Subaru Outback — A formula for success

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

Month in and month out for more than a year there have been new and depressing automotive sales statistics, for one brand or another. While the government’s Clunker's program had a positive impact and things now appear to be stabilizing few carmakers have been as fortunate as Subaru, which has been in the black every month of 2009 showing gains in month over month comparisons to 2008.

We have asked in print how the Japanese car company can keep coming up with these astounding results when such vaunted Japanese manufacturers as Toyota, Honda and Nissan are suffering double-digit declines.

We may have discovered Subaru’s formula.

This revelation came during a week-long test of a 2010 Outback that was completely redesigned for the 2010 model year. Subaru has taken the very popular mid-sized Outback crossover station wagon and made it significantly better, fixing many of the things that customers complained about in the previous iteration.

In other words, Subaru listens to its customers and reacts in a meaningful way. For example, cramped rear-seat legroom — a big negative for the previous Outback has been eliminated by stretching the wheelbase 2.8 inches creating nearly four more inches to park feet and legs. This huge gain was accomplished with the loss of only one cubic foot of rear cargo space. And Subaru didn’t forget seating comfort either, providing reclining seatbacks for long-distance comfort.

Here’s another example of Subaru problem solving: Subaru owners have complained about wind noise emanating from the empty roof rack; an annoyance, to be sure. Subaru says it’s no longer a problem. Now, when the roof rack is unused the crossbars fold back into the side rails eliminating the whistling wind.

And this: when the rear tonneau cover is in the way of cargo and has to be removed, it no longer has to take up valuable cargo space or be stashed away in the garage. Subaru has devised a way to roll it up and store it in the floor.

Better off-road capability was created by cutting down the front and rear overhangs by two inches. And ground clearance has been upped slightly to 8.7 inches. Granted, the Outback is no Jeep Wrangler, but it appears considerably more capable off the beaten path than the average modern crossover.

The all-wheel drive Outback for years has been the crossover — before the term crossover was invented — of choice for people living in bad-weather climates and for outdoorsmen who valued better gas mileage and a more conventional car-like ride and appearance than offered by traditional sport utilities.

We didn’t take our test vehicle off road, but from the accounts of several auto testers who have, they report the new edition is every bit as good — if not better — than the previous Outback in handling challenging conditions.

Nothing has changed with this new Subaru Outback except as noted above, it has gotten better in most ways — but not every way. There is always something, isn’t there?

Yes Virginia there are some downsides, the biggest for us was a less nimble feel on the open highway than the edition we drove in 2007. The new Subaru drives bigger and feels more like a traditional mid-sized crossover and less like an agile station wagon. This can especially be felt on aggressive cornering where the typical crossover feeling of tipsiness is in evidence.

Additionally the car’s increased size has changed that tight 35-foot turning circle of the previous edition, growing almost a foot-and-a-half making parking-lot maneuverability slightly more cumbersome.

Exterior styling has also given us pause. It’s rather cumbersome as some have called it; awkward, lacking cohesiveness. But then Subaru has always been a little off kilter in its styling pursuits, so perhaps the loyal buyer wonders what all this criticism is about.

Interior styling is more conventional; controls were well placed and easy to use. Materials continue to be of high quality and fit and finish is first class. And we very much liked the feel and look of the cloth seats.

There are six trim levels and two engine choices starting at $23,690 including destination charges, the same price as the 2009 edition, and we applaud Subaru for holding the line on pricing. The sticker goes up to $31,690 for 3.6R Limited.

Sad to report, the peppy 243-horsepower turbocharged horizontally opposed four-cylinder has been dropped from the lineup leaving the carryover base four-cylinder and new-for-the Outback 3.6-liter flat six that is also used in the Tribeca.

The new base engine is a 2.5-liter four making 170 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque. The new six replaces the previous 3.0-liter engine. It develops 256 horsepower and 247 pound-feet of torque.

Our mid-level 2.5i Premium test car came with the four mated to a six-speed manual. It can also be paired with a continuously variable transmission.

We found it modestly entertaining with enough power for our needs. It features reasonable performance measured at 9.4 seconds from 0 to 60 and somewhat disappointing gas mileage of 19 city and a more reasonable 27 highway.

Depending on your needs you may want to move up to the six-cylinder powerplant. Base price of the six is $28,690. A five-speed automatic is the only transmission available with the six. Mileage is 18/25.

The Subaru even in base form comes well equipped. All trim levels get full power equipment, automatic headlights, cruise control, and a four-speaker audio system with CD player with auxiliary jack, antilock brakes and stability and traction control. And as always, all Outbacks come with an all-wheel drive system.

And all Outbacks come with nearly 38 cubic feet of storage behind the rear seats and 71 cubic feet with the seatbacks folded. That’s comparable to the 70 cubic feet of space found in the new Toyota Venza, a vehicle that the new Outback will probably be compared to more than any other.

Our 2.5i Premium test vehicle carried a base price of $25,290 and an as tested price of $27,780 with a handful of options including an all-weather package, an upgraded 440-watt sound system and a power moonroof. A navigation system is available although our test vehicle did not have that option installed.

The test car also came with a Pzev (partial zero emissions vehicle) rating, which meets California’s strictest air quality standards; and is available in the 12 Northeastern states that follow California air quality rules.

There are a lot of mid-sized crossover choices out there these days, but the new Outback seems up to the challenge of helping keep Subaru’s incredible sales statistics intact.

Base price: $23,690; as driven, $27,780
Engine: 2.5-liter flat four
Horsepower: 170 @ 5,600 rpm
Torque: 170 foot-pounds @ 4,000 rpm
Drive: all-wheel
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 107.9 inches
Length: 188.2 inches
Curb weight: 3,377 pounds
Turning circle: 36.8 feet
Luggage capacity: 34.4 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 71 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 18.5 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 27 mpg highway, 19 mpg city
0-60: 9.4 seconds (Edmund's)
Also consider: Toyota Venza, Honda CR-V, Chevrolet Equinox

The Good:
• Excellent off-road performance
• Spacious interior with new-found leg room
• All-wheel drive standard

The Bad:
• Awkward styling

The Ugly:
• Bigger and less agile than previous iteration