2005 Subaru Outback Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
New design brings room, refinement and performance.
The Subaru Outback has been redesigned for 2005. Exteriors are sharper, more stylish, less boxy. More important, the new models are larger outside, and roomier in many dimensions inside. The interior design is more contemporary, more attractive, more comfortable and more luxurious than before.
The cars are lighter and more stable than before. They handle well on winding roads, yet the ride is smooth and soft. The headlamps are higher tech, more upscale in appearance, and the lighting is better managed, with improved coverage. All come with a full complement of safety equipment, including curtain-style airbags and all-wheel drive. In short, these are terrific cars when the weather turns nasty and roads turn slippery.
New to the Outback lineup is the XT, powered by a new, 250-horsepower, turbocharged intercooled four-cylinder engine. It's designed for people who like to drive. The engine surges with power at high rpm making the car fun to drive on winding mountain roads.
The top models are still powered by a 3.0-liter flat six, but horsepower has been increased to 250. The six-cylinder delivers strong torque, giving it plenty of power on mountain roads without having to work at it. It's designed for people who like to travel, to get where they want to go with minimal fuss and bother, but want upscale trim and plenty of power.
Continued is the base 2.5-liter flat four-cylinder engine, now with 168 horsepower, a slight increase over last year's base model. These are the most popular models due to their price point. They deliver adequate power but are geared more toward frugality and practicality than performance.
The Outback offers slightly more ground clearance than the Legacy models and is better suited to gravel roads and deep snow. Yet the center of gravity has been lowered on the 2005 models for improved handling and safety. Wagons are most popular by far and are the best choice for venturing into the Outback with a load of outdoor gear, but there is a well-trimmed sedan available. The 2005 models cost more, and not just a little bit. But there's a good argument they're worth it.
Subaru builds its Outback in two body styles, sedan and station wagon. Two four-cylinder engines and one six-cylinder engine are available. Standard across the line is Subaru's all wheel-drive, which comes in three versions, each matched to a specific combination of engine and transmission.
The 2.5i and 2.5i Limited, both wagons, get a 168-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine with a choice of five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission ($1000).
Next up are the 2.5 XT and 2.5 XT Limited, again, both wagons, with a 250-horsepower, turbocharged and intercooled version of the same four-cylinder engine. The five-speed manual transmission is beefed up to handle the additional power, and a five-speed Sportshift automatic is available ($1200).
The top of the line 3.0 R comprises three iterations: the sole sedan wearing the Outback badge and two wagons, the R L.L. Bean Edition and the VDC Limited. The standard powertrain in these three is a 250-horsepower six-cylinder engine coupled to the same five-speed Sportshift automatic that's an option in the XT. The VDC stands for Vehicle Dynamics Control, an electronic stability control system.
Buyers of the base 2.5i ($23,995) get a respectable feature set. The driver enjoys an eight-way power seat, tilt steering wheel, auto-off headlights and cruise control. There's the usual complement of power windows, outside mirrors and door locks and remote keyless entry. Air conditioning comforts occupants, who sit on durable-looking fabric upholstery and listen to a six-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo. The cargo area has its own light, carpet (including on the back of the rear seats, which are 60/40 split fold-down units), grocery bag hooks and a retractable cargo area cover. The rear bumper is protected by a full-width step pad, and the roof rack comes already fitted with cross bars. With the 2.5i Limited ($26,995) come fog lamps, a six-disc in-dash CD changer, dual-zone automatic air, leather-trimmed upholstery and dual-panel power moonroof.
Stepping up to the 2.5 XT ($27,995) forfeits the moonroof but adds body-colored outside mirrors with integrated turn signals and decorative door sill and rear liftgate sill plate covers, along with a four-way power seat with manual lumbar for the front-seat passenger, sport front seats and leather trim for the brake handle and shift lever. A leather-wrapped, Momo-brand steering wheel has integrated Sportshift control buttons if the optional five-speed automatic is ordered. The XT Limited ($30,695) brings perforated leather seat trim and restores the power moonroof.
The 3.0 R sedan ($30,995) gets a tire pressure monitoring system, a rear-seat center armrest with trunk pass-through and a single panel power moonroof but trades the turn indicator-equipped outside mirrors for the base units. A Momo-brand, mahogany-and-leather-wrapped steering wheel has integrated audio controls. Wagon lovers opting for the 3.0 R L.L. Bean Edition ($32,195) enjoy an auto-dimming inside mirror with electronic compass, L.L. Bean floor mats and leather-trimmed seats and a removable cargo tray. Turn indicator-equipped outside mirrors return on the 3.0 R VDC Limited ($33,395), as does the dual-pane moonroof. A three-frequency, programmable remote opener system joins a stereo upgraded with an MP3 player and rear sub woofer.
Standard safety equipment across the line comprises dual-stage frontal airbags, front seat-mounted side-impact airbags and full coverage side curtain airbags. Active front-seat head restraints are standard, too, as are anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution.
All-wheel drive remains standard across the line, but 2005 sees three systems, one more than in 2004, maintaining the trademark capability but at reduced cost and complexity. The automatic transmission now houses five speeds and comes with Sportshift, a manual-type shift function allowing drivers to select individual gears but without using a clutch peda.
Contrary to conventional expectations, jacking up a car's suspension by two or three inches needn't leave it looking top heavy or tippy. Smartly crafted fender blisters, a deeper front bumper and properly proportioned tire and wheel combinations can make even a tall car look confidently planted, as the 2005 Subaru Outback illustrates well when contrasted with its fraternal twin, the 2005 Subaru Legacy.
Two honeycomb-like bars split the Outback's grille horizontally, clearly distinguishing it from the Legacy's and highlighting its extended, octagonal shape. Large round fog lamps both emphasize and soften the aggressive lower fascia. A low-rise air intake on the XT's hood hints at the power lurking beneath. On the XT and the 3.0 R, the clear-lens turn indicators on the lower edges of the outside mirrors minimize their mass. Wide cross-section tires visually stretch the car's stance.
From the side, the hood's aerodynamic slope gives the car a look of motion even sitting still. In the sedan, the silhouette rises gradually to the A-pillar, then loops up over the geometrically arched side windows and back down behind the upscale, BMW-like C-pillar where it merges with the shoulder-like beltline before wrapping around an equally aerodynamically tapered boot. The wagon's roof line drops steadily rearward from the front doors, combining with the increasing inward tilt of the rear side windows to ease the air's passage beyond the wagon's tail end. Clearly outlined, circular fender blisters make the gap between tire and wheel well look less than it is. Minimalist splashguards behind both wheel wells and cladding along the bottom of the doors pull the body down even more around the tires.
The back end of the sedan traces the rounded shape of the car, with visible shoulders connected by a smoothly arcing trunk lid, concave below the trailing top edge. Inset in the center is the license plate. Large, trapezoidal taillights wrap around the rear fenders. On the wagon, all the lines (roof, rear window outline, beltline, bumper and rocker panel) draw inward, toward the car's center, giving it a taut, neat finish. Large, geometric taillights cover the upper corners of the rear fenders. Small, almost demure backup lights are embedded in the liftgate on each side of the chrome eyelid over the recess for the rear license plate. The secondary, high-mounted stop light is centered in the roof-high spoiler behind a stylish, crystal clear lens.
Front seats in the Outback 2.5i base model are comfortable, but definitely short of plush, upholstered in a durable fabric that's reasonably grippy, more so than the leather in the 2.5i Limited. Rear seats are bolstered about the same as the fronts, with a minimal rise in the center in recognition of the driveline hump.
The leather in the Limited isn't especially kid glove-like, but it is richly surfaced. The front seats in the XT and above have fuller bolsters and better overall support; the lumbar adjustments at their least aggressive setting accommodate sensitive, surgically altered lower backs, while at the opposite extreme can brace a classic ramrod spine. Bottom cushions are deeper than many but lack the ultimate in thigh support achieved by the standard-setting BMW seats. The perforated leather insets in the XT Limited adds some grip that the smooth-finished leather lacks and allows the barest amount of air flow that's refreshing on hot and cold days.
The dash is topped with mildly textured, high quality, seamless vinyl, low-gloss to minimize reflected glare in the windshield. The instruments are rimmed in black in the 2.5i and XT, in chrome in the 3.0 R. Gauges are large and round, positioned directly in front of the driver and easy to scan through the three-spoke steering wheel. Cruise controls are contained in a stubby stalk attached to the steering wheel at about the 4 o'clock position.
In the upper half of the dash to the left of the gauges are two vents, one small for defogging the driver's window, the other large, with four-way directional vanes and a roller knob that varies the air flow from full to off. Below these are controls for dash light intensity, outside mirror adjustment and remote gas filler cover and a small storage bin. At the opposite end of the dash, matching vents fulfill the same functions.
Topping the center stack are two large, tall vents, again with four-way directional vanes but no air flow adjustments. Between these vents is a large storage bin with retracting cover. Directly below this is the trip computer display. Next down the C-stack is the stereo control head, and at the bottom is the climate control panel. With the exception of the stereo's tuner, all these features are managed by large, round knobs and intuitive, easy-to-use buttons and switches; tuning the stereo other than by way of the start-and-stop of seeking or scanning, though, requires pressing a lateral rocker switch and scrolling up or down through the frequencies until the desired one is reached. The C-stack and forward portion of the center console are covered in a metallic-look, matte-finish plastic with chrome-like accents. In models so equipped, seat heater controls are set in the center console directly forward of the slider covering the two front cup holders.
Inside door pulls are ergonomically designed, almost vertical and open, easily grasped. The opening lever is chrome, the accent surrounding the power window buttons and door pull, a metallic matte finish. Headliner has a soft nap, with assist grips over the doors. The sedan's trunk and trunk lid are finished, and the wagon's tailgate clears a six-footer when open and a pull-down spares hands contact with the exterior's collected road dirt and grime.
Forward visibility is above average, aided by the sloping hood. Side and rear vision is excellent in the wagon, which is no surprise, but better than expected, too, in the sedan, thanks to good-sized rear quarter windows and trim C-pillars.
The glove box is adequate, if not voluminous. Two rear seat occupants have their own cup holders and a place to store magazines on the back of the front seats. Both sedan and wagons have a compartmentalized storage tray hidden beneath the floor and on top of the spare tire. The wagons have two covered storage bins in the cargo area.
The long-time knock on station wagons, that they're land yachts, with bad handling and suburban-hauler looks, is passe. Today's wagons can be fun to drive and functional to own. And the new 2005 Subaru Outback is a prime example of this.
The base 2.5i model is adequate transportation, if a bit short of exciting. Still, with the five-speed manual and optional short-throw shifter, it should be fun on winding roads. With the automatic, which returns the same EPA-estimated miles per gallon as the manual, it'd be a perfect commuter and weekend workhorse for homebody do-it-yourselfers. The diet Subaru put the Outback on helps; as much as 180 pounds have been trimmed from the 2004's mass, adding to the new Outback's responsiveness across the line, but especially in the base 2.5i with the lowest horsepower numbers.
Subaru increased the ground clearance across the line by about an inch, so it'll venture a bit farther off-road on camping trips, too, and quite competently. Fitted with the manual transmission, the 2.5i (as does the similarly geared XT) gets an all-wheel drive system using a viscous-coupling center differential that distributes power where it can best be used; the default is 50/50 front/rear but can reach 100 percent to either end if conditions warrant. With the four-speed automatic comes an electronically managed, continuously variable transfer clutch that splits the power as needed, but not to exceed 50 percent to one end.
The Outback XT is much more fun to drive. The turbo spools up with minimal lag, and when it hits its stride, at a relatively low 3600 revolutions per minute, it comes on in a linear surge that pulls all the way up to redline. Changing up a gear 500 or 600 rpm before that point delivers more power quicker, however, as it drops the engine back into the deep part of the torque curve sooner. Shifting the manual isn't as intuitive or as crisp as it could be, but with acclimation, this should become more reflexive. The five-speed automatic, called Sportshift, is a friendly manu-matic, with gear changes accomplished as they should be: push the lever forward to shift up, pull it back to shift down. It upshifts on its own well before the engine hits its rev limiter, however, depriving manual gearbox lovers a degree of control over their car that they consider essential to enjoying the driving experience.
Steering is light and responsive in the XT, with good on-center feel. The suspension is properly calibrated to absorb pavement irregularities and undulations without disturbing directional stability, whether in a straight line or on winding roads. There's some body lean in hard cornering, but nothing untoward. All of this is a credit to a lower center of gravity in the 2005 over the 2004 achieved by an added inch in track front and rear, by lowering the engine in the chassis about an inch and by a redesign of the rear suspension that lowered the roll center.
The Outback XT accounts for itself surprisingly well off the pavement, especially when fitted with the five-speed automatic. In the XT, the automatic gets the Variable Torque Distribution version of Subaru's three all-wheel-drive systems. The VTD uses a planetary center differential managed by an electronically controlled, continuously variable hydraulic clutch to distribute the engine's power. Ideal conditions see the power split 45/55 front/rear to deliver more of a sporty, rear-wheel-drive dynamic; under less than ideal conditions, the split can reach a maximum of 50/50. And under those less-than-ideal conditions, like in deep ruts around curves over seriously uneven ground, the VTD delivers, catching the rear end just as it begins to drift wide and tucking it back in line. The system is almost counterintuitive, as most drivers will want to lift off the power, while keeping the power on actually helps the VTD do its job.
The 3.0 R sedan and wagon are for people who like to travel, to get where the.
The Outback was already good. Better than good, in fact, unique. Right-sized on the outside, roomy and comfortable on the inside, a go-almost-anywhere wagon with a dedicated following.
The new 2005 Outback improves on everything about the previous one, especially in styling. It looks richer, more expensive, and it is, about $2000 more than the 2004 models it replaces.
But it delivers tangibles, too, in power, comfort, amenities. It may not be a bargain, by common definition, but it's a good buy, and there's at least one that's a joy to drive, too.
Subaru Outback 2.5i ($23,995); 2.5i Limited ($26,995); 2.5 XT ($27,995); 2.5 XT Limited ($30,695); 3.0 R sedan ($30,995); 3.0 R L.L. Bean Edition ($32,195); 3.0 R VDC Limited ($33,395).
Options As Tested
California PZEV ($200).
Subaru Outback 3.0 R L.L. Bean Edition ($32,195).
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