Preview Drive: 2010 Subaru Outback

Crossover-like cousin to redesigned Legacy sedan flaunts its prowess, on-road and off-road

by James M. Flammang

2010 Subaru Outback

MISSOULA, Montana (7/31/09) - As soon as Subaru launched its redesigned midsize Legacy sedan earlier this summer, as a 2010 model, it was a certainty that a comparably-redone Outback wagon couldn't be far behind. The two models have been intertwined for years: since 1995, in fact, when the first Outback "sport utility wagon" debuted.

Like the Legacy, Subaru Outback has grown substantially in most dimensions. Overall length has shrunk slightly, to 188.2 inches; but wheelbase has grown by 2.8 inches, now measuring 107.9 inches. At 71.7 inches, the 2010 Outback is an even 2 inches wider than its predecessor. Overall height has gained a whopping 4.1 inches, now reaching 65.7 inches. Front and rear overhangs are shorter this time around. Inside the Outback, passenger space has grown. Front shoulder room is 1.9 inches greater than before, and front hip room is up 3.5 inches. Backseat occupants get 3.9 more inches of legroom and 1.8 inches of additional toe space. Outback's 8.7-inch ground clearance gives the wagon a look close to that of a crossover SUV, as well as enhancing its capabilities on moderate off-road treks.

Subaru claims that vehicle weight has risen by less than 100 pounds for each model. The all-new body structure is 38 percent high-strength steel. Previous Outbacks (and Legacy sedans) have used frameless glass, but the new doors contain conventional window frames.

With a few notable exceptions, features and equipment echo those of the reworked Legacy sedan. Wide-opening doors and hollowed-out front seatbacks first came to light on the Legacy. Outbacks add such wagon-only items as new roof rails with integrated swing-out crossbars. At the rear, the tailgate is wider than the one on previous Outbacks, with a larger opening and lower floor. Between the front seats is a deep console box with a 12-volt power outlet and auxiliary output jack, plus a storage compartment above.

Powertrains are similar to those in the Legacy, with one exception: no turbocharged engine - at least for now. "We'll get there," said communications director Michael McHale when asked about prospects for a turbo Outback, comparable to the Legacy 2.5GT, which was available in the prior generation.

In the 2.5i wagon, a 2.5-liter horiziontally-opposed four-cylinder engine develops 170 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque, mated to either a six-speed manual gearbox or a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Using a chain variator, the CVT yields an EPA fuel-economy estimate of 29 mpg for highway driving and 22 mpg in the city. With manual shift, the four-cylinder Outback receives an estimate of 19 mpg for city use and 27 mpg on the highway.

Stepping up a notch, the 3.6R model holds a 3.6-liter six-cylinder engine, rated at 256 horsepower and 247 pound-feet. Working with a five-speed automatic transmission, the Outback 3.6R gets an EPA estimate of 18/25 mpg (city/highway). The power ratings indicated are achieved using regular-grade gasoline. As with the Legacy, PZEV (Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle) versions of the Outback are available in all states, for buyers who prefer them.

Like all Subarus, each Outback has all-wheel drive. But Subaru uses three different AWD systems, depending on the transmission: a viscous center differential with manual shift, a multi-place slip clutch differential with the CVT, and a planetary gearset center differential with the 3.6R's automatic transmission.

Installing a new rear suspension resulted in a wider cargo area. All Outbacks have 60/40 fold-down rear seats, which recline. Underfloor storage in the cargo area includes space for holding the tonneau cover, when not in use. Cargo volume totals 34.3 cubic feet with the rear seats up, and 71.3 cubic feet with those seats down. A handy ticket holder on the visor keeps parking-lot stubs and the like readily available. Bluetooth connectivity is available on all models.

David Sullivan, car line manager for the Outback, notes three dominant features for the 2010 model:
• It's "right-sized"
• It has "multi-dimensional capability"
• It's safe and secure

Six airbags are standard. A rearview camera is included with the Outback's optional navigation system, which uses an 8-inch touch-screen and offers CD/DVD playback along with iPod connectivity.

Each Outback comes in a choice of three trim levels: base, premium, and Limited. The 2.5i base wagon rolls on 16-inch steel wheels, but all others get 17-inch alloy wheels.

Outbacks really can travel off-road, while providing impressive highway ride

Riding comfortably and handling capably on the highway, the Outback also performed surprisingly well on rough gravel roads that were full of ruts and rocks. Easy to drive; the Outback features steering that responds quickly and positively. Body lean is impressively restrained through fast curves, and Outback tires grasp the pavement rather well.

Relatively high ground clearance helps a lot when the pavement ends. Manual mode in the 2.5i's CVT also makes a difference on twisting uphill/downhill segments.

Performance with the four-cylinder engine and CVT falls short of stimulating, but the transmission's super smoothness makes up for any lack of vigorous acceleration. Not everyone appreciates the benefits of gearless CVTs; but for those who do, Subaru's version delivers a pleasing experience. Engine blare occurs when pushed hard, but less than in some other CVT-equipped vehicles, and the Outback 2.5i is pleasantly quiet while cruising.

Like the six-cylinder engine in the Legacy, the Outback's version emits an unpleasant snarl when pushed. Otherwise, operation is similar to the 2.5 model. Acceleration is undeniably stronger, but not enough to warrant the extra cost and gasoline usage.

Minimal correction is needed on the highway; but on twistier roads, Outback's relatively light steering seems just a bit out of place. Evidence of solid build quality is strong, with no suggestion of looseness anywhere, even off-road. Visibility is not a problem; helped by abundant glass.

Turning to another way to demonstrate the Outback's prowess, Subaru set up a hill climb up a steep incline, with a loose, sandy surface. Most six-cylinder Outbacks made it to the top. So did one Toyota Venza, but other vehicles failed, including a Ford Explorer (which did not use its low-range gearing on this occasion). Four-cylinder Outbacks did not attempt the climb, as Subaru felt their engines couldn't manage the steepness.

Prices start at $22,995 (not including destination charge) for a base Outback 2.5i, rising to $30,995 for a 3.6R Limited. Fully loaded, the 3.6R Limited goes for around $33,990. Primary rivals include the Toyota Venza and Volkswagen wagons, and will also include the forthcoming Honda Crosstour. Some shoppers might also look at the Volvo XC70, or even a Ford Explorer SUV.

Target Outback buyers are "constant adventurers," said marketing chief Tim Mahoney, who advises that Subaru sales are currently up 0.8 percent. That might not sound so impressive, but the market as a whole is off by 35 percent. As a result, Subaru has been at the top of the sales success scale in recent months. "Flat is the new up," Mahoney suggested. Subaru's half-year market share in the U.S. has reached a record level, at 2.16 percent.

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© All contents copyright 2009 by Tirekicking Today
Text and photos by James M. Flammang
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