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Test Fest: Best new SUV/CUV under $35,000

Subaru Outback leads this pack, though Honda CR-V and Nissan Rogue worthy competitors.

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

Subaru Outback leads the pack

If the 2015 Subaru Outback doesn’t take the win in the SUV/CUV under $35,000 category in this year’s Automobile Journalists Association of Canada Canadian Car of the Year awards, I’ll be blindsided.

It’s not that the other two vehicles in the category — the Honda CR-V and Nissan Rogue — aren’t worthy competitors. They absolutely meet the expectations of most consumers shopping for a vehicle in this class and at this price point.

But Subaru managed to cram an enormous amount of value into the latest iteration of the Outback for roughly the same amount of money ($33,695 as tested versus $34,233 for the Rogue and $29,790 for the CR-V). And there are several ways in which it stands apart in this group, far and away.

One of those is in its continuously variable transmission. CVTs are better than geared transmissions for fuel economy but are panned almost universally by driving enthusiasts for being limp and gutless.

All three of the vehicles in this category were equipped with CVTs. I found Nissan’s and Honda’s to be roughly equal in performance and on par with the typical CVT experience.

Nissan Rogue Test Fest

But Subaru’s CVT was not only the best among those in the category but one of the better ones I’ve driven yet, period. It’s quick, responsive, and has a surprising amount of pull when called upon. The Outback comes with paddles that simulate manual shifting, and they not only work but do so well. You could almost forget you’re driving a CVT at all.

Another stellar performance factor for the Outback is its off-roading capability. This won’t come as a surprise to most people — Subaru has long been a preferred brand for rugged, outdoorsy types. But even with that in mind, the differences among these three vehicles were significant.

At AJAC’s Test Fest event where Canadian Car of the Year entrants are evaluated, an off-road course is set up that’s meant to simulate a drive along a typical rough cottage road. Obstructions are put in place that test how vehicles react to situations such as a loss of traction on one side, a series of speed bump sized obstacles in quick succession, and a steep up and down gravel grade.

I took 11 vehicles through that course over three days, and the only one of them that bottomed out at all was the CR-V. It needed to be coaxed over the bumps and felt the least natural in the off-roading context.

The Rogue did somewhat better in the sense that it had better clearance, but it still felt jarring and noisy, particularly in the bumpy sections.

When I pulled up to the course in the Outback I enabled what Subaru calls X-Mode, a feature that debuted last year on the Forester, the marque’s larger SUV. It sets up the vehicle’s engine, transmission, four-wheel independent suspension, traction control, and brakes to work in harmony to make difficult terrain easier to navigate.

By the time I was through the first set of bumps, I was laughing out loud at how much easier the Outback was to handle. The difference was like night and day.

Plus, X-Mode includes a hill descent control feature. While going downhill, you can take your foot off the gas and the vehicle controls its own speed for you, letting you concentrate on steering it to where it needs to go.

Even if you don’t drive off-road very often, don’t assume that none of this applies to you. It would be of significant help on snowy roads, too.

In most other areas, the three vehicles in this category were essentially on par. The Rogue comes out ahead in interior with leather as standard and the most flexible storage space, and the CR-V offers a couple of standout convenience features at its lower price such as a front wiper de-icer and an Eco drive mode.

But when it comes to overall driving experience and bang for your buck, the 2015 Subaru Outback is definitely the one in this group that delivers.

Honda CR-V Test Fest

  • Test Fest: Best new SUV/CUV under $35,000
  • Test Fest: Best new SUV/CUV under $35,000
  • Test Fest: Best new SUV/CUV under $35,000
  • Test Fest: Best new SUV/CUV under $35,000
  • Test Fest: Best new SUV/CUV under $35,000
  • Test Fest: Best new SUV/CUV under $35,000
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