The popular SUV is now thoroughly modern but still practical
The new Outback is a bold move by Subaru to break into the mainstream compact and midsize Sports Utility Vehicle markets. It succeeds largely by becoming something the Japanese manufacturer has long rejected - consciously contemporary.
Subaru has built a cult following in America over the past 40 years by not following trends. When Detroit was still building land yachts, Subaru introduced a small and homely station wagon in the late 1960s that had one unique feature - available four-wheel-drive. Practical-minded fans began lining up, especially in rainy climates like the Pacific Northwest, leading the company to offer a range of other four-wheel-drive vehicles, including coupes, sedans, hatchbacks and the ridiculously small Brat pickup.
As time went on, Subaru attracted younger buyers with its rally-inspired, turbocharged WRX sedans and wagons. But the core customers remained more concerned with the all-weather capabilities of the company's vehicles than top-end performance or styling, which always seemed to lag a step or two behind the competition.
Even when compact and midsize SUVs began looking sexy, Subaru's offerings stayed dowdy. Customers didn't seem to care. They just kept buying the company's vehicles, even at the height of the recession.
But company officials have clearly decided the time has come to change its image. The first sign was the B9 Tribeca, a midsize SUV with luxury features introduced in 2006. With its sharply angled lines, powerful V6 engine and available seven seats, the Tribeca was the largest and most stylish SUV ever produced by Subaru. And it was just the start of a product-wide transformation.
Over the next few years, Subaru remade the Plain Jane Forester into a modern compact SUV. The company also turned its long-in-the-tooth Impreza sedans and wagons into up-to-date economy cars (with all-wheel-drive, of course, and available turbo-powered models).
Now the company has overhauled its Legacy sedan and related Outback. Though considered separate models, the two began life as three closely-related versions of the same vehicle in the 1990s - a sedan, a station wagon and a station wagon with greater ride height called the Outback.
Now, 20 years later, new sedan and Outback still share sheet metal and interior appointments from the nose to the back doors. But the 2010 Outback is clearly much more than just a raised station wagon version of the sedan. It is nearly as large as the redesigned Forester. The styling is sportier, however, aided by large sweptback headlights and sharply angled front fenders.
Motor Trend is so impressed the magazine named the new Outback its 2010 SUV of the year, beating out such competitors as the Acura ZDX, Audi Q5, Lexus RX and Volvo XC60. That's a remarkable achievement for a vehicle that starts at around $23,000 with a wealth of features - and tops out at around $30,000 fully loaded.
After spend a week flogging a new Outback around the Portland region, it's easy to see why the Outback beat its more expensive competitors. Both on and off road acceleration is impressive, even equipped with the smaller 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine instead of the larger 3.6-liter six. The grip provided by the company's patented Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system was always tenacious, regardless of road surfaces and driving conditions.
The comfort level was right up there with the most expensive competitors, too, aided by the optional leather interior and 440-watt Harmon-Kardon audio system that came with our test vehicle. Although the parking brake is now electronically-operated, the hill-holding feature stays on until the driver steps on the gas, not just a few seconds.
But engines also provide excellent mileage for an SUV - up to an EPA estimated 22 city and 29 highway with the most economical combination. And even the more powerful 3.6-liter engine only requires regular fuel instead of the premium needed in last year's optional upgrade.
Perhaps the riskiest decision Subaru made was dropping the conventional automatic transmission in favor of an all-new Continuously Variable Transmission. Like other CVTs, it has no fixed gear ratios but provides infinite variability between the lowest and highest ones with no discernable shift points. It also features a manual mode with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters that uses six pre-selected ratios for better performance.
Unlike other CVTs, Subaru uses an internal chain system for added reliability. In our test model, it was occasionally a little noisy under light acceleration. Nothing slipped, but a slight whirring sound could sometimes be heard. A six-speed manual transmission is available for anyone who might be bothered by the noise.
Another shortcoming is the cheap-looking guage package that detracts from the otherwise handsome dash and center console. Although much of the plastic is hard, it is well-textured and complimented by brushed aluminum panels.
Aside from these minor complaints, it is hard to find much wrong with the 2010 Outback. Although larger than last year's model, it is easy to drive around town and suburban shopping centers. Off-road ability is improved by an improved 8.7 inches of ground clearance. Drivers and passengers benefit from more head, shoulder and leg room.
The only thing missing is the feeling that Subaru is resting on its well-deserved reputation for practicality.
Facts and figures
• Model: 2010 Outback.
• Manufacturer: Subaru.
• Class: Midsize crossover.
• Layout: Front engine, all-wheel-drive.
• Style: Four-door, five passenger wagon.
• Engines: 2.5-liter 4 cylinder Boxer (170 hp., 170 ft. lbs.); 3.6-liter 6 cylinder Boxer (256 hp., 247 ft. lbs.).
• Transmissions: 6-speed manual; Continuously Variable Transmission (as tested).
• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 22/29 (as tested); 18/25.
• Price: Beginning at approximately $22,995 (as tested $27,995).