Driving NorthWest: The 2010 Subaru Outback

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by TOM VOELK / Special to NWCN.com

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KING5.com

Posted on November 13, 2009 at 1:30 PM

Updated Friday, Nov 13 at 1:30 PM

Americans began their love affair with SUVs back in the early 90s. Alas, a new romance often means someone’s being jilted. In this case it was Subaru. Sure they had plenty of all-wheel drive vehicles but in the way of sedans and station wagons. Buyers, as they say in the relationship scene, were just not that into them.

With no platform or budget to create a true sport ute, Subaru installed some man cladding and a rugged name on their Legacy wagon. Thus Outback was born. Some say it rescued the company. Subaru wowed the practical crowd, crowing that it created the “world’s first sport utility wagon”. Since AMC is no longer in the business of making the Eagle, who’s going to complain? Huh?

As if by instinct, REI shoppers are keenly aware there’s an all new one for 2010. As before, it shares its architecture with the Legacy sedan. Wheelbase and width grow but since the structure uses more high strength steel, weight gain is minimal. Compared to the outgoing model it’s an inch shorter and yet there’s noticeably more room inside. Unlike many relationships this one gives and gives.

The big difference between the Outback and the Legacy sedan besides, duh, the wagon back end is ground clearance. When first introduced by Aussie celeb Paul Hogan, Outback was pretty much a Legacy wagon dressed up in hiker’s garb. As time went on it gained more chassis clearance culminating in the 2010 version that rides nearly three inches higher than its sedan sister. Legacy has 3 engine choices, Outback gets 2. Sorry, no turbo engine for you Woodsy Owl.

It’s easy to tell if a Subaru has AWD. It’s a Subaru.

Symmetrical all-wheel drive is standard on every Subie, and it’s been my experience that Outbacks can tackle pretty tough terrain. True off-roaders will opt for a Land Rover or Jeep but realistically, most drivers will never tax the Subaru’s capability. Typically, owners just want a reliable companion that will get them to a trail head at the end of a forest service road or to work and back on snowy days. Both my doctor and dentist own these rigs for that very reason. Traction is excellent on slick rainy Northwest pavement. Stop on a steep Seattle grade and the hill holder feature keeps Outback from rolling back until the accelerator is pressed.

Make a commitment to Outback and you still have to choose between two distinct personalities. For the frugal there’s a 170 horsepower 2.5-liter 4-cylinder with a choice of 6-speed manual or a Lineartronic continuously variable transmission. My tester with the 3.6 liter 256 horse H6 engine is much more outgoing. Unlike the outgoing 3.0-liter unit it now drinks regular gas. The sole transmission hooked up to the 6-cylinder is a 5-speed with manual shift control on the console and steering wheel paddles.

Subaru’s Boxer engines are unique, laying deep and flat in the bay for a lower center of gravity. Pistons fire horizontally rather than the vertical up and down stroke in most engines (only Porsche does it the same way).

What’s your motivation?

The 3.6R Outback is as quick as Crocodile Dundee’s wit. 0-60 is just a tick over 7 seconds. The difference between the two powertrains is very noticeable. 0-60 times are a little more than 2 seconds slower for the 4-cylinder.

I highly prefer the H6 but as you might guess fuel economy is certainly less than the 4 (18/25 vs. 22/29 for a CVT equipped 4). If you’re going for the automatic in the smaller engine, pay attention to the dynamics of the CVT. Some people don’t care for the gliding nature of their operation. Other could care less. Also know that different drivetrains get different versions of Subaru’s Symmetrical all-wheel drive.

Those used to driving a truck-based sport ute are in for a pleasant change when it comes to handling. Cornering and driving dynamics are first rate for this segment. Compared to Ford Edge, Nissan Murano and even Mazda CX-7, the Subie takes the prize for most nimble. Outback is not as crisp as the lower riding Legacy sedan though. That’s just physics at work. Road noise is average in class.

A cabin for the woods, or the city.

The interior of the upscale Limited model I’m driving looks moderately upscale. Purists will note the wood trim isn’t of the organic kind and the instrument panel material is as hard as the rocks Outback can tackle. Still, surfaces that matter (like the armrests) are cushy. Chairs are supportive, leather and heated. Bluetooth makes your phone handsfree. The parking brake is push button.

Like Legacy, windows now have frames to help keep noise out. The rear door pillar has been pushed aft a few inches making it easier to get in and out of the back seat now. Once there, three adults will be comfortable (yes, I tried it with my neighbors). Subaru’s goal was to make this space more habitable. Mission accomplished. There’s plenty of foot and knee room and the drive shaft tunnel isn’t overly intrusive. A power port and second map pocket would have been nice.

As long as I’m griping, rugged vehicles should have foldable side view mirrors. Hit a solid branch whilst communing with nature and Outback’s will break off, creating an expensive repair bill. My tester has the optional navigation system with USB iPod interface. Key controls on the touch screen for it and the nav system “gray out” and are unusable once the car is in motion. While it’s common, Subaru’s lawyers seem especially aggressive here. It would be helpful if there was a sensor that detected a passenger so they could operate the system. With the split rear seat folded, cargo space is impressive but the front passenger seat doesn’t fold flat to carry long items inside.

They can be hauled outside though. A standard roof rack is ready to haul skis and surf boards. Cross rails cause unpleasant wind noise but Outback’s swing to the side and store in the aerodynamic housing when not needed. Nice touch.

Legacy vs. Outback trunk space smackdown

Cars are loaded with space age tech these days but it’s a simple hook that holds the load floor up out of the way that makes me smile. That floor covers hides some cubbie space and a large slot that stores the security shade (it no longer needs to be left in garage!). The Costco TP test offers up an opportunity to see how the Legacy sedan and Outback wagon compare cargo wise. One holds 6 bundles of the 2-ply, the other 9. If you can’t figure out which is which, email me.

A safe choice

Subaru has done a great job in the safety department over the years. The 2010 Outback looks to be no exception. Electronic stability and traction control plus great anti-lock brakes help keep you out of accidents. In NHTSA government testing Outback scores 5 stars in driver and passenger frontal testing. Rear passenger and rollover tests have yet to be done at this writing.

The 3.6R Limited I’m testing starts at $31, 700. 2.5i 4 cylinder models with a 6-speed manual start at around 24 grand, add another K for the automatic CVT transmission. Price wise, the sweet spot seems to be a midrange 2.5i Premium with CVT and BlueConnect phone package. At $26,400 it should make the majority of frugal owners happy. Want a plain old Legacy wagon? Sorry. Subaru no longer offers one or the Outback sedan for that matter.

Other than rabid Prius owners, Subaru drivers seem to love their cars more than any other brand. Very popular in the Northwest, they come in fourth after Toyota, Honda and Ford. Our weather seems to attract both Subarus and Canadian Geese. And why not? Reasonable people looking for a reasonable vehicle will find its capability, size, price and gas mileage appealing. Roomier and more refined than ever, the 2010 Outback has the ability to forge a long term relationship.

 

 

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