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First Drive: 2010 Subaru Outback [Review]

On the brink of disaster about 15 years ago, Subaru performed one of the industry's biggest turnarounds ever by mildly ruggedizing and rechristening its already durable Legacy wagon. Accompanied by a memorable advertising blitz staring Paul Hogan, the Outback found its way into thousands of garages in a matter of months and is now the image of Subaru for many.

When it came time for a redesign, the mantra was "don't mess with success." But don't go thinking that this conservative approach isn't just what the doctor ordered. More than 90 percent of all Outbacks ever churned out by the automaker's Lafayette, Indiana, assembly plant are still on the road, meaning these veritable Swiss Army knives on wheels are tools of necessity for many.

We traveled to Missoula, Montana, where Outbacks might just outnumber moose to sample the fully redesigned 2010 Outback and we came away rather impressed. The automaker's earthy-image flagship (which obviously targets a totally different demographic than the WRX performance flagship) is more advanced, safer, faster and more comfortable than ever. Bring on the kayak racks!

Beauty on the inside
Based on the redesigned Legacy wagon, which won't be sold in the United States or Canada, the 2010 Outback is wider and taller but a smidge shorter than the outgoing model. Its increased height and many of its styling cues directly link it to Subaru's oddly-styled and slow-selling Tribeca. Not nearly as conventional as the outgoing model, the 2010's look is dominated by its beak-like front fascia, oversized fender flares and scratch-resistant plastic trim. Not by any means a thing of beauty, its new proportions should at least help it sell to those more interested in the style of a crossover than a station wagon. The overall look is cohesive and fresh, if not quite as much a stand-out as before.

Fortunately, things moved in a more positive direction once we climbed aboard and drove off.

The interior, shared with the Legacy, takes the generally upscale feel of the outgoing model and dials in more comfort and more space.

Though the seating position is still more wagon than SUV - and that's a good thing for many - the attractive dashboard is nicely trimmed and features convenient controls. An optional harman/kardon audio system sounds great (unlike in the 2009 Legacy we tested last year) and the three-spoke steering wheel is a model in terms of comfort and controls. The standard cloth upholstery felt a little stiff, while the optional leather must have come from rubberized cows, but otherwise the interior material selection was top notch. Highlights included intricately detailed metal-like trim, rather than a swathe of painted plastic, and decently convincing faux wood.

No longer will rear seat passengers gnaw on their knees; significantly larger rear doors combine with the longer wheelbase to create borderline limo-like leg, foot and tow room. Rear seat passengers won't find air vents or a map pocket behind the driver's seat, even on top-end models, but they will get four cupholders and reclining seatbacks.

The rear cargo bay is substantial even if it trades some of the outgoing model's length for some less-useful height. When not in use, the optional cargo cover stores under the floor, so it'll never be in the way. Up top, the standard roof rack features unique cross bars that can store flush against the side rails when not in use to cut down on wind noise. The rack accommodates virtually every Subaru roof rack accessory from the last 20 years, too.

Finally losing its quirky frame-less side windows, the 2010 Outback's interior was quiet and refined over Montana's glassy smooth pavement with either available powertrain even at triple digit speeds.

Sensible... and sporty?
Jack up a sports sedan and you're bound to lose a little handling prowess - but that doesn't mean it has to be a pig. The Outback's steering, though not possessing a tremendous amount of feel, was nonetheless direct and well-weighted. Straight-line stability is a plus and hard cornering was accompanied by only minor body lean, giving the Outback a decidedly tossable and fun feel. The composed ride, courtesy of the long-travel suspension, was well damped over the smooth roads we encountered on our preview drives.

Subaru offers two engines for 2010. Gone is the enthusiast-friendly, but slow-selling turbo four, and a revised 170-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder boxer engine returns, while a new 256-horsepower 3.6-liter flat-six tops the range. For most users, the 2.5-liter four, with its optional chain-driven "Lineartronic" CVT with paddle shifters, is more than enough. Erasing our prior disdain for CVTs, the in-house Subaru unit delivered on its promise to keep the engine producing the most power. Add to that a 29 mpg highway rating - stellar considering the decent power and the standard all-wheel-drive - and the Outback suddenly becomes a very rational choice.

We also sampled the six-speed manual transmission that probably won't make up more than a fifth of Outback sales. Plucked from the turbodiesel Outback and Legacy that the rest of the world enjoys, the homegrown stir-it-yourself transmission was a little rubbery but possessed a pleasantly light clutch for day-to-day driving. A hill-holder feature and electronic parking brake, standard on all models, seemed particularly useful with the stick.

The V6, while smooth and especially torquey, struck us as more than necessary. Even at more than a mile above sea level, the CVT and four-cylinder combination provided adequate, if not neck-snapping, go. Look at the V6 in the standard Legacy if you're looking for a sports sedan, but the rugged yet refined four-cylinder suits the Outback the best.

Since more than a handful of Outback owners choose to sample the off-road ability of their wagons, whether by choice or by necessity if they live on a dirt road, we explored the Outback's ability over a rocky mountain trail. The long-travel suspension and soft shocks combined with an impressively stout structure to make it comfortable and compliant even over the boulder-strewn forest trails we crawled along. With more standard ground clearance than most SUVs, the Outback will be just fine for most mild off road adventures.

Three separate all-wheel-drive systems are available, ranging from a viscous coupling center differential with the stick to a multi-plate slip clutch with the CVT and, in V6 models, a planetary gearset, the Outback was rarely without grip. In normal driving, all three systems essentially behave the same, providing neutral handling.

Leftlane's bottom line
It might look a little too much like a crossover now for our tastes, but the tall-wagon Subaru Outback otherwise improves upon its unique and innovative style. Add in top notch fuel economy, more off road capability than virtually any of its rivals and an impressively refined on-road demeanor and Subaru will undoubtedly continue to dominate the segment.

As buyers jump ship away from guzzling SUVs, we can expect Subaru to continue to thrive. The time for Subaru is now - and we are confident that the small Japanese automaker can keep its momentum going.

2010 Subaru Outback 2.5i base price, $22,995.
2010 Subaru Outback 2.5i Premium base price, $24,295.
2010 Subaru Outback 2.5i Limited base price, $27,995.

2010 Subaru Outback 3.6R base price, $27,995.
2010 Subaru Outback 3.6R Premium base price, $28,995.
2010 Subaru Outback 3.6R Limited base price, $30,995.
Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.