Subaru took the wraps off its all-new 2015 Outback in New York on Thursday. I was there, and I got a close-up look at the new Subaru and heard what the company's executives had to say about it.
Here's what I can tell you: As I expected, the 2015 Outback is all new, but it's not a revolutionary product. As you can see from the photos, inside and outside it looks like, well, an Outback. In fact, casual car fans might be hard-pressed to tell the new one from the outgoing model.
It's an all-new vehicle, but it's right in keeping with Subaru's don't-mess-with-success approach: a whole lot of incremental improvements, but no big changes.
I suspect that will turn out to be exactly the right approach.
A very familiar all-new package
Outside, at first glance, the new Outback is awfully familiar -- and that was very much Subaru's plan. But look more closely, and you'll see some new details: New LED headlight trims and taillights add a more premium look, while bigger fenders and wider tires give it just a hint more SUV-ness.
Inside, there's a big touchscreen in the center console, with what Subaru says is "a new generation of interface design." In keeping with what we've seen from other mass-market automakers recently -- and in keeping with Subaru's changes to the Legacy sedan, which was unveiled earlier this year -- the quality of the materials used on interior surfaces has gone up a notch.
Parts of the Outback's frame and some interior panels have been reshaped to provide a bit more visibility and passenger space without affecting the car's handling, Subaru says. The Outback's back seat felt a little roomier to me; Subaru says shoulder, elbow, and leg room are all improved.
And as we've seen with other mainstream vehicles recently, the 2015 Outback gets a bunch of new safety-related technology. There's a new "EyeSight" blind-spot camera system, fog lights that respond to the steering to turn on automatically when you're cornering at night, and a new electronic collision-warning system.
The Outback will be offered with your choice of the latest versions of Subaru's two familiar engines: the 2.5-liter "boxer" four-cylinder making 175 horsepower, and the 3.6-liter six-cylinder boxer that makes 256 horsepower.
The changes may seem subtle, but this is a big deal to Subaru
How important was the debut of the 2015 Outback to Subaru? It was this important: The boss came all the way from Japan to tell us about it.
Fuji Heavy Industries (NASDAQOTH:FUJHY) CEO Yasuyuki Yoshinaga spoke to reporters for several minutes before the new Outback was revealed at the New York International Auto Show this past Thursday. (Fuji Heavy also has aerospace and agricultural divisions, but Subaru is the company's core business.)
Speaking carefully in English, Yoshinaga said that while the company is in the process of putting together its plan for the next several years, he was confident that "we at Subaru will continue to regard the U.S. as our most important market."
He left no question that the Outback is an extremely important product to Subaru, which has seen sales and profits boom recently. While sales of the Outback have recently trailed those of the Forester (which was all-new last year, and has posted big year-over year sales gains), the Outback handily outsells all other Subarus here in the United States.
Preserving the formula that made the Outback successful
It's no secret why. From its introduction in 1994, the Outback has had a simple, winning formula: Add some of the capabilities of an SUV to a vehicle that otherwise looks, feels, and handles like a safe, familiar midsize station wagon.
Subaru officials were at pains on Thursday to explain that the Outback is a vehicle that can go from a muddy trail in the woods to a night on the town without ever seeming out of place. (In fact, the actual unveiling of the new Outback included two actors who first appeared in a wooded scene with a bike rack on the car, then reappeared -- again in the Outback, but minus the bike rack -- dressed for a fancy night out.)
I suspect they're right that that versatility -- coupled with Subaru's long reputation for reliability and fuel efficiency -- is the key to the Outback's enduring appeal.
From what I saw on Thursday, Subaru may have improved the Outback, but it's done nothing to mess with that essential winning formula.