Minor updates for the 2018 Subaru Outback make an already good thing better. Subtle styling tweaks — like more angular headlights and a slightly larger grille — maintain the Outback's clean, unfussy design, while an updated multimedia system and retuned transmission improve usability and drivability. Compare the 2017 and 2018 models here.  

The Outback's most direct competitor — spiritually if not in size — is the VW Golf Alltrack, another tall wagon with AWD. The Outback also competes against more traditional mid-size SUVs like the Ford Edge and Jeep Cherokee. Compare them here.

Boring? Not So Fast

While the Outback's exterior styling doesn't raise eyebrows, it stands out among the throngs of SUVs in grocery store parking lots and school drop-off lanes in that it's not an SUV — or at least, not exactly. Its tall-wagon looks set it apart from the pack, though with each redesign it takes on more of the bloated stance of an SUV.

The Outback's cabin has always had a utilitarian, serviceable look to it, but there's a surprise inside for 2018. Interior design is classier across the lineup, and materials quality is better overall. Subaru even added a dose of luxury in higher trim levels, with high-quality materials highlighted by padded plastic where it counts, plus comfy leather seats with contrast stitching and faux (but believable) low-gloss wood paneling on the door sills and dash. New stitching on the upper dash of top trim levels also adds some pizzazz. These small pops of unexpected luxury impress in the thoughtfully designed cabin.

The controls got tweaked, too. A standard 6.5-inch touchscreen replaces last year's smaller unit, and an 8-inch touchscreen is optional. The graphics are crisp and modern, the menus straightforward and easy to use. Even better are the handy tuning and volume knobs. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto Smart phone compatibility are new this year, and they're standard. Lastly, the climate controls have been relocated directly under the multimedia screen for a more cohesive look.

Slow? Not So

My time in Subaru s past was marked by irritation and aggravation; the brand's heavy use of continuously variable automatic transmissions has helped fuel economy but hurt responsiveness and quietness. The 2018 Outback, however, is both responsive and quiet.    

The CVT's artificially stepped gears make it feel more like a conventional automatic and cut down on the powertrain's former albatross: a loud, continuous droning noise.

While I wouldn't call it quick, the Outback isn't slow, either. A 175-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder is standard, while a 256-hp, 3.6-liter six-cylinder is optional. Both Used Engine work through a CVT and standard all-wheel drive. Subaru says it retuned the Outback's steering, brakes and shock absorbers to improve drivability, and I believe it. The ride is composed, with good bump absorption and predictable, comfortable maneuverability. Steering is nicely weighted, direct and natural.

Subaru retuned the CVT for a smoother response and, again, the changes made an impact. I found the four-cylinder adequate off the line and the transmission convincingly natural, with artificial stepped gears that make it feel more like a conventional automatic and cut down on the powertrain's former albatross: a loud, continuous droning noise.

Quietness is improved in other areas, as well: Reshaped mirrors, thicker wheel-well panels and new sound-insulating glass help cut cabin noise. The result is pleasant overall, both on the highway and around town.

The Outback leads competitors in fuel economy. Four-cylinder versions are EPA-rated at 25/32/28 mpg city/highway/combined. That's better than the base version of the Golf Alltrack, at 22/30/25 mpg, as well as the AWD four-cylinder Edge (20/27/23 mpg) and AWD Cherokee (21/28/23).

Skilled With Kids ... and Mud

For families with one or two children, the Outback is plenty roomy. Alas, I have three, yet the Outback accommodated us with Mini mal squeezing. Three child-safety seats do not fit comfortably, but in a pinch, the Outback can make it work. My 3-year-old twins' convertible car seats went in with ease thanks to exposed lower Latch anchors and ample legroom. There was just enough space left over in the middle for my second-grader's compact, inflatable booster. We wouldn't road trip like this, but it worked for a weekend of errands. Click here for the full Car Seat Check. 

The front and rear seats are comfortable, and there's plenty of headroom and legroom in both. By the numbers, the Outback offers a smidge more rear headroom than the Cherokee and Alltrack, but a bit less than the Edge. For rear legroom, it offers a bit less than the Cherokee and Edge, but more than the Alltrack. Backseat passengers are treated to a couple of perks: The seatback reclines for added comfort, and there are two USB ports for charging mobile devices. (There are two more up front.)

Someday, my house, car and [insert thing here] will be clean. That day will not come this decade, but the Outback can handle it. After an incident involving mud, a pair of toddlers and several pumpkins, I developed a fondness for the Outback's cargo area. Its wide opening makes loading easy, and the storage area is both deep and a snap to clean thanks to a removable heavy-duty mat. Folding the seats for more storage is also seamless, with cargo-area handles that drop the seats with one pull.

By the numbers, the Outback is mid-pack in terms of cargo volume. Seats up, there's 35.5 cubic feet of space — a bit less than the Edge but more than the Alltrack and Cherokee. Seats down, there's 73.3 cubic feet, roughly tying the Edge and besting the Cherokee and Alltrack.

Safety

The 2018 Subaru Outback earned top crash-test scores from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. It was also one of the few vehicles to pass IIHS' new, tough front passenger-side small overlap crash test.

A backup camera is standard across all trims and — new for 2018 — the guidelines that display on the screen move in sync with the steering to provide more accurate vehicle positioning. Subaru 's EyeSight suite of safety systems is optional on all but the base model; it includes adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning with steering assist, and forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking. Other safety options include a blind spot warning system, automatic reverse braking and adaptive headlights with automatic high beams.

Value

The Outback appeals for its differentness, versatility and value. It starts at $26,810 (all prices include destination), $290 more than the 2017 Outback and around the same as the VW Alltrack ($26,670) and Cherokee ($26,990). However, it's less than the base AWD version of the Edge ($31,840).

This anti-SUV can be a lot of things depending on what you need. It offers SUV-like room and capability with un-SUV looks, plus a well-appointed interior that could easily double as a comfy hideout from camping in the rain.