The Subaru Outback gets a little better for 2008, in part because it's been cleanly separated from its Legacy sibling: Now, the Outback is only a wagon, the Legacy is only a sedan. The Outback is as competent as any Subaru product of late, but it hasn't shaken the automaker's characteristic rough edges.
Some may appreciate these Subaru-isms, which give the car a distinct feeling and, at the very least, spare it the anonymity that plagues too many midsize cars. Others will feel the opposite: that the quirks are too hard to accept and, with a few compromises, something more conventional can meet their needs.
The Outback gets a few styling changes for 2008, most notably a new bumper and a restyled grille. Most people will be hard-pressed to tell the two apart, as the differences — both outside and in — are relatively minor.
All Outbacks offer either a four- or six-cylinder engine. Four-cylinder trim levels include the base, 2.5i and the 2.5i L.L.Bean Edition, which is the car I tested. The 2.5 XT Limited comes with a turbocharged four-cylinder. Topping things off is the Outback 3.0 R L.L.Bean Edition, which uses a six-cylinder engine.
Engine output ranges from 170 horsepower in the base four-cylinder to 245 hp with the six-cylinder. Manual or automatic transmissions are available for the regular and turbocharged four-cylinders.
|Availability||Base, 2.5i, 2.5i Limited, 2.5i L.L.Bean||2.5 XT Limited||3.0 R L.L.Bean|
|Horsepower (@ rpm)||170 @ 6,000||243 @ 6,000||245 @ 6,600|
|Torque (lbs.-ft. @ rpm)||170 @ 4,400||241 @ 3,600||215 @ 4,200|
|Transmission choices||5-speed manual; 4-speed auto||5-speed manual; 5-speed auto||5-speed auto|
|Recommended gasoline||Regular (87 octane)||Premium (91 octane)||Premium (91 octane)|
|EPA-est. gas mileage (city/hwy., mpg)||19/26 (man.); 20/26 (auto)||18/24 (man. or auto*)||17/24 (auto*)|
*Estimate for SI-Drive default Sport mode; Intelligent mode is claimed to improve mileage by up to 10 percent.
With the automatic, the base four-cylinder delivers modest power. There's enough oomph for grocery-getting and other errands, but the engine quickly gets winded when pushed hard. The transmission could use a fifth gear; in many cases you can press the gas pedal halfway down without inducing a downshift, which doesn't help your passing confidence. A Sport mode holds gears longer and allows the engine to wring out a bit more power under hard acceleration, but I couldn't discern any quicker downshifting response, which is something this drivetrain sorely needs.
The six-cylinder and turbocharged four-cylinder cars with the automatic transmission offer a Subaru Intelligent Drive system, which was available last year only with the turbo engine. SI-Drive maps out throttle response between three separate settings: Intelligent, Sport and Sport Sharp. The latter two accelerate more aggressively, while Intelligent Mode relaxes pedal response for a 10 percent improvement in overall gas mileage, Subaru says.
As midsize cars go, the Outback's five-seat cabin feels intimate. It seems like there's a lot of space-saving going on: The window controls are tightly wedged below the door handles, and the center console also serves as the place to plug in your electronics. The power driver's seat has limited range; I'm 6 feet tall, and with the optional dual-pane moonroof, I needed to lower my seat all the way for adequate headroom.
Total passenger volume ranges from 93 to 98 cubic feet, depending on whether you have a moonroof. As far as space for five occupants goes, sedans like the Toyota Camry and Nissan Altima offer slightly more.
The dashboard is attractive, with handsome two-tone materials and a nicely textured steering wheel. I only wish the rest of the cabin measured up. The heated seat controls have a rickety feel, and the doors lack window frames, so they don't shut with as much heft as I've come to expect in a midsize car. They also let in a significant amount of wind noise on the highway. Many other cars with frameless windows — mostly coupes — address road noise by powering the glass up an extra quarter-inch after the door has been shut, so it fits snug with the door seal. The Outback's windows do not. They don't all completely lower, either: The rear windows stop three-fourths of the way down at a crooked angle.
As of this writing, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has not crash tested the Outback. Standard equipment includes four-wheel-disc antilock brakes, side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain airbags for both rows. An electronic stability system is optional.
Outback in the Market
If the Outback has something going for it, it's durability. The car's modest offroad credentials are rare among wagons, and the current generation, introduced for 2005, has returned impressive reliability ratings so far. It also holds a unique value proposition: There are precious few all-wheel-drive wagons that cost $25,000.
Play with the criteria a bit, however, and the Outback's isolation breaks down. SUVs have the offroad talents, two-wheel-drive wagons have the cargo room, and midsize sedans have the passenger space — and all three can be had for a similar price. With so many alternatives just a few steps away, I'm not sure the Outback can still rely on its differences to keep buyers coming.
Apart from the sheet metal updates, the Outback hasn't changed much from last year. For more thoughts on this model, check out Joe Wiesenfelder's review of the 2007 model here. He drove the 2.5 XT Limited trim, which is mechanically identical to the 2008 2.5 XT Limited. Joe shares some thoughts on SI-Drive, as well as the Outback's turbocharged performance.
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