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Story and photos by Laurance Yap
Baddeck, Nova Scotia – I must confess that I’ve never been much a fan of Subaru’s Outback. That’s not because it isn’t a fine vehicle – in fact, thanks to its low-mounted horizontally-opposed engine, full-time all-wheel-drive system, and stable handling, it’s better than most – but more because it’s always seemed a bit like a poseur’s vehicle. Rugged body cladding, raised ride height, and blocky tires or not, the Outback was based on a Legacy wagon, one of the best wagons out there; why would you want to dress it up in contrasting body work and simultaneously pay MORE, especially when the wagon was such a good deal?
Clearly, however, I was in the minority, for the Outback was in many ways Subaru’s saviour in North America. People really went for its slightly more butch looks, its raised ride height (which came with some surprising off-road ability) and its more luxurious level of finish and standard equipment. So while I may not think that the Outback is as important a story in the story of the new Legacy platform, so to speak, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t the more important story. This is a car that Subaru needs to succeed if it intends to continue pushing upmarket.
To that end, the Outback benefits from a much greater degree of differentiation – both physical and mechanical – from the Legacy on which it is based. Like previous Outbacks, it rides higher off the ground, this time on chunky 17-inch alloy wheels (old models had 16-inchers). The mirrors are bigger, the roof rack is taller, the sunroof bigger, and you can, if you want, get two-tone paint for the cladding. That cladding, however, is much more cleanly integrated now; the new Legacy’s designers clearly were working on the Outback from the outset rather than designing it as an afterthought. The result is a clean, much more sophisticated look that reflects the new car’s higher price, which starts at $32,995 and rises through $44,995.
Perhaps the greatest strides have been made in the Outback’s roomy interior. Using the same basic architecture as the new Legacy, it has moved even further upmarket, with an electroluminescent gauge cluster, gated shifter for the automatic transmission, integrated in-dash CD changer, and heavily-bolstered seats, which come in either a sturdy cloth fabric or a thick, outdoorsy saddle-style leather. While the Legacy sticks to a monochrome interior, the Outback features a two-tone environment with rich-looking aluminum and wood-grain accents.
In addition to the full range of power assists, there are a number of very thoughtful features as well, such as a deep console bin that converts to become two cupholders; a handy dash-top box for your change; seat heaters that have a whole range of adjustment instead of just “low” and “high”; and rear seats that fold with one touch, not requiring the bottom cushion to be flipped up first. That new sunroof is pretty clever, too; it’s a two-piece unit where the front glass portion swings up to work as a wind deflector while the back piece motors rearwards into the roof. Unfortunately, the Outback’s trademark rear sunroof is no more.
Outback engines now number three: in addition to a revised naturally-aspirated 2.5-litre flat-four with 168 horsepower in the “base” 2.5i, there’s also a 250 horsepower turbocharged 2.5 in the $42,895 Outback XT, and a new 3.0-litre flat-six in the $38,995 Outback 3.0 R, which also produces 250 horsepower. The three engines each endow the Outback with a distinctive personality. The base model, while still comfortable and luxurious, does feel a bit like a base model; at idle, the engine chunters and rumbles, and under acceleration has that distinctive Subaru flat-four sound. The turbo model is the sporty one, smooth and quiet but with a thrilling rush of power when you toe into the gas pedal to pass other cars. The 3.0-litre engine is the really high-end luxurious choice, dead-silent at idle, butter-smooth up to redline, and delivering its performance in a seamless, linear fashion that always makes the most expensive Outback feel like it’s going much slower than it actually is. This is one superbly refined engine, and once again, one that’s reserved for the Outback and not fitted to the Legacy.
Transmission choices are more numerous now: the base 2.5 comes with the typical choice of five-speed manual and four-speed automatic; the 2.5 XT has a reinforced five-speed manual or a five-speed automatic with shift buttons mounted on its Momo-branded steering wheel; and the 3.0R comes exclusively with a five-speed automatic. The five-speed automatic in particular is really smart, incorporating a yaw-rate sensor so it doesn’t shift in the middle of hard corners, intelligent shift logic that adapts to your driving style, and other sensors and programs that make it less “busy” ascending hills, and provide improved engine braking when coming back down. As for brakes, ABS with electronic brake-force distribution is standard on all models.
One thing that has always impressed about the Outback is how it handles regular roads and rough and/or off-road conditions with equal aplomb. Should you want to go deep into the woods, an Outback will get you further than you’ll probably give it credit for: it has as much ground clearance as a Ford Explorer, pretty good approach and departure angles, and impressive maneuverability. What’s neat is that it’s an equally satisfying car to drive on a winding road, thanks to its low centre of gravity, responsive steering, multilink rear suspension, and significantly improved braking system. Once you get used to the car’s increased height – which manifests itself as greater body roll when you initially turn in without ever feeling tippy – you can hustle the Outback as hard as you would a Legacy. Its tires are as wide, grip is just as good, and cornering stability is superb. On the top-of-the-line $44,995 3.0R VDC model, you also get electronic stability control.
So do I like the new Outback any better than I did? Thanks to the new, sportier engine choices, I certainly do, and the new vehicle’s styling is a lot cleaner and better-integrated than previous Outbacks. The interior is not only significantly nicer than it was before, but is also significantly different from the Legacy on which it’s based, enough so that its finer finish is a compelling reason to spring for the Outback. While this new Subaru may still be a bit tall for my tastes, its added features, capability, and performance make it a much stronger proposition than it once was. While there’s still an element of the pose-mobile in the Outback, its success has meant Subaru’s now has had the resources to develop a car that’s not just a jacked-up Legacy, but something with its own distinct personality. While in the end it may not be for me – I’d still go for a Legacy turbo wagon instead – judging by the number of current Outbacks I see on the road, it may well be for you.