The 2011 Subaru Outback is a top choice for when coping with nature's fury. It's a superb vehicle on dirt and gravel roads, in the snow, heavy rain, anything that calls of traction and sure-footedness.
The Subaru Outback, now in the second year of its fourth generation, was a unique sport/utility wagon when it was launched 15 years ago. The Outback is a unibody, all-wheel-drive crossover vehicle made in Lafayette, Indiana. Outback was redesigned for the 2010 model year, and there are no significant changes for 2011.
Subaru vehicles address utility as a form of luxury, based on the idea that a functional tool is a thing of beauty. With the Outback, there is the assumption of active outdoor use.
The Outback suspension, transmission and all-wheel-drive system are geared for control, comfort and stability on gravel roads and in inclement weather. All Subarus are all-wheel drive, aiming for sure handling and traction in marginal conditions. That may explain why they are most popular in the New England region, the Pacific Northwest, and mountain states. The engines feature horizontally opposed pistons, the so-called boxer layout that Porsche also uses. This results in strong torque for accelerating up hills while helping maintain a low center of gravity for improved handling.
We found the Outback to be an exceptionally capable car on unpaved forest roads. Extensive driving on Montana's back roads revealed that its tough, supple suspension could handle rough roads, and its superb all-wheel-drive performed well in all sorts of slippery conditions. Out on the open highway the Outback is smooth and comfortable and feels like a regular car.
We also drove it for one week of nasty Pacific Northwest winter, and it gave us a sense of security like few cars can. Confidence that with the Outback under us, we could breeze through whatever weather we were dealt.
Two engines are available, balancing efficiency and performance. Best government-rated fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 22/29 mpg City/Highway for the 170-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder with the continuously variable transmission (CVT). For maximum performance, a 256-hp 3.6-liter six-cylinder is available, mated to a 5-speed automatic transmission. Neither engine uses forced induction or turbocharging to achieve its rated output, and both run on regular unleaded fuel.
Four-wheel independent suspension is standard. The revised rear suspension for 2010 incorporates a double-wishbone design, which delivers a smoother ride and enables a larger rear cargo area.
The Outback emphasizes cargo carrying, with large doors that swing open wide, and good interior dimensions for cargo room.
Possibly because the Outback is not exactly like anything else on the market, Subaru reports very high owner loyalty. More than 800,000 Outbacks have been sold since they were introduced.
The Subaru Outback looks something like the other SUVs, in its D-pillar and rear window post. It's taller and wider than the previous-generation version, ending in 2009. It has a longer wheelbase, but the body is about an inch shorter overall.
Long, hawk-eye headlamps are mounted higher than the upright grille, leading to an alert, bold look. Functional side cladding and rocker panels remind this Subaru is intended to be completely at home on gravel roads. (And, indeed, it is.) At the rear, compound tail lamps blend into a broad rear hatch with a large rear window, integrating the design and helping to define the high beltline that keeps the Outback from being visually top-heavy.
A roof rack is standard. The rack's crossbars are stowed in the roof rails for reduced wind noise, and can be swung into position when needed. The rack is designed so that the existing line of Subaru roof-rack accessories will still fit. The roof rack adds about two inches of height to the Outback. The optional Power Moonroof subtracts about two inches of front headroom.
Outback 3.6R models are visually identified by 17-inch wheels and larger, 225/60R17 tires, although four-cylinder Outbacks can be upgraded with the same wheel/tire combination by selecting Limited or Premium trim.
The current Outback is roomier than pre-2010 models. Added roof height makes the new Outback roomier, with an additional 8 cubic feet of passenger space, and another 5.9 cubic feet of cargo area with the seats folded. Front legroom, still ample for taller drivers, has actually been trimmed slightly in favor of making the back seat more comfortable for long trips. Rear legroom is extended by 4 inches, and the use of curved front seatbacks adds knee room as well.
The Outback models we drove had Premium trim and the better, 10-way driver's seat. The standard seats, four-way adjustable, might not be as adjustable, but they are well designed and there is lots of legroom and headroom. The cabin feels roomy, even after a long day of driving. There is a standard cargo tray, under floor storage, and grocery bag hooks behind the rear seats.
Past Subaru interiors might have been considered quirky, but the current Outback incorporates mainstream design and content characteristics. The dash and cockpit are built around a sporty, four-dial instrument panel and a contemporary upswept center stack. The instrument panel includes a multi-information display that indicates outside temperature, fuel consumption, time, and warning functions for seatbelts and passenger air bags. The transmission gear readout is digital. The steering wheel, a three-spoke design, has four large buttons to control the audio system and cruise control. When equipped with an automatic transmission, paddle shifters are located behind the wheel. Taken as a whole, the interior is clean and contemporary, without being excessively ornate.
The parking brake is controlled electronically via a button to the left of the steering wheel, and has a Hill Hold feature. Higher trim levels offer voice activated GPS navigation, rear backup camera, Bluetooth, USB/iPod input and other amenities.
We drove the Subaru Outback on highways, back roads and forest service trails in and around Missoula, Montana, for two days, and later for one week in the Pacific Northwest. Our Montana route took us along the Blackfoot River and north to the Bob Marshall Wilderness area, and eventually along a series of dirt trails that lead to the Continental Divide, where we could look out over the mountains, hills and valleys of western Montana. We covered more than 200 miles, splitting time between a 2.5i with the CVT and a 3.6R with a 5-speed automatic transmission.
Most of the time, driving a Subaru Outback feels about the same as driving any other family sedan, but with a slightly taller stance and longer-travel suspension. Because of its low center of gravity and all-wheel-drive system, there is a distinctive rally car quality seldom seen in other crossovers and SUVs.
It's the suspension that allows the Outback to travel unpaved roads comfortably at higher speeds with excellent control. It cushions the Outback on cracked roadway surfaces, highway bumps, and on dirt and gravel roads.
The suspension also does a good job in corners thanks partly to stabilizer bars front and rear. It invites spirited driving and rewards playful cornering with sure-footed grip and a nice, steady set in every corner. The suspension tolerates a certain amount of driver error with grace. Enter a corner too fast, or come up on an unforeseen pothole too quickly and there is minimal impact, shudder or rebound. Should a tire drop into a pothole or eroded washout, the tire on the opposite side stays flat and in full contact with the surface.
The brakes are nicely balanced, with good pedal feel, so a driver falls into rhythm as the Outback squats into corners and rockets outward.
The Outback is quick in the dirt and has relatively high ground clearance. It is not intended as a low-speed off-road crawler, however, and it does not have a low-range transfer case. Still, especially with the six-cylinder engine, there is a surprising amount of torque at low rpm, and good traction. To underscore the Outback's capability, Subaru arranged an off-road hill climb comparison with two other all-wheel-drive vehicles, a Ford Explorer AWD and a Toyota Venza. While neither of the other two could make it more than halfway up the long steep hill with anyone driving, every Outback was able to steadily churn and grind its way to the top, no matter who was driving.
Later we drove our test model Outback 3.6R Limited in an event appropriately called Mudfest, at the DirtFish Rally School's 315-acre facility in Snoqualmie, Washington, where the Outback clearly proved the value of its effortless traction, controllability and even ground clearance, in deep slippery mud. In 2010, the Outback won its class at Mudfest, and was named Best Affordable SUV by the Northwest Automotive Press Association.
Back on the highway, the Outback becomes something more like a station wagon than an SUV. It corners more precisely with less body roll, and it rides at least as comfortably as other crossover vehicles we have driven. Compared to utility wagons like the Toyota Venza, the Subaru feels especially solid on the roadway, with perhaps slightly more road noise coming from all season tires, but remains a restful and relaxing vehicle to drive at legal speeds. The reduced NVH is partly because of the addition of framed glass and better sealing around the doors. Still, to our ear, it is not as quiet as some of the newest light-duty crossover wagons.
Competent on the road and downright sporty on dirt, the Outback 2.5i with the 2.5-liter engine and CVT feels a tad underpowered on the highway. Climbing mountain highway passes took more throttle, and there is a little more noise from the four-cylinder engine.
The more powerful 3.6-liter engine allowed for steady acceleration uphill and gave us ready passing power at highway speeds, but gives up fuel economy in the process. Neither drivetrain showed any appreciable tendency to generate torque steer.
Because of the different types of transmissions, there are three types of all-wheel-drive systems used across the Outback line. Vehicle dynamics and performance would be about the same across the board, but there are subtle differences.
With the 6-speed manual transmission in the 2.5i, there is a locking center differential that can distribute power evenly from front to rear in a 50/50 ratio. This would likely be the best-traction option in the worst of circumstances, such as an icy road covered with blowing snow.
The other two AWD systems actively control power distribution in response to driving conditions; they normally bias power toward the rear wheels to reduce torque steer and enhance agility. These systems are best at compensating for ice patches and wet spots on otherwise dry roads. Both systems are augmented by electronic traction control, which as we saw at the hillclimb, does a nice job of balancing power distribution as needed.
By combining a low-mounted engine with all-wheel-drive, the Outback conveys an unusual sense of security and well-being. It is, in the end, a satisfying machine to operate. We found that the more we drove it, the more we liked it.
The Subaru Outback is a thoughtful, well-balanced all-wheel-drive SUV that has unique character. It expands the utility side of the design envelope, modernizes the package, and adds performance. It remains faithful to the character attributes Subaru has always offered, something current owners will appreciate.
John Stewart filed this NewCarTestDrive.com report after his test drive of the Outback near Missoula, Montana; and Sam Moses contributed after driving the Outback in the Pacific Northwest.