.
I have not had this car in the snow yet, so I’m fervently hoping that in that area at least, the Outback retains its reputation for being a four-wheel-drive badass.
Shade tree mechanics beware
The Thanksgiving road trip was just the beginning of Ian falling out of love with the Outback. For me – and I think a lot of other owners – one of the joys of Subaru was that it was a tinkerers’ car. They’ve always been easy to work on. On recent models, the Outback oil filter – for example – is on top of the engine where it’s a snap to replace.
As I moved stuff into my new car, the very first thing I noticed about the 2019 is there’s less room for tool storage above the spare tire in the back. Subaru apparently added more insulation there to make the ride quieter. Then, when I did my first oil change, I realized they’ve covered the whole bottom of the motor with a plastic splash guard with only a small hole in it to access the drain plug. The plug itself is now 14mm, which is smaller than the old 17mm one, and more susceptible to rounding off. The angle to get to the plug is impossible unless you run the car up on wheel ramps. It feels like the expectation is now that you will always take this car to a professional for service, and do-it-yourselfers are not welcome.
All those safety gadgets are not gold
Then, there’s the technology. In my opinion, the tech Subaru has packed this car with is so stupid, invasive, and distracting that it’s hard to know where to start bitching.
When I bought my 2013, Subaru’s binocular “Eyesight” safety package – which uses twin cameras mounted in the top of the windshield to see obstacles ahead of you and apply the brake autonomously – was an option. Now, it’s standard. In my 2019, it seems to work okay, but it’s often fooled by vehicles that are turning to the right out of the street in front of me. A flashing dash light combined with a loud beeping distracts you from paying attention to the road – even when the car ahead is clearly going to be out of your path when you get to it.
Despite its imperfections, I can see the value in anti-collision tech, but what I truly hate is the “Lane Keep Assist” which beeps at you if it thinks you’ve wandered into the yellow or white lane-marking lines unintentionally – which it literally does every few minutes because road striping isn’t letter perfect and neither is my driving. A few minutes in this car makes you feel like you’re a drunk who can’t keep it on the road. The system can be turned off, but then you’ve got a bright yellow warning light illuminated on the instrument panel telling you it’s off. I don’t know about you, but I’m conditioned to think yellow warning lights on the dash represent problems that need to be solved ASAP – like low gas or check oil, etc.
Another light that comes on – and also stays on – is a warning when the outside temperature drops below 37 degrees telling you that the roads might be icy. Really Subaru? The roads might be icy even if it hasn’t rained in a week because it’s cold out? Of all the tech in this car, this is the stupidest. Conservatives in the UK and U.S. have groused about the “nanny state” for decades, and some of this tech feels like the rolling embodiment of it.
And as long as I’m bitching about the tech…
One of the problems we constantly hear about today is distracted driving. God knows as a cyclist I’m terrified I’ll be hit from behind by some dufus texting and driving. All the beeping and flashing dash warning lights in the 2019 Outback are distracting enough (even after you’ve worked to condition yourself to ignore them), but let me tell you about the center console display (I have the larger 8″ optional version in my car for anyone interested).
My 2013 predated Android Auto, and if I wanted to use Google maps, I had a suction cup device for my windshield to hold my phone and that worked just fine. It sat separately from the radio/CD player. I’d set it and forget it before leaving my driveway if I needed sat nav to help me get somewhere.
In the 2019, the radio and the sat nav are all combined with other apps in the center console. The thing that I find baffling is that when using the built-in sat nav, the design of the console makes the radio presets invisible. You have to punch multiple buttons to get from the map to the radio to change the channel and then switch back to navigation again. Distracting much? Did the designers spend any time driving this car to see how the interface worked? Because, I can pretty much guarantee most users listen to the radio at the same time they’re trying to navigate somewhere. Why couldn’t they at least have the presets across the bottom on such a large screen just below the map?
Android Auto not leaving me breathless
It’s probably unfair to lay this totally at Subaru’s feet and not Google’s too, but Android Auto is still very buggy. For example, for the first couple of months that I owned the car I couldn’t adjust the radio volume if my phone was plugged in to the USB port (a requirement to use Google maps through the console because it won’t connect over Bluetooth for some unknown reason). It would try and change the map voice audio level instead. The good thing is both my phone and the car talk to my home Wi-Fi, so updates install automatically. The audio bug eventually went away.
Still, things occasionally stop working for no apparent reason, and sometimes the only fix is to totally shut the car off and wait for 30 minutes before starting it again. For example, the car just stops recognizing my phone altogether even though it’s plugged in and shows it’s charging. That’s highly irritating if you’re using Google maps at that moment to navigate. None of the problems pop up predictively enough to get a service tech to track them down.
I’d like to give the boot the boot
As long as I’m on a rant, let me also tell you about the rear gate. I had only two design complaints about the whole of the 2013 model: 1) The hatchback door had no keyhole, which meant that if the car battery was dead, then you couldn’t open it to get to your jumper cables packed in around the spare tire. 2) The battery would drain out if you forgot to turn off a map light and the car sat overnight. The map lights wouldn’t turn off by themselves (unlike the other interior lights that did).
But, forget keyholes and dead batteries now. With the 2019 version, Subaru has decided to go even further and automate the rear gate with an open and close motor system which I’ve not found a way to bypass. Not only does it slow you down, but if the gate senses any impediment like you’ve crammed the trunk with bags, it’ll get all the way down and then beep a warning and open all the way again. Gone are the days when you could simply slam the door on a full trunk to get it closed.
Who is this nut anyway?
Look, I get it. At this point I probably sound like a crazy rambling old Luddite who just hates anything “new,” but I’m actually a rather techy person with a fondness for gadgets and innovation. Yes, my phone and laptop also get weird little bugs that require updates or hard restarts to fix – it just comes with the territory. What I’m questioning with the Outback is whether all the new technology Subaru has jammed into it even necessary? Is it genuinely helpful? Does it make the car more enjoyable? Even worse, how much has it needlessly inflated the purchase price of the car?
I haven’t even included the push start feature in my rant so far, which seems to have become ubiquitous in new cars. I read recently about the theft problems associated with wireless key fobs and people starting to wrap them in tinfoil. So, we’ve created a problem by adopting technology that’s completely needless. Was putting your key in the ignition and turning it really that hard people?
This isn’t just a Subaru thing. Most cars now offer many of the features offered in the Outback. Shiny new cars and cool gadgets have been part of automotive marketing since the days of General Motors offering colors and Henry Ford stubbornly insisting on a plain black. I just happen to have been a loyal Subaru buyer. The techiest “new” thing on my 2013 was the backup camera. That was a brand-new gizmo for me at the time and one I still dearly love.
But, this new car feels like it’s jack full of unnecessary crap like Cadillacs and Mercedes are notorious for like auto-retracting (and expensive to repair) radio antennas or motorized cup holders. The one valuable thing this car has taught me is just how far technology has to advance before autonomous self-driving vehicles are possible. Given what I’ve seen in the 2019 models, we ain’t there yet by a long shot.
Now endeth the rant
Still, my overarching fundamental issue with the car is the handling. Anyone buying an Outback for the first time probably won’t know the difference, but intentionally making changes which result in a vehicle handling poorly at high speed is confounding and unforgivable to me. I’m seriously considering buying an older Subaru and restoring it. Then I’d have a car I actually enjoy driving before selling this one.