The Outback was completely redesigned for 2005, so 2006 represents the second model year for this latest generation of rugged wagons and sedans, the sweet spot for buying a new car, according to some. It's bigger and offers more interior space than the previous generation Outbacks. The new cabins are more comfortable, more luxurious, and better looking, and the styling was refined, so the Outback doesn't look as boxy as before. More important, it was re-engineered with a lower center of gravity for improved handling and stability, even though it already boasted those attributes in spades, especially when compared with sport utility vehicles.
The Outback features the latest in Subaru's premium technology, with one of the world's best all-wheel-drive systems paired with boxer-style engines that help it achieve a low center of gravity. As a result, the Outback delivers excellent all-weather capability. It feels secure and confident in a driving rain and is our first choice for gravel roads. Yet it also delivers responsive handling on dry, winding roads and is a comfortable, versatile car for everyday driving.
Though mechanically similar, the Outback offers slightly more ground clearance than the Subaru Legacy and has underbody protection that makes it better suited to gravel roads and deep snow. These cars are truly well suited to the sort of outback you find in America. Whether on paved or unpaved roads, the Outback's handling is vastly superior to that of a sport utility, yet it can stand up to a fair amount of abuse. Outback wagons are an excellent choice for outdoor activities.
Safety is enhanced with dual-stage frontal airbags, front seat-mounted side-impact airbags and full coverage side curtain airbags. Active front-seat head restraints are standard. Anti-lock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution come standard. Add those safety features with the stability of Subaru's all-wheel drive, and the Outback is at the top of our list for when the weather turns nasty and roads turn slippery.
Subaru Outback 2.5 i wagon ($24,795); 2.5 i Limited wagon ($27,595); 2.5 i Limited Sedan ($27,395); 2.5 XT ($28,595); 2.5 XT Limited ($30,995); 3.0 R Wagon ($28,995), 3.0 R L.L. Bean Edition wagon ($32,495); 3.0 R L.L. Bean Edition sedan ($31,295); 3.0 R VDC Limited ($35,695)
The Outback is taller than its fraternal twin, the Legacy, and is further distinguished with two honeycomb-like bars that split the Outback's grille horizontally, highlighting its extended, octagonal shape. Large round fog lamps emphasize and soften the aggressive lower fascia. A low-rise air intake scoop on the XT model's hood hints at power lurking beneath. On the XT and the 3.0 R, the clear-lens turn indicators on the lower edges of the outside mirrors minimize their mass. Wide tires visually stretch the car's stance.
Even while standing still, the Outback has a look of motion. That begins with the aerodynamic slope of the hood, made possible by the low profile of Subaru's horizontally opposed engines. The look of motion is enhanced through the wagon's roof line, which drops steadily rearward from the front doors. This design is functional, combining with the increasing inward tilt of the rear side windows to ease air flow beyond the wagon's tail end. Clearly outlined fender blisters make the gap between tire and wheel well look smaller than it is. Minimalist splashguards behind both wheel wells and cladding along the bottom of the doors make the body look tightly connected to its wheels, unlike many other off-road capable vehicles.
On the rear of the wagon, all the lines (roof, rear window outline, beltline, bumper and rocker panel) draw inward toward the car's center, giving it a taut, neat finish. Large, geometric taillights cover the upper corners of the rear fenders. Small, almost demure backup lights are embedded in the liftgate on each side of the chrome eyelid over the recess for the rear license plate. The secondary, high-mounted stop light is centered in the roof-high spoiler behind a stylish clear lens.
In the sedan, the silhouette rises gradually to the A-pillar, then loops up over the geometrically arched side windows and back down behind the upscale, BMW-like C-pillar where it merges with the shoulder-like beltline before wrapping around the trunk, aerodynamically tapered like that of the wagon The back end of the sedan traces the rounded shape of the car, with visible shoulders connected by a smoothly arcing trunk lid, concave below the trailing top edge. The license plate is inset in the rear, and large, trapezoidal taillights wrap around the rear fenders.
The dash is topped with high-quality, seamless vinyl, mildly textured and finished in a low-gloss to minimize reflected glare in the windshield. The instruments are rimmed in black in the 2.5 i and XT, in chrome in the 3.0 R. Gauges are large and round, positioned directly in front of the driver and easy to scan through the three-spoke steering wheel. Cruise controls are contained in a stubby stalk attached to the steering wheel at about the 4 o'clock position.
In the upper half of the dash to the left of the gauges are two vents, one small for defogging the driver's window, the other large, with four-way directional vanes and a roller knob that varies the air flow from full to off. Below these are controls for dash light intensity, outside mirror adjustment and remote gas filler cover and a small storage bin. At the opposite end of the dash, matching vents fulfill the same functions.
The center stack and forward portion of the center console are covered in an understated metallic-look, matte-finish plastic with chrome-like accents. Two large air vents at the top of the center stack flank a large storage bin with retracting cover. Directly below this is the trip computer display. Next down the stack is the stereo control head, and at the bottom is the climate control panel. All controls consist of large, round knobs and intuitive, easy-to-use buttons and switches. The exception is the stereo, which requires either start-and-stop seeking or scanning, or the use of a lateral rocker switch to scroll up or down through the frequencies until the desired one is reached. In models with seat heaters, the controls are set in the center console directly forward of the slider covering the two front cup holders.
Inside door pulls are ergonomically designed, almost vertical and can be grasped easily for support on rough back roads. The opening lever is chrome, contrasting with the metallic matte finish of the accent surrounding the power window buttons and door pull. The headliner has a soft nap, with welcome assist grips over the doors. The sedan's trunk and trunk lid are finished. The wagon's tailgate allows standing fully upright when open and a pull-down handle minimizes contact with the exterior's collected road dirt and grime.
Forward visibility is above average, aided by the sloping hood. Side and rear vision is excellent in the wagon, which is no surprise, but is also better than expected in the sedan, thanks to good-sized rear quarter windows and trim C-pillars.
The glove box is adequate, if not voluminous. Two rear seat occupants have their own cup holders and a place to store magazines on the back of the front seats. Both sedan and wagons have a compartmentalized storage tray hidden beneath the floor and on top of the spare tire. The wagons have two covered storage bins in the cargo area.
The base 2.5 i models deliver sufficient performance for commuting and daily driving, but don't offer the responsiveness of the more powerful turbo and six-cylinder engines. The 2.5 i engine has been upgraded for 2006 to produce 175 horsepower (a seven-horsepower increase over 2005) and 169 pound-feet of torque. With the five-speed manual and optional short-throw shifter, it's enjoyable to drive on winding roads. With the automatic, it's be a solid commuter and weekend workhorse. The 2.5i gets an EPA-estimated 23/28 City/Highway miles per gallon with the manual, 22/28 mpg with the automatic.
Fitted with the five-speed manual transmission, the 2.5 i and 2.5 XT get an all-wheel drive system using a viscous-coupling center differential that distributes power where it can best be used; the default is 50/50 front/rear but can reach 100 percent to either end if conditions warrant. With the four-speed automatic comes an electronically managed, continuously variable transfer clutch that splits the power as needed, but only up to a maximum of 50 percent to the rear wheels.
We had the opportunity to test a 2.5 XT Limited wagon with the five-speed manual and a 3.0 R wagon with the automatic. We couldn't hear a squeak or rattle in either model, indicating their build quality. Little wind noise was apparent, confined mostly to rushing air around the roof rack. More tire and road noise makes its way into the less well-insulated cabin of the 2.5, but not to any disturbing degree in either.
The turbocharged Outback 2.5 XT, with the intercooler tucked under a distinguishing hood scoop, is much more fun to drive than the 2.5 i or the 3.0 models. Its turbocharged version of the four-cylinder engine makes 250 horsepower at 6000 rpm for more sporting performance. The turbo spools up with minimal lag, and when it hits its stride, at a relatively low 3600 revolutions per minute, it comes on in a linear surge that pulls all the way up to redline. Changing up a gear 500 or 600 rpm before that point delivers more power quicker, however, as it drops the engine back into the deep part of the torque curve sooner. The four-cylinder turbo develops an impressive 250 pound-feet of torque at 3600 rpm, more than the six-cylinder engine. Torque is that force that propels you from intersections and up hills. The turbo is EPA-rated 19/25 mpg with the manual, 19/24 mpg with the automatic.
The action of the five-speed manual shifter is a little vague, a characteristic of Subaru gearboxes. The five-speed automatic, called Sportshift, is easy to shift manually: push the lever forward to shift up, pull it back to shift down. It upshifts on its own well before the engine hits its rev limiter, however, depriving manual shifters a degree of control.
The steering is light and responsive, with good on-center feel. The suspension is properly calibrated to absorb pavement irregularities and undulations without disturbing directional stability, whether in a straight line or on winding roads. There's some body lean in hard cornering, but nothing untoward. These improvements can be attributed to the redesign, which widened the track, lowered the engine in the chassis about an inch to lower the center of gravity, and modified the rear suspension to lower the roll center.
The Outback XT accounts for itself surprisingly well off the pavement, especially when fitted with the five-speed automatic. In the XT, the automatic gets the Variable Torque Distribution version of Subaru's three all-wheel-drive systems. The VTD system uses a planetary center differential managed by an electronically controlled, continuously variable hydraulic clutch to distribute the engine's power. Ideal conditions see the power split 45/55 front/rear to deliver more of a sporty, rear-wheel-drive dynamic; under less than ideal conditions, the split can reach a maximum of 50/50. And under those
The Subaru Outback is roomy and comfortable and can go almost anywhere. It's not the least expensive vehicle in its category, but it offers premium technology, lots of safety feature, and excellent handling and all-weather capability. It's a great companion for the outback.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard is based in Northern California.