The revisions to the engines for 2008 make them look less powerful on paper because of changes to rating standards, but they work just as well, and the base engine carries the oxymoronic government certification of Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle. Electronic stability control is offered on more models. The rear suspension has been retuned for more ride comfort without sacrificing any handling.
Styling changes for 2008 feature new front sheetmetal, a larger grille opening, new bumper fascias, and new headlights and taillights. The sedan model has been dropped, yet there are still seven Outback models from which to choose. Inside, fabrics and the dash are revised for 2008, the steering column now tilt and telescopes, and all models are pre-wired for satellite radio.
The Outback philosophy is similar to that of the Volvo XC70, a wagon with a bit more ride height, body protection and traction-oriented tires. However, the Outback costs less than the Volvo and, with 8.4 inches of ground clearance, can go much farther into the outback than most owners realize. Reasonable prices, operating economy and a penchant for charging through snow make Outbacks a favorite in wintry weather. But they also do very well with potholes in the Midwest and deserts in the Southwest.
Three engines are available, 170-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine a 243-hp turbocharged 2.5-liter, and a 245-hp 3.0-liter six-cylinder. All use Subaru's horizontally opposed engine design, like that employed by the old VW Beetle and most Porsches. Subaru's engines are mounted low and are compact, keeping the weight low for good center-of-gravity dynamics and a low hood line for great forward visibility.
All come with all-wheel drive, and three different systems are used, depending on the transmission and engine chosen. The end result of good snow-climbing traction and all-weather confidence remains the same for all. None requires any driver action.
Inside, Outbacks are practical and can be quite simple or quite sophisticated, with a range of seven trim levels. All have five seats, useful cargo area and the majority of amenities and features offered in compact SUVs.
Outdoors people like its capability and utility. The Outback is a great companion for outdoors activities, fishing, hiking, skiing, kayaking. Apparently, L.L. Bean noticed this and three Outbacks come in L.L. Bean trim. It offers secure handling and traction on icy mountain passes. It handles well on gravel roads and holds up to rugged terrain. It can haul a lot of gear and it can accept a nine-foot rigged fly rod.
The Outback goes off the pavement better than many SUVs yet performs as well or better on the pavement. If you think you need an SUV, an Outback is infinitely better suited 90 percent of the time.
Outback ($21,995); 2.5i ($23,595); 2.5i L.L. Bean edition ($26,295); 2.5i Limited ($27,395); 2.5i Limited L.L. Bean ($28,995); 2.5 XT Limited ($30,995); 3.0R L.L. Bean ($32,495)
For 2008, the styling has been revised front and rear with all-new front sheetmetal, a larger grille opening, new front and rear bumper fascias, and new headlights and taillights.
The Outback looks firmly planted. It is, in fact, firmly planted, but it's sleeker than ever if less odd-looking than older Subarus generally were. Nicely proportioned tire and wheel combinations and lower body protection at the ends give the impression of off-road-ability, though the fender arches are add-ons we'd prefer built in.
The Subaru Outback is taller than its fraternal twin, the Legacy sedan. Large round fog lamps emphasize and soften the aggressive lower fascia. A low-rise air intake on the XT model's hood hints at power lurking beneath. On the XT and the 3.0R, 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. 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 high 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. The bumper has a plastic cover on it to avoid marring the paint hauling things or animals in and out.
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 four-cylinder cars and 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 on lower models are contained in a stubby stalk attached to the steering wheel at about the 4 o'clock position; on the spokes on higher trims.
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 (at any time on the electroluminescent XT and 3.0R), 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; woodgrain flanks the pillar on pricier models. 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 wagon's tailgate allows six feet for standing under when open and a pull-down handle minimizes contact with the exterior's collected road dirt and grime; the cover has reflective red pattern on it for night safety.
Forward visibility is above average, aided by the sloping hood and low dashboard. 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 standard moonroof is an unusual two-piece design, with a shorter glass at the front that pivots upward for venting and a larger sliding glass section behind. The only drawback is single-switch operation that makes it difficult to control how far up the front part tilts, and consequently, how much wind noise it produces.
The glove box is a
The Outback 2.5i models deliver sufficient performance for commuting and daily driving, but don't offer the responsiveness of the more powerful XT turbo and 3.0R six-cylinder engines. But with the five-speed manual and optional short-throw shifter, the 2.5i is quite enjoyable to drive on winding roads. With the automatic, it's a solid commuter and weekend workhorse. The 2.5i gets an EPA-estimated 19/26 City/Highway miles per gallon with the manual, 20/26 mpg with the automatic, which is better than the more powerful models.
All five-speed manual transmission cars get 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. XT and 3.0R models use Variable Torque Distribution, an open center differential and electronically controlled variable hydraulic transfer clutch.
We had the opportunity to test 2.5i and 2.5XT Limiteds with both transmissions and a 3.0R 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 2.5i, but not to any disturbing degree in either.
The turbocharged Outback 2.5XT, with the intercooler tucked under a distinguishing hood scoop, is much more fun to drive than the 2.5i or the 3.0R models. This turbocharged version of the four-cylinder engine makes 243 horsepower at 6000 rpm for more sporting performance. The turbo spools up with minimal lag and 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. Automatics tend to maintain boost pressure better while shifting so you don't lose a lot of performance; however, to get the best of it you'll be using the Sport or Sport Sharp settings of SI-DRIVE more than on the manual. The four-cylinder turbo develops an impressive 241 pound-feet of torque at 3600 rpm, which is more peak torque than the six-cylinder engine offers. Torque is that force that propels you from intersections and up hills, and there's lots of that here. The turbo is EPA-rated 18/24 mpg with either transmission.
The action of the five-speed manual shifter is a little vague, a characteristic of Subaru gearboxes. The five-speed automatic is easy to shift manually: push the lever forward to shift up, pull it back to shift down. Using the Intelligent position on SI-DRIVE changes engine programming to economical, up to 10-percent better, Subaru claims. It's good for puttering around town or snow, but feels like pulling teeth trying to get the automatic to downshift for more power. That's the advantage of having multiple engine outputs switched by the driver.
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. Outbacks don't roll on sporting rubber and aren't sport wagons, rather they take what you throw at them and make the best of it.
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. Ideal conditions see the power split 45/55 front
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 drivetrain technology, lots of safety features, and composed handling and all-weather capability.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondents Tom Lankard and G.R. Whale contributed to this report.