Somewhere amid the parade of crossovers and wagon-like vehicles is the Subaru Outback. Once merely a version of the Legacy wagon, which has since been discontinued, it’s now a household name among family-car shoppers. Indeed, a year after its redesign, the Outback has sold more than the body-type competitors Toyota Venza and Honda Accord Crosstour combined.
The Outback’s formula for success is no secret. Where others have tried in so many ways to reinvent the crossover concept, the Outback is happy to nail all of its essentials: utility, capability and drivability.
Trim levels include the four-cylinder Subaru Outback 2.5i and six-cylinder Outback 3.6R, each of which come in three versions: base, Premium and Limited (compare them here). As with all Subarus, all-wheel drive is standard. The Outback was redesigned for 2010; you can compare that version with the 2011 Outback here. We evaluated the four-cylinder Outback last year; this time around we tested a six-cylinder Subaru Outback 3.6R Limited.
The Subaru Outback’s base engine — a 170-horsepower four-cylinder — delivers leisurely acceleration, in large part because of a continuously variable automatic transmission that’s in no hurry to respond to your right foot. (A six-speed manual is standard, but we haven’t tested it.) Loaded with passengers, the four-cylinder drivetrain requires patience reaching highway speeds, and it strains to keep up under hard acceleration.
That’s not the case with the optional 256-hp six-cylinder. It’s a muscular drivetrain, in part because it trades the CVT for a responsive five-speed automatic that’s not afraid to hold lower gears or kick down on the highway. Even loaded with cargo, our test car had the sort of torque to pull strongly around town, though getting up to highway speeds didn’t leave much extra power on tap.
With the six-cylinder, towing capacity tops out at 3,000 pounds. That’s 500 pounds less than many competitors, but the four-cylinder Outback has a 2,700-pound rating — none too shabby for a four-banger.
The combined EPA gas mileage estimates range from 20 mpg with the six-cylinder and automatic to 24 mpg with the four-cylinder and automatic. Both figures are competitive.
Employing a car-based four-wheel-independent suspension since its mid-1990s inception, the Outback displays admirable ride quality. It soaks up bumps with little driver disturbance but maintains good control over stretches of broken pavement. Rough pavement can stunt a soft-riding car’s reflexes and leave it bobbing up and down, but the Outback suffers little of that.
Steering and handling are good, if not as sharp as they were in the last Outback. Driving enthusiasts will appreciate the steering wheel’s heavy weight at low speeds, while average drivers will want more power assist for easier parking-lot maneuvers. On the highway, I could use a little less assist. Holding the wheel at 12 o’clock, it feels a bit too loose.
Find a winding road, however, and the Subaru Outback handles well. The steering has good turn-in precision and little midcorner sloppiness. The nose pushes wide in hard corners, exacerbated by our tester’s all-season Continental ContiProContact tires, which didn’t offer much grip. Stomp hard on the gas coming out of a sweeping corner, though, and you can swing the tail out eventually. Credit the standard all-wheel drive, whose power distribution skews slightly rearward in six-cylinder Outbacks. All automatic Outbacks distribute power between the axles electronically; the manual Subaru Outback uses a simpler viscous coupling that’s less proactive in doling out power when the wheels start to slip. Still, both systems distribute constant power to each axle. Many on-demand systems send power rearward only when a drive wheel begins to slip; some allow you to enforce a 50/50 split via a locking center differential. We’ve driven previous Subaru Outbacks on trails, and the AWD — along with an impressive 8.7 inches of ground clearance — make for better capability than you’d expect in a crossover.
Four-wheel-disc antilock brakes are standard, with larger discs installed on six-cylinder Outbacks. The pedal has linear response, making it easy to smooth out your stops. Cram the car full of passengers, and you’ll want to plan your stopping distances accordingly. Loaded down with some 500 pounds of cargo, our test car took significantly farther to come to a halt.
Roomier by almost 10 percent, the Subaru Outback’s cabin addresses some of its predecessor’s biggest issues — namely, backseat room. There’s plenty of it now, and abundant headroom, too. The front seats could use longer seat cushions for better thigh support, and drivers over 6 feet tall will want to be able to move the seat farther back. (I’m 5-foot-11, and I drove with the seat all the way back.)
Our test car came outfitted in a nice grade of leather — it wouldn’t be out of place in an entry-level luxury car — but the grainier upholstery along the center console and door armrests doesn’t live up to the same quality, and both areas are short on padding. Chrome door handles and nicely textured faux-metal trim add an upscale touch, but our test car’s shiny faux-wood trim is among the worst of its kind.
So is the optional navigation system. The graphics look dated, particularly once you get into the menus, and it all runs off old-school DVDs, not a hard drive. That makes for slow map and menu loading, and it requires you to put in additional map discs if you travel to new parts of the country. The map view has too few street labels, and overhead sunlight or polarized sunglasses render the whole display difficult to see. The system includes iPod/USB integration, but it locks out most functions while the car is moving. On a road trip and wanting a new iPod playlist? Better make a pit stop.
Cargo volume behind the rear seat is a competitive 34.3 cubic feet, and the Outback’s wide, rectangular cargo area accommodates large cargo better than many. Fold the rear seats down, and the crossover has an impressive 71.3 cubic feet of space.
| Cargo Room Compared
|| Base price w/auto
|| Cargo room behind second row (cu. ft.)
|| Cargo w/seats down (cu. ft.)
| 2011 Honda CR-V
| 2011 Toyota RAV4
| 2011 Chevrolet Equinox
| 2011 Subaru Outback
| 2010 Toyota Venza
| 2011 Ford Edge
| 2010 Nissan Murano
| 2010 Honda Accord Crosstour
*37.2 cubic feet in three-row model with third row folded.
Source: Automaker information
The prior Subaru Outback had above-average reliability, but the new one hasn’t been on the market long enough to gauge. In crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Outback received the highest score, Good, in front, rear, side-impact and roof-crush tests. The current generation is an IIHS Top Safety Pick — which is no easy feat these days, given IIHS’ addition of roof-crush tests. Standard features include six airbags, antilock brakes and an electronic stability system. Click here for a full list of safety features.
The Outback 2.5i comes with power windows and locks, remote entry, cruise control, air conditioning and a CD stereo with an auxiliary jack and steering-wheel audio controls. Move up to the 2.5i Premium or Limited, and you can have alloy wheels, power front seats, heated leather upholstery, dual-zone automatic climate control and an upgraded Harman Kardon stereo. A conventional moonroof (not the dual moonroof available in prior Outbacks) and the navigation system are optional.
The six-cylinder Outback 3.6R comes standard with a five-speed automatic transmission; the CVT automatic runs $1,000 in the 2.5i and 2.5i Premium (it’s standard on the 2.5i Limited). Load up a six-cylinder Outback, and the price tops out around $34,000.
Utility and crossovers go hand-in-hand, and the Outback comes up strong on all the basics. Like every Subaru, its success will be limited by the automaker’s insistence on standard AWD, which typically raises prices and lowers gas mileage — great in Maine, not so much in Mississippi.
More than other carmakers, Subaru has managed to lessen the sting in both price and mileage, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the Outback: It boasts competitive mileage and a lower starting price than much of the front-drive competition. Add to that Subaru’s loyal owner base, and the Subaru Outback’s future looks bright.