2003 Subaru Outback Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Just say no to SUVs.
Subaru Legacy and Outback models have much in common. Most important is their impressive stability, no matter the road conditions nor the speeds. The Legacy would be our top choice among mid-size sedans for slogging through a driving rain, a strong statement given the excellence of the Honda Accord and other cars in this class. It always feels connected to the road and ready to go faster.
The Outback is a great alternative to a sport-utility vehicle. It handles superbly on wet pavement, dirt roads, and on snow and ice, better than an SUV in all but the roughest terrain. Outback rides and handles much better than a truck. Powerful six-cylinder versions deliver strong acceleration performance yet offer much better fuel economy than SUVs. Four-cylinder Outbacks deliver very good performance and rate 28 mpg on the highway.
Wagon models offer large cargo capacity and foul-weather capability. An Outback wagon will transport you and your gear to the jumping-off location for your favorite outdoor sport. Unless you're genuinely interested in off-road driving, the Outback gives you everything you need.
Legacy is the Outback's city cousin, sharing the same body shell, base engine and all-wheel-drive in a buttoned-down package that's both lower to the ground and lower in price. Legacy costs less than other mid-size sedans that don't offer all-wheel drive, and it easily motors past those other cars when it snows. It stops much more quickly than an SUV, whether the roads are dry, wet, or covered with snow. When the roads are dry, Legacy and Outback are fun to drive, more fun than an SUV.
Subaru revised the Legacy lineup for 2003. Legacy sedans and wagons are now available in L, L Special Edition, and GT trim. Prices range from $19,495 for an L sedan to $25,695 for a GT wagon.
L models are more than adequately equipped, with air conditioning, ABS brakes, tilt steering, power windows and door locks, 15-inch steel wheels. Like all Subaru models, it comes standard with all-wheel drive. The Special Edition model adds luxury features, including 16-inch alloy wheels, 205/55R16 all-season radial tires, fog lights, a moonroof, a black leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter handle and wood grain-patterned trim.
GT adds sportier suspension tuning, a limited-slip rear differential, power seats with leather, side-impact airbags, and other up-market equipment. Automatic GTs have Variable Torque Distribution, which sends more torque to the rear wheels than the front wheels for a sportier feel when driving.
All Legacy models are powered by Subaru's 2.5-liter four-cylinder boxer engine, which produces 165 horsepower. A five-speed manual transmission is standard; a four-speed electronically controlled automatic is optional ($800).
Outback shares its mechanical platform and much of its styling with the Legacy. But the Outback has more standard equipment, a higher stance, and a more rugged look than the Legacy. Outback prices start at $23,045 for the basic wagon, which shares the Legacy's 2.5-liter four-cylinder. Move up to Limited trim, and you can choose a wagon or a sedan.
Six-cylinder Outbacks start with the H6-3.0 sedan for $28,495. The corresponding wagon is the L.L. Bean Edition, for $29,995. Top of the line is the H6-3.0 VDC, in sedan ($30,895) and wagon ($32,395) variants. L.L. Bean Edition offers exclusive comfort and appearance features, including two-tone leather and a three-year, no-cost, extended maintenance package.
H6-3.0 VDC is the technology standard-bearer of the lineup. VDC stands for Vehicle Dynamic Control, which combines Variable Torque Distribution with all-speed traction control and dynamic stability control (DSC). H6-3.0 designates the 3.0-liter horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine. The six-cylinder is rated 212 horsepower and comes only with an automatic transmission. Six-cylinder Outbacks come standard with OnStar telecommunications.
Subaru represents many good things, but it has never been known for making beautiful cars. However, the clean lines and short overhangs of the Legacy give it a purposeful look. The more time we spent with it, the more its looks grew on us. Subaru's designers have come up with an attractive profile that looks at home among its European competitors.
A high trunk line on the sedan lends a distinctive look, aids aerodynamics and increases cargo capacity; while a low hood line gives the Legacy a wedge-shaped stance. All the door windows are frameless, which is quite unusual in a four-door sedan and gives the car the sporty look of a coupe. Simple cladding along the middle of the doors and along the sills adds character. The front of the car features a big grille and large headlights that fit flush with the bodywork.
Exterior door handles are small. But you don't need a rope ladder to hoist yourself into the cabin.
Wagons are the most popular Legacy models sold in the U.S. There is little difference between the sedan and station wagon other than carrying capacity and appearance.
All of the Outback wagons share chunky, functional styling. The front grille and bumper are new for 2003, but retain a beefy appearance. Broad body cladding from mid-door downward dominates the profile. Dressy alloy wheels add a dash of flash. The rear view features wraparound taillights and a cut-down bumper into which the hatchback door is neatly recessed.
Outback sedans are far more rarely seen than Outback wagons. The heavy body cladding on the Outback sedan looks a little less natural than on the wagon, like wearing a three-piece suit and hiking boots.
The interior of the Subaru Legacy is clean with nice detailing. The driving position is comfortable. The front seats adjust to fit most any size passenger. Visibility is good in all directions with the exception of straight back, where the view is hindered somewhat by the trio of headrests perched atop the back seat. Switchgear and controls are easy to reach and uncomplicated to use. The large tachometer and speedometer and the smaller fuel gauge and water temperature gauge are well shaded and easy to read in all lighting conditions.
The Legacy dash is covered in a nice black and gray plastic trim with a heavy grain finish. The Special Edition model has imitation wood paneling. The shifter surround is an attractive piece finished to look like brushed aluminum. The leather-wrapped steering wheel feels comfortable.
The Outback VDC's cabin is very nicely appointed as well. The VDC boasts leather-trimmed seating, an eight-way power adjustable driver's seat, Momo steering wheel, automatic climate control and a high-line sound system. Manufactured by McIntosh Audio (known to audiophiles for their premium home stereo components) the system feeds 200 watts of power through seven speakers. The AM/FM/weather-band receiver houses a six-disc CD changer. The retro-looking faceplate stands out in a crowd, as does the exceptional sound quality. The interior of the Outback L.L. Bean is upholstered in two-toned leather with wood trim, and bears the logo of the Freeport, Maine, outfitter. Available seat heaters are welcome when the weather is icy.
There is room enough for two adults in back (three in a pinch), though six-footers will find rear leg room in short supply, especially if the front-seat passengers are similarly long of limb. The rear seats are firm and supportive.
Cargo space behind the wagon's 60/40 split folding back seat is plentiful, measuring 68.6 cubic feet with rear seats folded and 34.3 cubic feet with all seats in place. Lift-over height in back is low, affording easy access to cargo through the hatch. A retractable cover shields the contents from inquiring eyes. The available cargo mats are well-designed, reminding us of some of the best aftermarket mats.
Sedans have a pass-through hole from the trunk behind the arm rest in the center of the back seat, but we found it hard to open. The sedan's rear seats do not fold down. Also, there's no remote trunk release on the key fob.
The Legacy Special Edition and GT wagons, and Outback VDC and L.L. Bean wagons feature an unusual dual power moonroof. The front section pops up; the back opens and closes fully.
Subaru Legacy strikes an excellent balance between handling and ride quality. It feels smooth, refined, and sure-footed. It's among the easiest of the mid-size cars to control, as we discovered in a torrential downpour. This balance comes from all-wheel drive, suspension design, and a low center of gravity.
Handling is very balanced. Dive into a corner with too much speed and the Legacy understeers mildly; lift off the throttle and it transitions into mild oversteer. That makes it easy to drive, even at the limit of the tires. And that's good news if you're ever called upon for an evasive maneuver or suddenly realize there's a patch of ice in that shaded corner. Anti-lock disc brakes and the all-wheel-drive system help the driver avoid accidents by managing grip while the driver steers around obstacles.
Subaru's all-wheel-drive system is one of the best in the business and it ensures power is distributed to all four wheels. This makes the car easier to control on dry pavement and is especially helpful when the road surface is slippery. There's lots of grip under hard acceleration in the wet and the Legacy feels really stable at speed on wet roads. Unlike part-time four-wheel-drive systems designed for off-road use, Subaru's system continuously redirects power to the tires with the best grip, improving driver control. Also unlike part-time four-wheel-drive systems, Subaru's all-wheel-drive adds little weight.
Actually, Subaru builds three different all-wheel-drive systems. Manual-transmission models rely on a viscous coupling, a kind of speed-sensitive automatic clutch, to limit wheel slip at either end of the car. The system is purely mechanical, and nominally distributes driving torque 50/50, front/rear. Active All-Wheel Drive, standard with automatic transmissions, replaces the viscous coupling with an electronically managed multi-disc clutch. Torque distribution remains 50/50, but Subaru claims this system can respond more quickly to changing conditions. The Legacy GT automatic and all VDC models come with Variable Torque Distribution, which combines the electronically managed center clutch with a planetary gear that splits torque 45/55 front/rear, for a sportier feel. VDC models combine Variable Torque Distribution with electronic traction control. Additional electronic sensors monitor the position of the throttle and steering wheel, as well as the vehicle's yaw rate and the individual speed of each wheel. The traction-control function can be turned off with a switch, a feature that may be useful in deep snow or mud.
Subaru claims that VDC can anticipate a loss of traction before it happens. This is not to say that you won't ever get into trouble if you encounter bad road conditions or exercise poor judgment. But it is reassuring to know that the Subaru system is there to help you maintain control when foul weather or ragged roads make for rough sledding. Subaru's technology also helps make driving in adverse weather much easier, less stressful and more enjoyable.
The standard four-cylinder engine produces 165 horsepower, which is more than the four-cylinder engines for the newest Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. More important, the Subaru engine generates a generous 166 pounds-feet of torque, the force that propels you away from intersections and up steep grades. This gives it excellent acceleration performance. Stand on the gas and Subaru's four-cylinder sounds boomy at first, but that quickly gives way to an enthusiastic growl as it reaches higher rpm.
The manual transmission is smooth and pleasant to use. It helps get the most out of the engine. A well-designed gated lever on the floor controls the optional automatic transmission. It's a straight shot from Drive to Third and back, making it easy to shift between them. Move it over into a dogleg to downshift to Second and First. Who needs a Tiptronic?
The 3.0-liter horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine produces 212 horsepower and 210 pounds-feet.
If you live where there's lots of snow and rain, and you enjoy driving, then take a test drive in the Subaru Legacy. Even if you're not a professional rally driver, you'll find you can travel more safely in foul conditions with Subaru's all-wheel drive.
The Outback can conquer the worst road conditions, and the Outback Wagons continue to serve as sensible alternatives to big, heavy sport-utility vehicles. They are practical, comfortable, useful vehicles.
The VDC and L.L. Bean models inject power, luxury and enhanced traction into the relentlessly sensible Subaru lineup. Six-cylinder engines increase performance while the latest electronic stability control systems improve safety. Loaded with features, these top two models are pricey, however.
The best values in the Outback lineup remain the less expensive and highly competent four-cylinder models.
Legacy L Sedan ($19,495); Legacy L Sedan Special Edition ($19,995); Legacy L Wagon ($20,195); Legacy L Wagon Special Edition ($21,095); Legacy GT Sedan ($24,795); Legacy GT Wagon ($25,695); Outback Wagon ($23,045); Outback Limited Sedan ($26,295); Outback Limited Wagon ($26,595); Outback H6-3.0 Sedan ($28,495); Outback L.L. Bean Edition Wagon ($29,995); Outback H-6-3.0 VDC Sedan; ($30,895) Outback H6-3.0 VDC Wagon ($32,395).
Options As Tested
Subaru Outback H6-3.0 VDC Wagon ($32,385).
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