Versus the competiton:
Some circles should be broken. The Subaru H6-3.0 Outback sedan is proof. It is the unfortunate progeny of a trend in which cars became pickup trucks in the manner of the 1959 Chevrolet El Camino — then pickup trucks became sport-utility vehicles, SUVs became hybrid wagon/truck/minivans and hybrid wagon/truck/minivans became sedans.
In the case of the H6-3.0 Outback sedan, both the tested 2002 and slightly changed 2003 version, the result is an ugly car that rides like a truck.
I can put it no other way.
The car is ugly, square, confused, stylistically injured. Its face says SUV. Its side panels, including its egregious lower-body cladding, say pickup truck. Its boxy rear end bespeaks the severest form of automotive celibacy. I wish that Subaru had left this one alone, had left it as God intended it to be — a wagon/SUV with modest off-road and excellent all-weather driving capabilities.
The Outback was and remains desirable as a wagon/SUV. In that form, it has commodious cargo volume, up to 34.3 cubic feet, compared with a relatively paltry 12.4 cubic feet for the sedan. Its 7.9-inch ground clearance befits its standing and handling as an all-wheel-drive wagon/SUV. That means you expect it to dip and sway a bit in the curves.
But the identical ground clearance in the sedan version can get you into trouble if you take a curve too fast. The acceptable dip and sway in the wagon/SUV threatens to become a dip-sway-skid in the 2002 sedan, for example. Subaru is apparently aware of this, because the company is using new front struts with internal rebound springs to help reduce body roll in the 2003 model.
It truly pains me to write these things. Regular readers of this column know that I like Subaru and have often hailed its many virtues. But the simple fact is that the H6-3.0 Outback sedan is disappointing. It’s like watching an A student turn into a dropout candidate. In such a circumstance, the shocked observer must grab any straw of hope available. Luckily, the H6-3.0 Outback sedan has more than a few.
The engine is the soul of any car, and the Outback sedan, in that regard, has a very good soul. It is a 3-liter (thus the “3.0” part of the car’s name), horizontally opposed (thus the “H”), 24-valve six-cylinder engine that produces 212 horsepower at 6,000 revolutions per minute and 210 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm. Power delivery is smooth. The car has no trouble accelerating when it must.
Also, Subaru’s all-wheel-drive system remains the best in the business, and it does not lose that distinction in the Outback sedan. I ran into very little rain during my week in the 2002 H6-3.0 Outback. But a little rain on a highway packed with months of grease and grime can be a very dangerous thing. Just enough water falls to mix with the oil and dirt and bring the slippery mess to the surface, turning the affected highway into a skid pad. When that hap pened on one of my Outback sedan drives, I was happy to be in the car, which suddenly seemed beautiful. The all-wheel-drive system, effortlessly shifting power from slipping to gripping wheels, worked perfectly.
The Outback sedan can be saved. Subaru only needs to do to the car’s body and its corner-handling characteristics what it’s done to its soul.