When the Subaru Outback was first released in 1995, it was a revelation: The World’s First Sport-Utility Wagon. A station wagon, powered by a small, but torquey, four-cylinder engine, on jacked up tires, with body cladding, that could handle all the terrain that most SUVs of the day could handle. It truly was one of the best makeovers in history, and one that undoubtedly saved Subaru in the mid-90s.
|1. The top-level 3.6R Outback model is powered by a larger 3.6L flat-six with 256 hp and 247 ft-lbs of torque.
2. Unlike the previous-gen Outback six-cylinder, the 3.6R doesn’t require premium fuel.
3. The base price of the 2010 Outback may have gone up to $22,995 but most of the higher trim levels are actually less expensive with the top-level 3.6R Limited at $30,995.
4. Interior room and cargo room have increased with 34.3 cu.-ft behind the rear seats or a total of 71.3 cu.-ft.
5. Fuel economy is rated at 18/25-mpg (city/hwy) for the 3.6R, compared to 22/29 for the 4-cylinder.
But as tends to happen, over time, cars evolve. The new models are almost universally bigger, more powerful, and stuffed full of features, to the point where they are almost unrecognizable from their original designs. Is Subaru’s newest Outback the victim of progress? Or has it retained its “Sport Utility Wagon” spirit?
OUTBACK MAKES GOOD USE OF ITS LARGER SIZE
The all-new Outback is taller, wider, and longer than any of its predecessors, and where once was a normal station wagon on big tires, now sits a generally big vehicle. We didn’t realize just how big until we parked it next to a first-generation Toyota Sienna minivan. Sure the van is a few inches taller, but the two cars are surprisingly similar in size. Parked next to a second-generation Outback, the new car is massive.
The good news is that all that extra size actually goes somewhere, in the name of absolutely vast amounts of interior space. Both front and rear seats have excellent head, leg, and shoulder room, and this author, at 6’3” and 245 lbs, can fit comfortably in the back seat while the front seat is “set up for myself.” The seats, while not providing much in the way of lateral bolstering, are plush and comfortable for even the longest journeys, and feature power adjustable lumbar support.
MORE POWERFUL AND EFFICIENT ENGINE, BUT TRANSMISSION LACKING
Our test vehicle, the Outback Limited 3.6R, comes with Subaru’s new 3.6L flat six, making 256-hp and 247 ft-lbs of peak torque. Hardly impressive numbers given the fact that a base-model Mustang V6 now makes over 300 horsepower, but enough to move the 3,651 lb Outback from 0-60 in 7.4 seconds, more than the typical Outback driver will ever need.
Driven normally, Subaru’s claims of 18/25-mpg (city/highway) are accurate. The only transmission available with this engine is a 5-speed automatic with paddle shifters, which is where the problems start. Its weakest link isn’t the transmission itself, but the interaction between throttle, engine, and transmission. While cruising at sub-highway speeds, the transmission will automatically shift into idle if you take your foot off the gas. When getting back on the gas there is literally a half-second delay in between pressing the pedal and any response at all from the engine. When that response comes, there’s an immediate downshift into the torque band, and a hard surge forward. We can’t even begin to describe how much this ruins the driving experience.
Using the paddle shifters keeps the car in gear, but they are slow to respond to inputs and add little to the driving experience. Subaru would be smart to ditch the paddles in favor of a sixth ratio and better throttle response.
The good news is, the cheaper, 4-cylinder models have a choice between a 6-speed manual or CVT, the first time a CVT has been mated with an AWD system. Given the $7,000 difference between a base 4 and 6 cylinder car, we’d go for the four with the stick any day.
COMFORTABLE ON-ROAD, CAPABLE OFF
What the Outback lacks in real sporting performance, it makes up for in ride quality and comfort. On the freeway, it floats along quietly and effortlessly at any speed, absorbing even the biggest potholes. Put Grandma in the back seat blindfolded, and she’d think she were in her old Brougham. (Please don’t actually try that at home people, we’re professionals, with very understanding grandmothers).
A side effect of a cushy ride is always body roll through the corners. The Outback’s got plenty, but Subaru’s signature “Symmetrical All Wheel Drive” system keeps everything planted, as long as you stay on the gas. Sporting drivers will find the brakes are woefully inadequate, especially if you’re used to European cars, but buyers stepping out of a Crossover or SUV will think they are satisfactory.
The Outback Limited’s base price is $30,995, and our test vehicle’s only option is the $3,000 ‘technology package,’ which includes the power moonroof, LCD screen and associated navigation/Bluetooth/media functions, with a backup camera. Honestly, save your money and get a base model car. The Navigation, while functional, won’t allow any inputs at all while in motion, even after the annoying disclaimer on startup. The ‘media’ interface will connect to and recognize an iPod, but won’t display artist or track information. And the Bluetooth connection has, like the throttle response, half a second delay. If you really need these features, we highly recommend looking to the aftermarket.
By this point, we thought the Outback was a wash; there are just too many annoyances and not enough character to offset them all.
Then we drove it on dirt.
When things get dirty, the Outback’s entire feel changes. Disable traction control, (the tiny, hard to find button at the very bottom of the dash, near the hood release), put the manual controls in second, and unleash your inner Sebastian Loeb. We were simply blown away by how fast you can drive on a bumpy dirt road, how you can slide the Outback through corners, but not so much that it gets scary, and how well the suspension smoothes out even the roughest of surfaces, as long as you hit them fast.
Mash the gas; give the wheel a wiggle to offset the balance and countersteer with your foot to the floor, and the world is your racetrack. We knew Subaru’s rally heritage was under there somewhere; you just have to find the right kind of road to unleash it.
If a car is simply a tool to permit your outdoor activities, or you’re planning on carrying around loads of people and stuff, for long distances or on rough terrain, this is absolutely the car for you, but only in base form, and with a 6-speed manual transmission.
If you’re a car guy, who saw the original Outback as a go-anywhere “car guy’s wagon,” then we’ve got bad news for you. While dirt-road shenanigans are as fun as anything else you can do in a car, driving it around every day, it’s hard to ignore what the Outback has become, something that car guys hate: a crossover.