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Review and photos by Paul Williams
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At Autos’s recent Traction 2006 event, all of our test drivers expected excellent performance from the Subaru Outback in the slippery, icy, mid-winter conditions.
In fact, it was one of the top two vehicles in the 15-car field, so no surprise there. But the thing to note is that our test drivers expected no less from a Subaru, such is its reputation in winter weather as the automotive equivalent of a snowmobile.
Subaru has been building and trading on this reputation for years – committing to all-wheel drive for all its vehicles since 1993, for instance, along with standardizing anti-lock brakes and multiple airbags – but these days many brands offer the same technologies. So why should a Subaru, in particular, be on your shopping list?
At $38,995, our test Subaru Outback 2.5i Limited is pretty much the quintessential “Subie,” albeit with some additional luxury appointments that you get with the “Limited” trim level. Just like Outbacks before it, the ride height is raised compared with the standard Legacy wagon (there’s no Outback sedan), body cladding is added, and a new category of vehicle emerges.
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You can’t argue with the look – or can you? On the one hand, the Outback almost defines the Subaru brand, but on the other, it may be getting a little dated. My barber thought I was driving an “old” car; my neighbour likewise. It’s quite clear to me that this is the latest version, but I see their point.
On the other hand, Subaru Outbacks from any year seem just about ageless. Look at a 2002 model, or even a 1997. If they’re in good shape (which they often are) they look perfectly acceptable on today’s roads. If you’re not someone who’s motivated by following the latest fashions and design trends, you won’t care about the opinions of strangers, anyway.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. As the inventor of this category, the Outback concept continues to be a viable alternative to the standard station wagon or a small SUV. You get the ride height and cargo capacity increase over a sedan or standard wagon, and you get the control and “road feel” of a car, as opposed to a small truck. You also get that Subaru “can do” reputation.
Subaru’s recent exterior changes (all new for 2005) have softened the car’s lines and accented the front and rear lights. The shapes are pleasant and the overall look of the vehicle is still unmistakeably “Outback.” Word has it that in the next year or so, the Outback’s grille will be changed to match the new three-part design from the B9 Tribeca and Impreza. You should take a look at that if you’re thinking of waiting, as Subaru’s styling choices are often controversial and sometimes short-lived.
Inside, the makeover seems more complete. The tailored, rich-looking leather trim, and teak wood inserts with subtle brushed titanium-look accents, seem more Swedish than a Saab. The entire centre stack is angled towards the driver, with controls that are easy to find and operate. The primary gauges are electroluminescent and glow white-on-black at all times, and at night the switches glow aviation red, although their operation was not as easy to discern in the dark. Looked nice, though.
The front seats are heated, comfortable and supportive when cornering, but felt a bit flat over the long haul. Rear seat passengers have reasonable legroom, even with the front seats moved back.
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The rear cargo area is large and evenly contoured. No third row seat is present or available, just in case you were wondering.
A complaint of mine is the operation of the automatic climate control. Ambient temperatures during our test were around -10 degrees Celsius, but I couldn’t get the climate control system to satisfactorily warm up the cabin, even when setting it at 24 degrees. The reason? The air-conditioning kicks in to modulate the temperature, and blows unwelcome cool air when you want heat. The manual override made no difference.
Under the hood, Subaru’s familiar flat-four, 2.5-litre engine now makes 175-horsepower and 169 lb-ft of torque.
For additional cost, Subaru does offer the Legacy Outback as a GT version, with a 250-hp turbocharged flat-four, and a smooth 3.0-litre flat-six is available, also with 250 hp. Unlike the five-speed automatic transmission that comes with those models, the “base” four-cylinder engine in the Outback Limited is mated to a four-speed automatic “Sportshift” transmission with gated selector. It shifts smoothly and appropriately.
No, the opposed-cylinder engine is not quite a refined as an inline-four from Honda or Toyota, but Subaru has done a masterful job of quietening this powerplant, and any noise it does make, especially when accelerating briskly, sounds sporty and purposeful.
Fuel economy was a surprise. To be frank, Subaru’s are not known for their superior fuel economy but Subaru engineers have managed to wring excellent numbers from the regular gasoline passing through this engine. On secondary highways, I managed 7.4 L/100 km, which rose to about 8.2 L/100 km at freeway speeds. In the city, I was running about 12.0 L/100 km using a gentle right foot. Don’t forget, this is a full-time, all-wheel drive vehicle, and ours was fitted with gnarly winter tires.
The low placement of the engine in conjunction with Subaru’s full-time “symmetrical” all-wheel drive system produces a very distinctive driving experience (although this “planted” feel is somewhat moderated by the raised suspension of the Outback). Nonetheless, the car didn’t feel tippy in the corners, and the steering is sharp and responsive. In snowy or slushy conditions, the Subaru excels, although it doesn’t come with vehicle stability control to help the driver if the car starts to slide.
As mentioned above, all Subarus now feature anti-lock brakes, all-wheel drive and multiple airbags as standard equipment. Also standard on the Outback Limited is a six-disc CD changer, big sunroof, auto climate control, the leather interior and wood trim combination, and full power amenities (although only the driver’s window is “auto-down” and none are “auto-up”). All in all, it’s a nice package for a well-sorted and sturdy car. You won’t want for much, except maybe a navigation or DVD system, which are not available on this model.
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Subaru continues to have a loyal following, and is one of the few brands that makes cars with real personality (you could easily argue that the Outback is a “non-conformist” type vehicle, or maybe a car for the discerning buyer, whichever you prefer). The company’s recent move “up-market” is producing vehicles of refinement and substance, but pushing the price of a nicely equipped Subaru ever higher. And that counter-culture identity is receiving a lot of convincing competition from mainstream players like Toyota, for instance, with its new, 268-hp RAV4 Limited at the same price point as the Outback Limited. Plus there is a range of small, car-like SUVs with more interior room for many thousands less.
This is the issue, in my opinion. Can the Subaru Outback Limited package compete with all the Outback alternatives? Is reputation enough? Nice as it is, and reliable too, I think Subaru is getting to a tipping point.
Technical Data: 2006 Subaru Outback 2.5i Limited
|Price as tested||$40,095 Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives|
|Type||4-door, 5-passenger mid-size wagon|
|Layout||longitudinal front engine, all-wheel drive|
|Engine||2.5-litre H.O. 4-cylinder, SOHC, 16 valves|
|Horsepower||175 @ 6000 rpm|
|Torque||169 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm|
|Transmission||4-speed automatic, with “Sportshift”|
|Tires||P225/55 R17 all season standard; Pirelli P210 winter tires as tested|
|Curb weight||1550 kg (3410 lb)|
|Wheelbase||2670 mm (105.1 in.)|
|Length||4795 mm (188.7 in.)|
|Width||1992 mm (78.4 in.); with mirrors|
|Height||1580 mm (62.2 in.)|
|Cargo capacity||909 litres (32.1 cu. ft.) seats up|
|1747 litres (61.7 cu. ft.) seats down|
|Fuel consumption||City: 10.3 L/100 km (27 mpg Imp.)|
|Hwy: 7.2 L/100 km (39 mpg Imp.)|
|Warranty||3 yrs/60,000 km|
|Powertrain warranty||5 yrs/100,000 km|