These days it seems like almost every mainstream car company is building some kind of wagon-like small SUV that offers versatility without being conspicuously large or prohibitively expensive. That’s essentially the meat of the auto market for young consumers who need one vehicle that can serve many needs.
Subaru can take credit for pretty much inventing that segment with their Outback wagon fifteen years ago. The scrappy car company that brought us things like the cheeky Brat—a tiny pickup truck with two rear-facing seats in the bed—decided to think outside the box once again.
Their Legacy station wagon was treated to a more macho look and some upgraded tires and suspension and voila! The Outback was born. It arrived just as the sport utility vehicle craze was taking off but offered a smaller, more car-like alternative. Through the past decade and a half, the Outback has been improved and remodeled a couple of times and now an all-new Outback has arrived for 2010.
Part of Subaru’s successful marketing campaign in recent years has been that all the vehicles it sells in North America come standard with all wheel drive. It’s a clever move to instill confidence to those who deal with snow on a regular basis, even though the hardware to drive the extra set of wheels is probably a waste to the vast majority of buyers in our mild climate.
And then there’s that great name: Outback. Images of the great Australian outback and all the adventure that it promises. There’s probably a loyal segment of Subaru Outback buyers who seemingly live in nylon and fleece “performance” clothing, own both kayaks and mountain bikes and dutifully take their vehicles to all sorts of cool places with their recreational equipment strapped to the roof. But I have a feeling that most people who buy an Outback with those visions in their heads are just out-of-shape people who only drive to work and to the mall.
Whichever way it’ll be used, the 2010 Outback is a very competent vehicle with a big upgrade in luxury and comfort. The new wagon is taller and wider than the previous model, probably to look less wagon-y, and more like a small SUV. All wheel drive is once again standard and there are two engine choices offered, the largest of which makes this a truly premium vehicle, both in terms of driving and in price.
Base models of Outback are designated 2.5i for the four-cylinder boxer engine, mated to either a 6-speed manual or new CVT automatic transmission. There’s no more turbo version of this engine but its 170 horsepower should be plenty for most drivers. For those who want or need more get-up-and-go, the 3.6R is the model with an improved six-cylinder boxer engine making an impressive 256 horsepower. A bonus is that the larger engine now runs just fine on regular gas.
Once an engine has been chosen, a buyer can select three trim levels for the Outback. The base model is fairly well-equipped but stepping up to the Premium package adds things like a 10-way power driver’s seat, 17” wheels and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. The top trim level is called Limited and, with that, you get leather upholstery with heated front seats, dual zone automatic climate control and the option of a GPS navigation system.
The Outback I got to drive was the fully-loaded 3.6R Limited, and it’s quite a luxurious little wagon… or SUV. All the amenities are in place, including things you wouldn’t expect like an electric parking brake. The seats are very comfortable, and Subaru added 4” to the rear seat legroom, so tall kayakers or mountain bikers don’t have to call “shotgun” in order to be comfortable on the way to the great outdoors.
There are little clever touches everywhere, including a really innovative luggage rack design. Luggage racks generally make unwanted wind noise when they’re not being used, so the cross bars on the Outback’s rack unlatch, pivot and click into the side rails when they’re not needed. Very smart and something I have a feeling will be copied by other car companies.
You can get an Outback 2.5i with a manual transmission for $22,995, or add another $1000 for the automatic. Prices climb as you make your way through the trim levels, with the most expensive model, the 3.6R Limited, topping out at $30,995. Add the navigation system and moon roof, like my test car had, and your new Subaru Outback will set you back about $34,000.
Subaru has weathered the economic downturn and auto sales downslide pretty well, all things considered. They can probably chalk up their relative success to sensible vehicles, a loyal customer base and, of course, all those people taming the wilderness in search of adventure. Or just thinking that someday they will.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz @ pacbell.net