The Subaru Outback has come thisclose to getting it right.
The sport utility or crossover or station wagon, whatever works for you, has been redone for 2010 and boasts changes in size, looks and features in response to consumers asking for a tweak here and there.
A couple tweaks short, however, but we'll get to that later.
Outback is offered in base, Premium and Limited editions, with 2.5-liter, 170-horsepower 4-cylinder or 3.6-liter, 256-hp inline 6 (marked up from the 3-liter), and a choice of 6-speed manual or continuously variable automatic with the 4 and a 5-speed automatic with the 6.
In addition to a bolder look, Outback has nearly a 3-inch longer wheelbase, a 2-inch wider and taller cabin and a 2-inch wider track.
We tested the Limited with the 2.5-liter 4 and standard CVT with manual-mode paddle shifting. The 2.5 has been revised for improved off-the-line performance, but it still is no screamer. The 22 mpg city/29 highway rating shows the intent is mileage over muscle, and the fuel tank was enlarged by 1.5 gallons, to 18.5, to increase driving range. Nice move.
Mileage is impressive considering AWD is standard in this as well as every Subaru, though a tweak to reach 30 mpg highway would make it even more appealing. As noted - thisclose!
But David Sullivan, car line manager for Subaru, says the No. 1 reason folks buy a Subaru isn't low cost, high mileage or styling: It's the security of AWD, important because more than 20 percent of owners take the machine off-road at least once a month.
Off-roading popularity is also why Hill Holder is standard. It keeps the vehicle from rolling backward when started on a steep incline. This machine isn't going to scale mountains, but it easily handles snow, a sandy beach or a mud-soaked road on the way to the cabin. That's why it has 8.7 inches of ground clearance and plastic-covered rocker panels to keep debris from messing up the sheet metal.
Stability control and traction control provide security, while the suspension has been revised and higher-profile 17-inch all-season radials added for softer, more comfortable ride, on- or off-road. A new double-wishbone rear suspension allowed Subaru to widen the cargo hold to make it easier to slip things in and out, a lot of things.
Other nice touches include water bottle and cell phone holders in the doors, a rubberized cargo mat to keep muddy boots or wet swimsuits off the carpet, a pull shade to keep gear out of sight and a pair of under-floor compartments to hide things, including one that stores the shade so it doesn't bounce all over the cargo hold or get lost in the garage. Rear seatbacks fold to expand the cargo hold, which comes with assorted hooks and tiedowns.
If even more carrying capacity is needed, Outback has a clever roof-rail system in which the side rails lift and swing over to fasten on the other side - one front, one back - to create a roof-mounted carrier for luggage, bikes or canoe. Neat idea and terrific execution.
As for those couple tweaks still needed: Too much engine noise filters into the cabin through the firewall.
Subaru also stumbled with the navigation screen, where sun glare obscures images. Kudos for a backup camera in the navi screen, but if the sun strikes, you could back up into Lake Michigan and not know until you're up to your chin. And even if you could see the navi, it could use some more street names.
And, with so much concern over amount of cargo carried, why not a power-liftgate option for those who approach with arms full?
The Outback Limited starts at $27,995, including such goodies as anti-lock brakes, side-curtain air bags, power windows/seats/locks/mirrors and air conditioning. A power moonroof adds $995; the navi, $2,000.
Now Subaru needs to cut engine noise and cabin glare.
Read Jim Mateja Sunday in Rides. Contact him at email@example.com.
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