2011 Subaru Outback Expert Review:Autoblog
Even in the face of a bleak economy and dreadful auto sales, Subaru managed to have a breakout year in 2009. Products like the Forester and the Impreza helped Subaru achieve consistent year-over-year gains while the Japanese automaker continues to post stellar quality ratings through J.D. Power and Consumer Reports. And the accolades don't stop there. The new-for-2009 Forester was crowned the 2008 Motor Trend SUV of the year, and this year Subaru accomplished a surprise repeat taking the award for the second straight year with the 2010 Outback.
However, the new Outback isn't the capable, milquetoast lifted station wagon we've come to know and respect over the years. It's now bigger. Quite a bit bigger, performing a similar wagon-to-crossover transformation that the Forester pulled off a year earlier. Granted, the Outback is only two inches taller and wider, and a mere three inches longer between the wheels, but the result is a wagon that looks much larger than the model it replaces. We've come to expect that kind of growth in a world of constant size and weight one-upping, but we had to wonder – has increased functionality come at the expense of entertainment once again? We snagged a six-cylinder Outback to find out.
Photos by Chris Shunk / Copyright ©2009 Weblogs, Inc.
In 3.6R Limited trim, the story starts with a great powertrain and gets better from there. Subaru's 3.6-liter boxer six-cylinder pumps out a worthy 256 horsepower and 247 pound-feet of torque. This admittedly doesn't sound all that spectacular when 269-hp Toyota RAV4s and 290-hp Buick Enclaves roam the landscape. But the boxer six feels beefier than the sum of its numbers primarily because power delivery is so fluid and consistent. The engine is mated to a five-speed automatic that plays well with its six-pot partner, and while Subaru provides paddle shifters to row your own gears, the smooth, well-timed cogswaps of the auto 'box negates the need.
Despite its upgraded proportions, Subaru engineers worked hard to keep weight down. Our loaded Outback 3.6R Limited tester weighed in at just over 3,600 pounds – some 400 pounds lighter than a comparably equipped Toyota Venza with all-wheel drive, one of the Outback's main competitors. Subaru was able to keep the pounds down through the use of high strength steel, making the structure both safer and lighter than a more rotund CUV. The Outback's relatively restrained tonnage helps the boxer six feel that much more potent when pushed, and the weight reduction pays dividends in the braking department, allowing the Outback to be halted with minimal fuss on wet or dry pavement.
But while the 3.6-liter boxer is good, it's the symmetrical all-wheel drive that wins the day. We put the Outback through its paces on dry pavement, through a torrential downpour and some muddy terrain and were always well within the limits of adhesion. In fact, the Outback's seemingly never-ending traction begged us to drive harder and faster as the week wore on. How hard? Over the course of the first two days, we averaged a relatively robust 23.8 mpg in mixed driving and by the end of the week our relentless flogging dropped that figure down to just over 20 mpg – still laudable considering we spent a lot of time with the long pedal pegged to the floor.
And thanks to the Outback's reasonable weight and excellent AWD, this Subaru feels closer to a sports sedan than a 63-inch tall wagon. Aggressive cornering is a snap, with minimal body roll and the aformentioned constant supply of traction. And the Outback doesn't just feel car-like in turns. It may have a best-in-class 8.7 inches of ground clearance and surprising off-road chops, but on the highway, this tall wagon transforms into a sophisticated cruiser. While the occasional bump found its way into the cabin, the intrusions were far from jarring and the firm steering provided ample feedback whether pointed straight or winding our way through the bends. But while it's hard to find significant fault with the Outback's power and handling, our red pen finally gets some use when discussing the Outback's interior.
Any family-friendly wagon needs a warm and inviting cabin that's configurable enough to meet the needs of large clans and empty-nesters alike. Subaru gets the job done, for the most part, with great leather-clad front seats with sufficient support and bolstering, back seats that fold flat in a cinch and an easily read instrument panel. And lucky for us, the best seat has been reserved or the driver. The steering wheel is meaty and pleasing to the touch and we had little trouble figuring out the navigation system or HVAC controls. However, we were disappointed that the only way to change radio stations was via the LCD screen or on the steering wheel. To make matters worse, you have to push the radio tuner knob to display the stations. Not particularly intuitive, and with no redundant control buttons on the center stack and a somewhat confusing array of buttons on the steering wheel, things aren't exactly WYSIWYG.
But as far as accommodations are concerned, rear seat passengers should be pleased with their surroundings, and the Subie easily swallowed a 46-inch LCD TV with the second row stowed. We were a little confused on how to operate the rear middle safety belt, but after a few minutes of searching, we found the belt tucked into the roof of the Outback's cargo area. The center passenger needs two latches as well; one secures the shoulder belt and the other secures the attached lap belt. This odd contraption is less than desirable because even a ten-year-old couldn't secure the belt without assistance – and the presence of two belt fasteners means rear seat occupants have to make due with a little less hip room. There has to be an easier way – and there is in nearly every other CUV on sale.
Although Subaru has picked up its game in many areas, the Japanese automaker still struggles with the quality of its interior materials, and the Outback is no different. While the seats are stitched up in a relatively high quality leather, dash materials are hard plastic and the center stack feels a bit bargain basement. We know that our tester was a nearly full-boat example, but when you pay $34,685 for a crossover, we expect somewhat nicer instrument panel materials than what the Outback offers.
Subaru makes some... interesting looking vehicles. Or homely, depending on your perspective. That said, we thought our Outback, while far from the beauty queen, looked good in blue, with its subdued 17-inch alloys providing just enough visual spark. Its up-sized proportions play out well in the sheetmetal and the more sophisticated front end shows that Subaru is learning from past mistakes (see: Impreza, Tribeca), though it still has a ways to go. Plastic cladding is still present all around, but for 2010 the look is far less agrarian and the two-tone theme is finally muted compared to its immediate predecessor.
Subaru has managed to combine a superb engine, capable AWD, impressive handling, capacious interior and improved looks into a functional, family-friendly package. What's more, it's created a psuedo-CUV that encourages you to enjoy the journey. There's something undeniably rewarding about a vehicle that pushes you to drive more, do more and have more fun. The Outback just has that kind of moxie. One minute, you're slogging along on the daily commute and the next, you're looking for a 50-acre sandbox to play with your pet boxer. That's an attribute few crossovers (big or small) can manage, and further proof that Subaru's recent good fortunes aren't likely to stop anytime soon.
Photos by Chris Shunk / Copyright ©2009 Weblogs, Inc.
Before there was such a thing as a CUV, there was a jacked-up four-wheel drive wagon called the Subaru Legacy. A few special editions later, the Legacy Outback edition birthed the stand-alone Subaru Outback in 1995. The precedent was set, establishing the wagon as polymath, master of numerous disciplines: durability, capability, wide range, ease of use and maintenance on-road and off. The styling, however – well, you weren't really buying a Subaru for its styling. Autoblog went to Montana to drive the fourth-generation 2010 Subaru Outback, and all we needed was one look to realize there's finally a Subaru for the rest of us. Then we drove it, and it just got better. Follow the jump to find out why.
Photos Copyright ©2009 Jonathon R. Ramsey / Weblogs, Inc.
Subaru might be less known for the character of its cars than for the kinds of characters who buy them. The Japanese automaker does its job so well that when someone says "I own a Subaru," it rarely comes as a surprise – your internal dialogue replies, "Ah, of course you do... that explains a lot..." While that might be something to chortle at, Subaru has done so well with its cars and its characters that the company has posted the lowest sales decline of any automaker this year at just 0.8%. It also sold more cars in the U.S. in June of this year than it did in June of 2008, one of only two makers to do so.
What does one do after it succeeds? Keep working. And with the 2010 Outback, Subaru went to work on everything, but it's the styling that makes the biggest impact. See, Subaru wagons are not unlike camels: When you need a ride that can go out and stay out, enduring with little-to-no assistance over testing terrain, and keep you comfortable along the way, you can't go wrong with a Subaru. Or a camel. It's just neither are stylistically compelling.
To our eyes, that's changed with the 2010 Outback. It will certainly attract the brand's usual characters; but much more importantly, it has character. It's not a lozenge with cladding – it's a properly designed vehicle with significantly contrasting planes, lines and details. So much so, in fact, that our first reaction to it was, "That's a good looking car." Outside of the mid-90s WRC Imprezas, that's a line we've yet to uttered when discussing a Subaru.
It's easy to go astray when trying to make a car's surface more three-dimensional. The Outback doesn't do that. The flares on the hood, the pronounced arch cutouts, the sharpened kink from the greenhouse to the body, along with the Outback's overall increased squareness – not to mention the polygon headlights – works well in photos and even better in person.
None of this is revolutionary; you can see the evolution from the current Outback, and many of the new Outback's features entered the design vocabulary elsewhere. What we're saying is that it's handsome, which means you can get all of that sweet, nutty Subaru-ness in a traditionally handsome package. The come-hitherness of a wild horse that hides the indestructibility of the aforementioned camel makes us say, "Yes." What's more, the good news is shared with everyone: There are three trim lines, but the only stylistic difference between the top line (Premium) and the other two is a different color for the front lower lip.
The other noteworthy exterior design detail is the roof rack. The crossbars can be retracted so they sit flush with the roof rails, then extended when you need to carry something. It's a layout that cuts down greatly on wind noise and it's been designed to fit Subaru models up to ten years old.
The sharpening and edging tool that reshaped the exterior was also used to recraft the interior. The pile-up of roundness found on the outgoing steering wheel has been ditched in favor of contrasting, scalloped arms and larger buttons. The instrument panel follows the same general shape, but instead of curves alone there are hard joints, including where the center stack meets the tunnel, and the detail lines that increase the texture and accentuate the dimensionality. And of all makers, Subaru has come up with an ersatz textured metal trim that actually feels and sounds just like metal.
We only had two tiny quibbles with the cabin – one was the inset area atop the dash that contains the clock and outside temperature. We like the way it looks, but we wished that information was on the eight-inch navigation screen. The other thing was the perforated leather; when paired with the perforated leather inserts in the doors, it just began to look like everything had holes in it. But again, these are tiny quibbles, and they only stood out because everything else was love-it-and-forget-it.
And that's easy to do when the cabin is capacious. The Outback has grown 4.1 inches taller and two inches wider, but is 0.8 inches shorter due to decreased front and rear overhangs. The extra height and width were almost directly translated into nearly 13 more cubic feet of cabin room, with larger front seats providing more head, shoulder and hip room, and an increase by four inches of rear legroom and two additional inches of toe room under the front seats. Unless you belong in the WWE or you're an NBA draft prospect from China, sit in the back of the Outback and your legs will not touch the front seats.
Your freight gets more breathing room as well. The tailgate is wider, the floor is lower, and the packaging of the new double-wishbone suspension combine to add a shade less than one cubic foot of extra cargo room over the current car with the rear seats up, and a tad less than six cubic feet with the rear seats down. Those rear seats, by the way, are one-touch fold-down with a 60/40 split, and also recline. The hauling space behind them can be covered with a retractable tonneau, and when you don't want to mess with the cove you can hide it in the subfloor, accessed by lifting the up the rubber mat and carpet.
Subaru has also added features for occupants. Directly as a result of customer research – and the realization that "We carry a lot of junk in our cars" – the center armrest cubby is larger, the cabin has been filled with bins, and the front visor has a ticket holder (Subaru is based in New Jersey, home of a ticket-fest turnpike). Electronically speaking, every 2010 Outback gets an "Auto" setting for the lights, a telescoping wheel, an electronic parking brake, and a revised Hill Hold Assist that keeps the car motionless until you press on the throttle instead of releasing after a couple of seconds.
The Outback has two flavors of engine and three flavors of transmission, trim level, and AWD. The base engine is the 2.5i, an SOHC four-cylinder powerplant with 170 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque. It's been given new intake and exhaust manifolds so the torque peaks at 400 RPM lower in the rev-range. It's also been fettled to improve gas mileage, returning 19 city and 27 fitted with the new six-speed manual, and 22/29 when it works with the CVT. It can also be certified as a PZEV in all 50 of these United States.
The 3.6-liter DOHC is a boxer special that comes from the Tribeca and benefits from being expanded by six-tenths of a liter over the current Outback engine. The numbers jump to 256 hp and 247 lb-ft – with 225 lb-ft available from 2,000 rpm – and it will return 18 mpg on the highway and 25 in the city, fitted to the five-speed automatic transmission – one mpg better than the current car.
The 2.5i can be mated to the six-speed manual and the Lineartronic CVT, while the 3.6 makes do with the five-speed auto. The CVT gets a wide ratio spread and is a chain-driven unit; the chain variator route was taken because it makes the system more compact, reduces friction and improves fuel economy. With the larger, 18.5-gallon tank in the 2.5i, the Subie's range is reported to be 444 miles. The CVT also comes with paddle shifters that create a virtual six-speed transmission, with shifts taking a tenth of a second.
The number one reason people say they buy a Subaru is for the all-wheel drive. Understandably, Subaru touts the fact that all its models are equipped with symmetrical AWD and under normal circumstances the power is split 50/50 at all times, not just to the front wheels and then spread about as needed. The base 2.5i with the six-speed manual gets a continuous AWD setup with a viscous center differential and 50/50 split. Slippage at either set of wheels will send more power to the opposite set. Opt for the CVT and you upgrade to Active Torque Split AWD, an electronically controlled multi-plate clutch system that responds to driving conditions. For the five-speed automatic, the AWD setup is a variable torque distributing planetary gear setup with electric control. This option technically isn't symmetrical: the power split is 45:55 to heighten handling, but it does continuously adjust to driving and road conditions.
As previously mentioned, trim levels come in base, Premium, and Limited. Subaru threw so many things at the base level, though, that even low men on that totem pole can feel good about themselves – the base gets the steering wheel controls, the fold-down and reclining rear seat, electronic parking brake, Hill Holder, automatic lights, Brake Assist, Vehicle Dynamics Control and a 3.5 mm audio jack. Nearly everything else is thrown at the levels above – there are really only two options available for the Premium and Limited trims. By the time you get to the top, the only choices left are adding a power moonroof and the navigation system that comes with a very crisp rear-view camera and the ability to use casual voice commands like "I'm hungry" to find restaurants. Nevertheless, if you're not the kind to be pampered, stick with the Premium and add the All-Weather package if the climate necessitates, and you'll be set for plush.
So. How does it all work together? Very nicely.
The 2.5i is perfectly reasonable. Subaru was able to keep the 2010's weight gain to just 95 pounds over the 2009 model with liberal use of high-strength steel, but the fact remains you're using 170 hp to pull a 3,386-pound car. We won't even bother with 0-to-60 times because Subaru didn't give them to us and (nearly all) Scooby buyers aren't concerned about them anyway, and won't be concerned about the pace as it screams "adequate." Although the car might not giddy up and holler, the CVT transmission is eager to give you what you want. You can put the car in "M" and use the paddle shifters, but you don't need to -- the car doesn't hesitate to find the power band necessary to do what your right foot is instructing, even uphill, and even at nearly a mile-high altitude.
The 3.6 is, not suprisingly, where the action is. The salubrious bump in numbers equates to a felicitious bump in zippiness. Hit the gas and go. Next?
No matter which engine we drove, though, we found the ride and refinement well sorted. The Outback is built on an all-new and more rigid platform, and the engine sits in its new cradle on hydraulic mounts. The Outback's wheelbase is 2.8 inches longer, while out back a double wishbone suspension takes over from the multi-link unit and more stout stabilizer bars are located front and rear. What you get is the ride of a car – not a CUV, and not even a wagon. A car.
Then you make a right turn at the sign for the Continental Divide, where the dirt and ruts and washboard and rocks begin, and it's pure Subaru. The Outback – every model, no matter if it wears 16- or 17-inch wheels – has 8.7 inches of ground clearance. That's half an inch more than the Toyota Venza, the car Subaru sees as prime Outback competition, and the same as a Jeep Wrangler Unlimited and just 0.2 inches less than a Range Rover. The Outback is unfazed by mud, by repeatedly hitting its bump-stops, by 35-degree inclines. Pick your line, pay attention, and drive. The same Subaru experience that has made the company's name in almost every dusty, snowy, icy, yak-tracked corner of the world.
Now for the price: the 2.5i manual will subtract $22,995 from your checking account, $23,995 if you go for the CVT, plus $694 destination. That's thousands less than most of the competition Subaru has identified, such as the Venza and Volvo XC70. To get close to that you'd be looking at a Jetta SE Sportwagon, and then you lose out on the space, ground clearance and AWD. Step up to the base 3.6 and you're in for $27,995. The tippy top 3.6 Limited starts at $30,995, a $1,000 drop from the current, smaller-engined Outback 3.0 Limited, and once you get to $33,995 you're out of factory options. The MSRP on a 3.5-liter V6 AWD Venza is $30,595. You can get features on the Venza that you can't get on the Subaru, such as a tow prep package, smart key and electronic rear gate, but if you want to add a voice-controlled navigation you need the Premium 2 package which lumps $8,205 onto the bill. As for the Volvo, the fully loaded Outback is $4,000 less than the MSRP of the XC70.
And if they've done their typical Subaru job, the 2010 Outback will outlive Methuselah and the only time you'll find a secondhand manual transmission car is at an estate sale.
If you need a very good car and you don't need flash, get the 2.5i with some frills. If you need a very good car and you want a little bit of zip, get the 3.6. Either way, you're buying a terrific piece of equipment that offers the fortitude of a bison wrapped in the appeal of a pony. And finally, you don't have to shop at Whole Foods to do it.
Photos Copyright ©2009 Jonathon R. Ramsey / Weblogs, Inc.
New Car Test Drive
Best wagon for bad weather.
The 2011 Subaru Outback is a top choice for when coping with nature's fury. It's a superb vehicle on dirt and gravel roads, in the snow, heavy rain, anything that calls of traction and sure-footedness.
The Subaru Outback, now in the second year of its fourth generation, was a unique sport/utility wagon when it was launched 15 years ago. The Outback is a unibody, all-wheel-drive crossover vehicle made in Lafayette, Indiana. Outback was redesigned for the 2010 model year, and there are no significant changes for 2011.
Subaru vehicles address utility as a form of luxury, based on the idea that a functional tool is a thing of beauty. With the Outback, there is the assumption of active outdoor use.
The Outback suspension, transmission and all-wheel-drive system are geared for control, comfort and stability on gravel roads and in inclement weather. All Subarus are all-wheel drive, aiming for sure handling and traction in marginal conditions. That may explain why they are most popular in the New England region, the Pacific Northwest, and mountain states. The engines feature horizontally opposed pistons, the so-called boxer layout that Porsche also uses. This results in strong torque for accelerating up hills while helping maintain a low center of gravity for improved handling.
We found the Outback to be an exceptionally capable car on unpaved forest roads. Extensive driving on Montana's back roads revealed that its tough, supple suspension could handle rough roads, and its superb all-wheel-drive performed well in all sorts of slippery conditions. Out on the open highway the Outback is smooth and comfortable and feels like a regular car.
We also drove it for one week of nasty Pacific Northwest winter, and it gave us a sense of security like few cars can. Confidence that with the Outback under us, we could breeze through whatever weather we were dealt.
Two engines are available, balancing efficiency and performance. Best government-rated fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 22/29 mpg City/Highway for the 170-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder with the continuously variable transmission (CVT). For maximum performance, a 256-hp 3.6-liter six-cylinder is available, mated to a 5-speed automatic transmission. Neither engine uses forced induction or turbocharging to achieve its rated output, and both run on regular unleaded fuel.
Four-wheel independent suspension is standard. The revised rear suspension for 2010 incorporates a double-wishbone design, which delivers a smoother ride and enables a larger rear cargo area.
The Outback emphasizes cargo carrying, with large doors that swing open wide, and good interior dimensions for cargo room.
Possibly because the Outback is not exactly like anything else on the market, Subaru reports very high owner loyalty. More than 800,000 Outbacks have been sold since they were introduced.
The 2011 Subaru Outback is available with a choice of two engines, three transmissions, with Base, Limited or Premium trim levels. Outback 2.5i models come with the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and 6-speed manual transmission ($23,195) or CVT ($24,195). Outback 3.6R ($28,195) comes with the 3.6-liter six-cylinder engine and 5-speed automatic transmission.
Standard equipment includes cloth upholstery, manual air conditioning with air filter, six-way manually adjustable driver seat, four-way manually adjustable passenger seat, 100-watt AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio with four speakers and auxiliary jack, remote keyless entry, power locks, power windows, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, two power outlets, anti-theft alarm, 16-inch steel wheels, 215/60R16 tires.
Premium trim for the Outback 2.5i with manual transmission ($24,495) or CVT ($25,495) or 3.6R ($29,195) upgrades with a 10-way power driver seat, fog lights, leather-wrapped steering wheel, 17-inch alloy wheels with 225/60R17 tires and other features.
Limited trim for the Outback 2.5i with CVT ($28,495) and the 3.6R ($31,495) includes leather upholstery, automatic dual-zone climate control, 440-watt harman/kardon AM/FM/XM/6CD/MP3 audio with nine speakers, Bluetooth, heated mirrors, heated seats, power passenger seat.
Options include an All-Weather Package ($500) adding heated mirrors, seats and de-icing equipment along with other packages that combine features.
Safety features include anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution, quick brake assist, traction control, VDC electronic stability control, all-wheel drive, LATCH child safety locks, rear-door child locks.
The Subaru Outback looks something like the other SUVs, in its D-pillar and rear window post. It's taller and wider than the previous-generation version, ending in 2009. It has a longer wheelbase, but the body is about an inch shorter overall.
Long, hawk-eye headlamps are mounted higher than the upright grille, leading to an alert, bold look. Functional side cladding and rocker panels remind this Subaru is intended to be completely at home on gravel roads. (And, indeed, it is.) At the rear, compound tail lamps blend into a broad rear hatch with a large rear window, integrating the design and helping to define the high beltline that keeps the Outback from being visually top-heavy.
A roof rack is standard. The rack's crossbars are stowed in the roof rails for reduced wind noise, and can be swung into position when needed. The rack is designed so that the existing line of Subaru roof-rack accessories will still fit. The roof rack adds about two inches of height to the Outback. The optional Power Moonroof subtracts about two inches of front headroom.
Outback 3.6R models are visually identified by 17-inch wheels and larger, 225/60R17 tires, although four-cylinder Outbacks can be upgraded with the same wheel/tire combination by selecting Limited or Premium trim.
The current Outback is roomier than pre-2010 models. Added roof height makes the new Outback roomier, with an additional 8 cubic feet of passenger space, and another 5.9 cubic feet of cargo area with the seats folded. Front legroom, still ample for taller drivers, has actually been trimmed slightly in favor of making the back seat more comfortable for long trips. Rear legroom is extended by 4 inches, and the use of curved front seatbacks adds knee room as well.
The Outback models we drove had Premium trim and the better, 10-way driver's seat. The standard seats, four-way adjustable, might not be as adjustable, but they are well designed and there is lots of legroom and headroom. The cabin feels roomy, even after a long day of driving. There is a standard cargo tray, under floor storage, and grocery bag hooks behind the rear seats.
Past Subaru interiors might have been considered quirky, but the current Outback incorporates mainstream design and content characteristics. The dash and cockpit are built around a sporty, four-dial instrument panel and a contemporary upswept center stack. The instrument panel includes a multi-information display that indicates outside temperature, fuel consumption, time, and warning functions for seatbelts and passenger air bags. The transmission gear readout is digital. The steering wheel, a three-spoke design, has four large buttons to control the audio system and cruise control. When equipped with an automatic transmission, paddle shifters are located behind the wheel. Taken as a whole, the interior is clean and contemporary, without being excessively ornate.
The parking brake is controlled electronically via a button to the left of the steering wheel, and has a Hill Hold feature. Higher trim levels offer voice activated GPS navigation, rear backup camera, Bluetooth, USB/iPod input and other amenities.
We drove the Subaru Outback on highways, back roads and forest service trails in and around Missoula, Montana, for two days, and later for one week in the Pacific Northwest. Our Montana route took us along the Blackfoot River and north to the Bob Marshall Wilderness area, and eventually along a series of dirt trails that lead to the Continental Divide, where we could look out over the mountains, hills and valleys of western Montana. We covered more than 200 miles, splitting time between a 2.5i with the CVT and a 3.6R with a 5-speed automatic transmission.
Most of the time, driving a Subaru Outback feels about the same as driving any other family sedan, but with a slightly taller stance and longer-travel suspension. Because of its low center of gravity and all-wheel-drive system, there is a distinctive rally car quality seldom seen in other crossovers and SUVs.
It's the suspension that allows the Outback to travel unpaved roads comfortably at higher speeds with excellent control. It cushions the Outback on cracked roadway surfaces, highway bumps, and on dirt and gravel roads.
The suspension also does a good job in corners thanks partly to stabilizer bars front and rear. It invites spirited driving and rewards playful cornering with sure-footed grip and a nice, steady set in every corner. The suspension tolerates a certain amount of driver error with grace. Enter a corner too fast, or come up on an unforeseen pothole too quickly and there is minimal impact, shudder or rebound. Should a tire drop into a pothole or eroded washout, the tire on the opposite side stays flat and in full contact with the surface.
The brakes are nicely balanced, with good pedal feel, so a driver falls into rhythm as the Outback squats into corners and rockets outward.
The Outback is quick in the dirt and has relatively high ground clearance. It is not intended as a low-speed off-road crawler, however, and it does not have a low-range transfer case. Still, especially with the six-cylinder engine, there is a surprising amount of torque at low rpm, and good traction. To underscore the Outback's capability, Subaru arranged an off-road hill climb comparison with two other all-wheel-drive vehicles, a Ford Explorer AWD and a Toyota Venza. While neither of the other two could make it more than halfway up the long steep hill with anyone driving, every Outback was able to steadily churn and grind its way to the top, no matter who was driving.
Later we drove our test model Outback 3.6R Limited in an event appropriately called Mudfest, at the DirtFish Rally School's 315-acre facility in Snoqualmie, Washington, where the Outback clearly proved the value of its effortless traction, controllability and even ground clearance, in deep slippery mud. In 2010, the Outback won its class at Mudfest, and was named Best Affordable SUV by the Northwest Automotive Press Association.
Back on the highway, the Outback becomes something more like a station wagon than an SUV. It corners more precisely with less body roll, and it rides at least as comfortably as other crossover vehicles we have driven. Compared to utility wagons like the Toyota Venza, the Subaru feels especially solid on the roadway, with perhaps slightly more road noise coming from all season tires, but remains a restful and relaxing vehicle to drive at legal speeds. The reduced NVH is partly because of the addition of framed glass and better sealing around the doors. Still, to our ear, it is not as quiet as some of the newest light-duty crossover wagons.
Competent on the road and downright sporty on dirt, the Outback 2.5i with the 2.5-liter engine and CVT feels a tad underpowered on the highway. Climbing mountain highway passes took more throttle, and there is a little more noise from the four-cylinder engine.
The more powerful 3.6-liter engine allowed for steady acceleration uphill and gave us ready passing power at highway speeds, but gives up fuel economy in the process. Neither drivetrain showed any appreciable tendency to generate torque steer.
Because of the different types of transmissions, there are three types of all-wheel-drive systems used across the Outback line. Vehicle dynamics and performance would be about the same across the board, but there are subtle differences.
With the 6-speed manual transmission in the 2.5i, there is a locking center differential that can distribute power evenly from front to rear in a 50/50 ratio. This would likely be the best-traction option in the worst of circumstances, such as an icy road covered with blowing snow.
The other two AWD systems actively control power distribution in response to driving conditions; they normally bias power toward the rear wheels to reduce torque steer and enhance agility. These systems are best at compensating for ice patches and wet spots on otherwise dry roads. Both systems are augmented by electronic traction control, which as we saw at the hillclimb, does a nice job of balancing power distribution as needed.
By combining a low-mounted engine with all-wheel-drive, the Outback conveys an unusual sense of security and well-being. It is, in the end, a satisfying machine to operate. We found that the more we drove it, the more we liked it.
The Subaru Outback is a thoughtful, well-balanced all-wheel-drive SUV that has unique character. It expands the utility side of the design envelope, modernizes the package, and adds performance. It remains faithful to the character attributes Subaru has always offered, something current owners will appreciate.
John Stewart filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after his test drive of the Outback near Missoula, Montana; and Sam Moses contributed after driving the Outback in the Pacific Northwest.
Subaru Outback 2.5i 6M ($23,195), CVT ($24,195); 2.5i Premium 6M ($24,495), CVT ($25,495); 2.5i Limited ($28,495); 3.6R ($28,195), 3.6R Premium ($29,195), 3.6R Limited ($31,495).
Options As Tested
cargo net ($59).
Subaru Outback 3.6R Limited ($31,495).
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