In 1996, Subaru's second year selling the Legacy Outback, the marketing team delivered a killer calling card for the earliest incarnation of the modern crossover: "The World's First Sport Utility Wagon." Playing to the era's penchant for SUVs, Subaru produced a vehicle that could swallow all the gear and manage any terrain that the American family adventure would throw at it. Unlike the burgeoning mob of SUVs, though, it promised the comfort of a car because it was unencumbered by their unwieldy dimensions and big-displacement thirst. It was an ideal compromise. Subaru of America's then-president, George Muller, taunted the traditional sport-utes with a simple truth: "We can make our cars look like trucks better than they can make their trucks behave like cars."
And so it's been for the past fifteen years, with Subaru serving up an offbeat and unconventional alternative to the traditional SUV and, more recently, the ubiquitous crossover. The Outback formula never quite achieved mainstream appeal, but its unique positioning and no-nonsense practicality have been an antidote to automotive monotony and turned buyers into steadfast loyalists.
Having previously enjoyed the Kool-Aid, we were quick to get in line for a fourth-generation Outback, which receives some of the most dramatic changes since the model's inception. For the first time, the Outback uses a different body than the Legacy wagon (which is no longer sold in the United States), and it expands in height (2.5 inches) and width (2.0 inches) but is 0.8 inch shorter than its predecessor. "The growth isn't hugely offensive since the weight gain is very modest," said senior web editor Phil Floraday shortly after our Subaru arrived. "But the old Outback looked svelter." Indeed, the rest of the staff agrees that Subaru, home of the homely automobile, has taken it to a new level with this Outback. The ridged plastic cladding, the crude and elementary grille, the ballooning fender flares, and the chunky roof rack that could have been designed with Legos all hide what might otherwise be an attractive vehicle.
Our Four Seasons car was a top-of-the-line 3.6R Limited, featuring Subaru's 3.6-liter flat six and equipped with heated front seats, leather upholstery, a premium audio system, and dual-zone automatic climate control as standard fare. Adding a navigation system, a rearview camera, a USB port, satellite radio, and a handful of less significant options brought the price to $35,541. You can find more attractive and more luxurious interiors for that kind of money, but our drivers must have been far too comfortable in the Outback's plush seats to care, as few logged comments to that effect. Rather, we heaped praise on the spacious cabin, the excellent visibility, and the seats, which are generously cushioned yet still provide ample support. Rear-seat passengers are treated to reclining seatbacks and limo-like levels of legroom, which has increased by 3.9 inches over the previous Outback, partly due to the wheelbase, which has been stretched by 2.8 inches.
Using the navigation system, though, was anything but comforting. For starters, Subaru still stores the maps on DVDs. Yep, plural. You can view maps for the entire United States on any one of the three discs (for the West, Midwest, and East), but the system can find destinations in a given region only with the correct disc inserted. Swapping discs requires uncovering the well-hidden slot behind a difficult-to-remove trim piece, and even with the correct DVD in place, the road data showed signs of being antiquated on more than one occasion. One driver ventured down a private driveway that the Subaru listed as a road. Another time, we put the factory navigation in a head-to-head test with a portable Garmin unit in rural Michigan. The Subaru suggested a route that was more than twice as long.
The in-car technology is plagued by several other deficiencies: The map doesn't show enough detail at typical zoom levels, and the coverage area is too small to be usable when zoomed in to show secondary streets. Using Bluetooth to stream music and make phone calls requires connecting the phone twice every time the car is started. The large eight-inch screen can't display stereo information and a map at the same time. And adjusting the tone of the stereo requires the car to be completely stopped and a degree in audio engineering.
From the first note in the Outback's logbook, drivers criticized the overly soft ride. After making a trip from New York to Ann Arbor in the Outback, senior editorJoe Lorio noted, "Once again, I wished for more steering precision and better body control, particularly when we got caught in the holiday rush and were cranking along in the rolling hills and curves of I-80 in western Pennsylvania. The flat six, though, never wanted for power, and the transmission never hunted for gears."
Subaru's sweet horizontally opposed engine makes 256 hp feel like so much more. Its smoothness invited us to goose the throttle, but even so, the Outback exceeded the EPA's combined fuel economy estimate by 3 mpg, averaging an impressive 23 mpg. We also loved the fact that the six-cylinder is paired with a five-speed automatic rather than the continuously variable transmission that comes with the four-cylinder engine. We did, however, have an issue with throttle response. "The torque converter has a one-beat hesitation when you pull away from a stop, and after a weekend of running around in town, it's starting to drive me nuts," complained Lorio. "If you're just oozing away from a stop, it's not really noticeable; if you're trying to jump out into traffic, though, it's highly annoying."
But not as annoying as the loose chassis, the comments about which became more frequent and more damning as the miles passed. "When it comes to handling, the body is always one step behind the wheels," chided one driver. "Hit a bump midcorner, and the Outback becomes a gyrating and undulating mass of clumsiness. Turn in at speed, and the body dips and leans before it eventually changes direction to chase the Outback's underpinnings." Floraday chimed in with more disappointment, adding, "Not only is the suspension a bit on the squishy side, the steering has no feel on-center and it's impossible to notice slight inputs that send the car off course." The Outback's lack of body control is a sum of the floaty body, vague steering, and tall ride height. The result was a need for unflagging attention on long straights and reduced speeds when cornering.
For all the grumbling and griping over the Outback's highway demeanor, you might suspect it was bypassed when editors signed out cars every day. You'd be wrong. In fact, in its twelve months with us, the Subaru Outback became one of the highest-mileage Four Seasons vehicles to ever pass through 120 East Liberty Street. It made few exceptionally long trips, but the Outback was often a top pick for weekend getaways and accumulated 38,939 miles, all without a single mechanical fault. (During one regular maintenance visit, Subaru did address two recalls, however.)
The chassis finally revealed an endearing side when we pointed the Outback down harsh dirt roads to challenge Subaru's all-weather, all-terrain reputation. During an off-road excursion with our long-term Audi Q5 and Acura ZDX, Floraday found the Outback to be the most comfortable, noting, "That soft suspension does a lot when the road becomes a pair of ruts."
Equipped with Subaru's robust all-wheel-drive system and a set of Yokohama winter tires in the cold months, the Outback was unstoppable on dusty two-tracks in northern Michigan, in molasseslike mud in North Dakota, and through a season of snow in Ann Arbor. "In deep snow, the Outback is simply brilliant," wrote one commenter. "I tackled what seemed to be at least a foot of snow at the entrance to my alley, and the Outback didn't mind one bit. Driving on completely unplowed pavement like the third lane of I-75 during a blizzard feels no different from driving on dry pavement."
The Outback's versatility is furthered by that eyesore of a roof rack, which performs an innovative trick, storing the crossbars longitudinally to cut down on aerodynamic drag and wind noise until they're needed. Flipping them into the transverse position, say to carry a pair of kayaks, is done without tools in less than a minute. Also, in the rear cargo hold, the rubber mat makes for easy cleanup after transporting pets or kindling.
That utility, it turns out, is the Outback's story. We -- both the staff and American consumers -- are such slaves to utility that we happily dismissed the Outback's most serious shortcoming for convenience, comfort, and possibility. We piled on the miles as drivers sought refuge from bad weather, explored rural vacation spots, and ventured on only-in-America thousand-mile weekend slogs. The Outback's popularity in our fleet, though, is not forgiveness for abandoning its upper hand.
By many measures, the body control is a step back toward the ride of yesterday's SUVs. The head start that Subaru once had -- equivalent capability with superior dynamics -- has been lost to well-mannered crossovers such as the Ford Edge and the Honda Pilot. Although it packs a potent powertrain and appealing comfort in a practical package, the Outback has transformed from America's sport-utility wagon into just another American crossover.
Pros and Cons
+ Unquestioned utility
+ Lively, economical engine
+ Excellent reliability
- Lax body control
- Inferior nav system
- Awkward throttle tip-in
8010 mi: $36.23
13,754 mi: $35.95
19,246 mi: $154.94
24,744 mi: $64.95
32,020 mi: $527.54
24,744 mi: Inspect antilock brake control unit cover for cracks (none found); replace steering-wheel electrical roll connector
1272 mi: Purchase, mount, and balance four Yokohama IceGuard iG20 winter tires, $881.85
14,108 mi: Remount stock Continental ContiProContact all-season tires, $91.15
EPA city/hwy/combined 18/25/20 mpg
Observed 23 mpg
COST PER MILE
(Fuel, service, winter tires) $0.17 ($0.36 including depreciation)
PRICE AS TESTED
ABS; traction and stability control; all-wheel drive; dual-zone automatic climate control; leather-trimmed upholstery; heated power front seats and sideview mirrors; power windows and door locks; tilting/telescoping steering column; multifunction steering wheel; Bluetooth; 440-watt Harman Kardon nine-speaker AM/FM stereo with in-dash CD player; roof rails with integrated crossbars; front, side, and side curtain air bags
Option package 08 (power moonroof, navigation system, USB input, rearview camera, Bluetooth audio streaming), $2995; Popular equipment group 1A (auto-dimming rearview mirror, compass, security-system shock sensor), $326; Sirius satellite radio, $461; all-weather floor mats, $69
*Estimate based on information from intellichoice.com
2010 Subaru Outback 3.6R Limited
Body Style: 4-door crossover
Accommodation: 5 passengers
Construction: Steel unibody
Engine: 24-valve DOHC flat-6
Displacement: 3.6 liters (222 cu in)
Horsepower: 256 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 247 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed automatic
Steering: Hydraulically assisted
lock-to-lock: 3.2 turns
turning circle: 36.8 ft
Suspension, front: Strut-type, coil springs
Suspension, rear: Control arms, coil springs
Brakes: Vented discs, ABS
Tires: Continental ContiProContact
Tire size: 225/60TR-17
headroom f/r: 38.7/39.3 in
legroom f/r: 43.0/37.8 in
shoulder room f/r: 56.3/56.1 in
L X W X H: 188.2 x 71.7 x 65.7 in
Wheelbase: 107.9 in
Track f/r: 61.0/61.0 in
Weight: 3700 lb
weight dist. f/r: 56.8/43.2%
cargo capacity: 34.3/71.3 cu ft (rear seats up/down)
towing capacity: 3000 lb
fuel capacity: 18.5 gallons
est. fuel range: 425 miles
fuel grade: 87 octane
Our Test Results
0-60 mph: 6.9 sec
0-100 mph: 17.8 sec
1/4-mile: 15.4 sec @ 93 mph
30-70 mph passing: 7.7 sec
peak acceleration: 0.51 g
speed in gears: 1) 46; 2) 70; 3) 108; 4) 114; 5) 110 mph
cornering l/r: 0.81/0.81 g
70-0 mph braking: 171 ft
peak braking: 1.00 g