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Expert Reviews 1 of 8
By David Thomas
September 28, 2009
These are dire times for the auto industry, but Subaru has been successful thanks to its small lineup of all-wheel-drive vehicles and faithful owners who keep coming back whenever a model is redesigned. Last year, the Forester SUV was completely retooled, and it has sold briskly. For 2010, the long-running Outback gets its overhaul, and it's a doozy.
The Outback has gone from a car-like station wagon to an SUV-like crossover, just like that. It's bigger in nearly every exterior and interior dimension, which resolves the issues past owners had with interior space and gives it a much more comfortable ride. It may not be as fun to drive as before, but it's a better family vehicle that still exudes ruggedness and foul-weather capability. Exterior At first glance, the 2010 Outback — with its beefy dimensions, large grille and sharp-edged design — looks nothing like the previous model. Look closer, though, and you'll see the two front ends are nearly identical: The new one is just...bigger. The new design is not as classically handsome as the previous generation; it's geared at getting attention and exuding substance, which it does.
Sixteen-inch wheels are standard on the base 2.5i, with 17-inch alloys becoming standard on all other trim levels. Interior A lot has changed inside, as well. As an owner of the previous-generation Outback, I immediately missed the grab handles on the doors. They might have been convenient when getting in, but at least the padding on the door armrests is much better. The center armrest is also much bigger, offering substantial support while the previous version was too small to use.
The layout of the dash has changed quite a bit, with the clock and trip computer raised to the top of the dash. They're still easy to read in direct sunlight. Below them rests a new stereo unit or optional navigation system. There are also convenient cubbies for cell phones, CDs or other items.
Overall, the materials are a step up from the previous model and stand up to most of the competition, but they still lag behind the relatively upscale Toyota Venza.
The most extreme alteration for the 2010 models is the interior's overall spaciousness. Anyone who sat in the old model knows it can be cramped, especially in the backseat. Subaru stretched the wheelbase of the 2010, adding nearly 4 inches of rear legroom. Now I can place both of my children's safety seats in the back without having to move the front passenger seat forward. The rear seats also recline using a lever at hip level.
While the front seats add hip and shoulder room, legroom is actually slightly less. What's the deal? There has been a drastic change in the seating position. Instead of sitting in a slung-back, car-like seat, you now sit upright, with more of a bend in your knee. That's why it doesn't feel cramped. In fact, your knees have much more room, both left and right, than they did before.
There is ample headroom — 40.8 inches to be exact — and you can raise the seat quite high without bumping your head. The upright seating style is an SUV trait for sure, and it's the No. 1 attribute of the new Outback that makes it feel less like a car. My wife really enjoyed the ride height compared to her daily driver, an '08 Outback. I found it a good compromise: It felt like you were driving a much higher vehicle, but you still had an easy step-in height, which makes loading kids and cargo easier than a traditional SUV.
The leather seats in my Limited model could have been a bit more padded. Our 2008's cloth seats aren't the most comfortable, either. At least with the new model I didn't feel any back discomfort until a full hour into my commute. Performance There are only two power plants offered for the Outback in 2010. The 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter four-cylinder is carried over from the last model; it's now teamed to a continuously variable automatic transmission, which returns 22/29 mpg city/highway, or a six-speed manual rated at 19/27 mpg. The CVT is a big benefit in the mileage department, boosting ratings by 2 mpg compared with the 2009 Outback 2.5i, which had a four-speed automatic.
In my few hundred miles of commuting and weekend errand running, I got exactly 2 mpg higher than my wife's Outback, which covered similar routes. Of course, my combined mileage was just below 22 mpg, which is pretty dismal with our mild summer weather and the air conditioning only lightly used. Again, this is better than the mileage we've gotten for two years in the previous generation, but the all-wheel drive takes its toll on efficiency.
Power is adequate in the four-cylinder. The addition of standard shift paddles on the CVT models allows for energetic launches from a stop because you can control gear shifts — created by a computer, not the transmission since it is essentially gearless — for crisper acceleration. Otherwise, the CVT releases power in a linear way with no discernable shifts. It's an odd sensation to most drivers, and it isn't as smooth as other CVTs I've tested in some Nissans. However, after a week of driving I was completely comfortable with it.
The other engine is a 256-hp, 3.6-liter horizontally opposed six-cylinder teamed to a standard five-speed automatic rated at 18/25 mpg.
Of course, the reason many people would even consider a Subaru is its symmetrical all-wheel drive, which is standard across the company's lineup. Unfortunately, I was blessed with sunny, 70-degree days during my test and couldn't simulate the disastrous winters our own Subaru has handled, but I assume it'll offer similar confidence. However, the 2010 is more than 2 inches taller overall with 8.7 inches of ground clearance versus 8.4 in the old model. Those numbers may sound small, but the new model feels a lot taller and exhibits a very slight tipsy feeling on tight, high-speed corners like highway cloverleafs that I've never experienced in our 2008 model. It's not a dangerous feeling, but just enough that you realize you're really driving a crossover rather than a car.
There's been a big improvement in terms of ride comfort and road noise. The new Outback is a much more serene driving machine than before, with a ride that dampens bumps better and isolates road noise to a level close to Toyota, which is a master at it. Toyota decided that for looks it would put large 19-inch wheels as standard on its Venza crossover, which makes the ride less comfortable than you'd expect from a road-tuned crossover. The new Outback, which is quite capable off-road, is smoother on the road than the Venza, too.
There's still plenty of connection to the street and the steering is sharp, but it's not nearly as exhilarating as the previous model. Cargo Cargo space in the back has grown slightly to 34.3 cubic feet, which is just a hair behind the Venza's 34.4 cubic feet. At first it didn't look much larger than my car's hatch area. Then I tried to lean in to attach the top tether anchor of my son's child-safety seat, and I was surprised that I could barely reach the back of the seat. The load floor protrudes really far, so my thighs bumped against it more than I'd like as I leaned in and out. You can also tell it's a bit taller inside. During my test I bought a medium-sized armchair and it fit in the back perfectly — without its legs attached.
Although I can reach the back of the rear seats, the latches to lower them are no longer within anyone's reach. The same hip-level handles that recline the rear seats also lower them flat, and you'll have to walk around to the back doors to access them. More than a few SUVs these days have levers near the hatch that lower the seats, and it's unfortunate Subaru didn't use those.
A small amount of underfloor storage remains. As in the past generation, Subaru offers a out-of-the-way spot to store the retractable cargo cover so you don't take it out and leave it in your garage.
The 2010 Outback features an innovative standard roof rack. The crossbars fold into the rails when not in use, making the car slightly more aerodynamic. Putting them in place is a simple two-step process that doesn't require tools. In addition, the bottoms are soft, so that they won't scratch your roof when you swing them across the roof of the car. Features & Pricing Thankfully, Subaru keeps things pretty simple with its trim levels. There are six — three for each engine. The 2.5i and 3.6R are the base models, then there's a Premium level and a top trim called Limited. The 2.5i starts at $22,995 before a $695 destination charge. That's relatively affordable; not many other all-wheel-drive crossovers cost that little and offer as much room. Toyota's Venza with a four-cylinder engine and all-wheel drive starts at $27,425, but it's equipped with a standard automatic transmission. The CVT costs an additional $1,000. The Venza is also better equipped, and it's closer to the 2.5i Premium, which starts at $24,295 with manual transmission. So, you'd pay a few thousand less for the 2.5i Premium than for the Venza in the equivalent trim level.
If you want to go the basic 2.5i route, you'll forego body-colored mirrors, fog lights, one-touch driver's window and the retractable cargo cover, which is standard on all the other models. Move up to the Premium trim level ($24,295), and it adds a power driver's seat, steering-wheel-mounted audio and cruise controls, and 17-inch alloy wheels. Limited models ($27,995) get windshield wiper de-icer and heated side mirrors, a power passenger seat, heated leather seats, wood trim, standard CVT, dual-zone climate control and a Harman Kardon six-CD sound system with Bluetooth.
Most of the 3.6R trim levels are equipped identically to their 2.5i counterparts. My test car was a 2.5i Limited with the optional navigation system and moonroof package ($2,995). Its final price was $31,685 after a destination fee. A similarly equipped Venza comes in at more than $35,000.
The navigation system only comes with the moonroof included. The moonroof separately is $995. As nav units go, the Subaru's touch-screen model is in the middle of the pack. It's important to note, though, that it's the only way the Outback comes equipped with a USB/iPod adapter to listen to your portable music in digital quality. However, the computer will not allow you to change albums, artists or playlists while moving. Come to a stoplight and the software then allows you to pick a new selection. Sure, you can jump tracks within whatever playlist or album you have selected, but that's it. Imagine being limited to just one band or album during a road trip. Subaru says this is for safety reasons so you won't be distracted while driving, but it still doesn't work when you have a passenger sitting up front. A dealer installed iPod connectivity system is also available.
The nav system also comes with Bluetooth streaming audio, which works with many smart phones like the iPhone. So you can distractedly play with your iPhone while driving, just not your plugged in iPod via an easy-to-reach nav screen. Outback in the Market There aren't many traditional, midsize or full-size station wagons on sale in the U.S. The Outback was iconic as a wagon, while the new one might be trying to play it safe by straddling a few different segments and not besting any of them. However, because of its low starting price, standard all-wheel drive and spacious interior, buyers may not care whether they're looking at a wagon or an SUV.