2010 Subaru Outback – Click above for high-res image gallery

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.

You can now get all of that sweet, nutty Subaru-ness in a traditionally handsome package.
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.

What you get is the ride of a car - not a CUV, and not even a wagon. A car.
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.

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