Versus the competiton:
A longtime Cars.com favorite, the Subaru Outback remains a versatile, desirable model whose greatest shortcoming is that it’s no longer unique. Along with competing wagons like the Volvo V50 and XC70 and Volkswagen’s Passat wagon, it now faces small crossovers like the Toyota Venza, too. This has happened gradually as the SUV market has moved away from bulky, truck-based SUVs toward lighter, more refined unibody models that are more fuel- and space-efficient yet retain the attributes many buyers have come to appreciate: all-wheel drive, additional ground clearance and the flexibility of a hatchback.
For 2009, Subaru eliminated last year’s base, Premium and L.L.Bean trim levels. Now the lineup starts with the 2.5i, 2.5i Special Edition and 2.5i Limited. More powerful engines come in the turbocharged 2.5 XT Limited and six-cylinder 3.0 R Limited, along with some additional convenience features not found on the other Limiteds. Subaru simplified matters last year by making the Outback only a wagon, and the Legacy, on which it’s based, only a sedan. Little else has changed this year, though an electronic stability system is now standard, and the two higher trim levels include a premium stereo. (There’s also an Outback version of the smaller Impreza hatchback called the Impreza Outback Sport. All clear?)
Just a year or two ago, we pointed out that there wasn’t much difference between the Outback and the Subaru Forester, aside from price. Now that a larger, redesigned Forester is on the market for 2009, the Outback is running out of selling points even among shoppers who are dead-set on a Subaru.
| Subaru Outback vs. Forester
| Price range
|| $22,295 – $32,095
|| $19,995 – $28,195
| EPA gas mileage (mpg)
|| 17/24 – 20/27
|| 19/24 – 20/27
| Front headroom*/
| Backseat headroom*/
| Cargo volume (behind backseat/seat folded, cu. ft.)
| Cargo height
(cargo floor to roof, in.)*
| Cargo floor length (behind backseat/seat folded, in.)
| Cargo floor height
(from ground, in.)
| Maximum towing capacity (4-cyl./6-cyl., lbs.)
| Length (in.)
| Width (in.)
| Max. height (in.)
| Turning circle
| Min. ground clearance (in.)
| NHTSA rollover rating
(out of 5 stars)
| 4 stars;
| 4 stars;
As the table reflects, the Outback starts at a higher price than the Forester but has slightly less cargo volume, and with the exception of 1 inch of front-seat legroom, it’s smaller than the Forester in all seating dimensions, including hip and shoulder room (not shown). As in the previous Forester generation, the main difference is shape. The Outback has a slightly longer cargo area, but the Forester’s accepts taller items. Its cargo floor is 2.2 inches higher off the ground, but neither is very high compared to some SUVs.
Apart from aesthetic preference, there are few clear reasons why one would choose the Outback over the Forester. Perhaps a long garage with only 64 inches of overhead clearance? Otherwise, the Forester is roughly the same size and turns a tighter circle. Both models earn Top Safety Pick designations from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The taller Forester has a slightly higher chance of rollover, according to federal ratings, but both have standard electronic stability systems. Often when one vehicle is larger or rides higher than another, it burns more gas. Even that’s not the case here. The Outback does tow more, both with its four- and six-cylinder engines. That seems to be the main advantage.
In terms of regular old driving, my Outback XT test car’s drivetrain offers spirited acceleration, though there’s a lag from a standing start — even if you floor it. By playing with the SI-Drive feature, I found the lag to be acceptable in this regard, but it’s far from ideal. (I’ll detail Subaru Intelligent Drive later because it comes only on the 2.5 XT automatic and 3.0 R, and I don’t want to bore the other shoppers.) I took an interstate trip of close to 700 miles and was less than thrilled with the mileage. Being the turbo model, its extra power comes at a price. The EPA-estimated 24 mpg highway is what you’d expect from an SUV, but it seems low on a wagon. For what it’s worth, the Volvo XC70 is even worse with its base engine. Subaru also claims that SI-Drive improves on mileage when it’s in Intelligent mode, but the EPA rating is based on the default, Sport, mode. I did most of my highway driving in this mode, and in one direction I got 23.7 mpg according to the trip computer. On the way back, which was strictly highway with a substantial late-autumn tailwind, it read an impressive 27.6 mpg for the trip.
| Outback Engines
|| 2.5 XT
|| 3.0 R
|| 2.5 liters
|| 2.5 liters
|| 3.0 liters
| 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)
|| 20/27 (man.); 20/26 (auto)
|| 18/24 (man. or auto*)
|| 17/24 (auto*)
For the best mileage, the 2.5i manual is your best bet, rated at 20/27 mpg city/highway. Along with 1 mpg better highway mileage, the five-speed stick will help you get better acceleration out of the base horizontally opposed four-cylinder. The automatic has enough oomph for grocery-getting and other errands, but it 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.
On the other end of the spectrum is the 3.0 R Limited’s normally aspirated 3.0-liter H-6 engine, which shaves another city mpg in exchange for … not much. As the table shows, it brings a negligible horsepower increase and much lower torque — at higher rpm, where you don’t want it. This option is the key to towing 3,000-pound trailers, rather than 2,700 pounds with the four-cylinder. If you’re not planning to tow, I just don’t see the point of this engine.
The Outback shines in terms of ride comfort. It’s surprisingly tame and confident at 70 mph and higher, and it definitely feels like a car rather than an SUV. Its wagon style doesn’t harm the Outback’s offroad capability, though. It includes all-wheel drive that requires no intervention from the driver. Whether it’s snow and ice, gravel or dirt roads, the Outback is unfazed. I’ve driven it on modest offroad trails (legit ones, not just off-pavement), and it can handle more than the vast majority of buyers would put in its way. If the Outback were a person, it would be your outdoorsy friend who always seems to be tan and fit, dressed for action and on his way to climb or ride something, or otherwise involve himself with exertion and dust. Odds are this friend is named Todd or Chad.
Even on my long road trip, I found the driver’s seat very comfortable. Being a Limited, the car had leather upholstery, and both front seats had power adjustments and seat heaters. The heaters have thumbwheel controls for multiple heat levels — always better than a low/high or on/off button. The faux metallic finish on the center console and door panels is neither the best nor the worst I’ve seen. Most of the materials are low-gloss and high quality. My car had an ill-fitting glove compartment cover, but overall the interior quality is sound.
Speaking of sound, noise was a problem — particularly wind noise, which encircles the cabin, especially along the sides. Several times I found myself flicking the window switches, thinking I’d hit the wrong one at a tollbooth or hadn’t closed mine all the way. Never a good sign.
Sound problem No. 2: It’s nice that the Harman Kardon premium stereo is standard and that it has an analog MP3 input and all, but I wasn’t in the car five minutes when I noticed the front doors singing along to the music. I wasn’t playing anything particularly bass-heavy or loud, but the doors were resonating with each pluck of the bass guitar. You don’t have to be a stickler to find this unacceptable. Primed for about 10 hours of driving, I had to do something. I got it under control by wedging some laundry in the door pockets. If you make the move on one of these cars, decline the rustproofing. Get the laundry.
On the upside, Subaru finally solved the lighting problem last year. The enormous moonroof, always one of the car’s best features, relocated the dome light way behind the front seats, resulting in a dark, shadowy front seat and dashboard. The two reading lights between the sun visors are finally tied into the door switches. Problem solved.
As mentioned, the Outback boasts excellent crash-test ratings and a better rollover rating than an SUV. The standard stability system automatically means there’s antilock braking and traction control. The front seats have side-impact airbags and active head restraints, and standard curtain airbags cover the side windows, front and rear, in the event of a side impact.
This trailblazing model has aged well. Compared to similar wagons, the Outback is a bargain — especially when you consider its standard all-wheel drive. However, the AWD’s added weight makes the mileage lower than it otherwise would be. Even the hefty Venza beats it in efficiency, with either front- or all-wheel drive. The spoiler is that even Subaru loyalists have another choice, with a little more room for a little less money: the 2009 Forester.
Now, the details on Subaru Intelligent Drive, which comes only on the turbocharged 2.5 XT with the optional automatic transmission and on the 3.0 R. The SI-Drive knob on the center console allows the driver to choose among three acceleration programs: Intelligent, Sport and Sport Sharp. Each mode changes the way the accelerator pedal relates to the engine’s throttle, and also varies the transmission’s behavior. In the default setting, Sport, the accelerator pedal responds like most cars’ do.
The Sport Sharp mode makes the pedal more sensitive. The first inch or so of pedal travel yanks much harder on the throttle, so the car accelerates faster — for the amount you’re stepping on the pedal. This mode also lets the engine rev into higher rpm before the transmission upshifts. Note that this doesn’t make the car faster overall. Stand on the pedal and both modes give you full acceleration.
Intelligent mode is the opposite of Sport Sharp. It gives you less throttle than the Sport mode for the same amount of pedal travel. It also makes the transmission shift more conservatively, hopping up through the gears promptly and keeping the engine revving at lower rpm overall. This mode is all about gas mileage. Unlike the other two settings, this mode does limit the overall power in such a way that the Outback doesn’t sprint as fast, even if you floor it. I don’t like this. There’s something to be said for having all of your car’s power available to you at all times in case you need it. Having a modestly powered car is one thing; you adjust your driving. But a car that responds differently at different times could spell trouble. If you forget you’re in Intelligent mode and you put yourself in the path of oncoming traffic, you aren’t going to be able to accelerate as quickly as you might have expected. Subaru added a big button to the steering wheel that you can whack with your thumb to engage Sport Sharp mode, but I don’t think that goes far enough to mitigate the scenario above. At a time when people want power but demand efficiency too, SI-Drive is the right idea. It’s the execution that needs work.