Redesign keeps Subaru competitive against new fastback crossovers
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, The top-of-the-line Outback model is a powerful and well-appointed crossover that can handle bad weather and back roads with ease.

Subaru split the automotive writing community when it increased the size and softened the suspension of the 2011 Outback. Some reviewers appreciated the additional interior space and more civilized ride. Others complained the previous Outback was more nimble, both on and off paved roads.

In fact, some of the complaints were disingenuous. The smaller Impreza line was redesigned and began using the previous Outback chassis in 2008. It continues virtually unchanged into the 2011 production year, including an Outback Sport version that rides higher than the base model, making it more suitable for off-road driving. So anyone who prefers the last generation Outback should consider the current Impreza Outback Sport - although it does not have as much cargo space as the previous Outback.

As our test Outback 3.6R Limited shows, the larger version gives Subaru a chance to offer buyers something lacking in the past - a luxury mid-size crossover with plenty of room and power that is capable of being driven over some rough terrain by virtue of its impressive 8.7 inches of ground clearance.

The 3.6-liter Boxer six-cylinder engine is also offered in the R versions of the Legacy sedan and top-of-the-line Tribeca crossover. Its 256 horsepower is more than enough to move the Outback briskly down the road. The horizontal configuration also allows for a lower hood, which increases visibility.

The additional room inside the Limited edition is outfitted with such premium touches as leather trimmed heated seats, dual zone automatic climate controls, and a 440-watt Harman/kardon nine-speaker audio system. The beltline wood trim adds a touch of class. Options include a power moonroof and an auto-dimming rearview mirror with an integrated rear vision camera.

The result is a well-appointed, trail-capable crossover with a bit of oomph that tops out at a reasonable $33,724. Even if it's never driven off road, the additional ride height over the mid-size Legacy sedan offers better views of surrounding traffic. And, of course, the Symmetrical All-Wheel-Drive system that is standard on every Subaru is good insurance in the rainy (and occasionally snowy) Pacific Northwest.

On paved roads, our Outback 3.6R Limited rode as smoothly as a large American luxury car from the 1970s. Even though the only transmission is a five-speed automatic, acceleration was good, both from dead stops and at freeway speeds. Put in the manual shift mode, the steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters allows for sportier driving - and a satisfying grow from the muffler when floored. It also corners pretty well, considering how tall it is. The weakest link are the brakes, which are not as strong as the engine is powerful.

For those who want the additional room but can live with less power and luxury, the base Outback comes with cloth upholstery, a 2.5-liter Boxer four-cylinder engine that produces 170 horsepower, and the choice of a six-speed manual or Continuously Variable Transmission. It starts at under $24,000, a bargain for anything with all-wheel-drive these days.

Some reviewers have complained that in the automatic mode, the five-speed transmission sifts hard between gears in some situations. We could feel it downshifting while decelerating, but did not think it shifted abruptly while accelerating, as some critics have claimed. Test drives should be lengthy enough to repeatedly work the automatic through all its gears, however. This is not a problem when the transmission is not in the manual shift mode, and course, and reportedly not an issue with the manual and CVT transmissions available with the four-cylinder engine.

The Outback is based on the Legacy sedan and was even called the Legacy Outback until 2007. For some reason, Subaru decided to what is essentially a raised station wagon version of the legacy as a separate model back then, even though that's what it is. If you like the Outback but don't need that much cargo space or ever go off road, the 2011 Legacy sedan could be for. There's even an "R" version that includes the six-cylinder engine and automatic transmission in our etst model.

By making the Outback bigger, Subaru positioned it against the new wave of fastback crossovers with optional all-wheel-drive such as the Honda Accord Crosstour and Toyota Venza. We wouldn't be surprised to learn that the redesigned Outback is cutting into Tribeca sales, however, especially the 3.6R Limited version that costs thousands less but still delivers an upscale ride.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2011 Outback 3.6R Limited

• Manufacturer: Subaru.

• Class: Mid-size crossover SUV.

• Layout: Front engine, all-wheel-drive

• Style: Five-door wagon.

• Engine: 3.6-liter horizontally-opposed 6 cylinder (256 hp.)

• Transmissions: 5-speed automatic with manual mode and steering wheel-mounted shift levers.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 18/25.

• Price: Beginning at around $31,495 ($33,724 as tested).

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