Wagoneers: Subaru's Outback Impresses


The end of the sport-utility era is upon us. It's now time to explore outside of the box and delve into the world of wagons. All are practical and some are, dare I say it, good looking. There are lots of choices, but we will look at the underdogs.

Part I dealt with the Saab 9-3 Aero SportCombi. Part II will explore the Subaru Outback 3.0R.

The most common perception of Subaru is that its cars are owned by individuals who knit their own sweaters, live within 50 miles of the Canadian border and require all-wheel drive. Well, two out of three are incorrect.

If there was a brewing winter storm outside and I had to get to the emergency room fast, I would want to take a Subaru. Simply put, these cars chew up powder as quickly as a snow blower.

The Outback is essentially a Legacy on stilts. It is actually classified as the world's first sport utility wagon. Along with the extra ground clearance, the Legacy-on-stilts is equipped with an upgraded heavy-duty suspension. Although off-roading is certainly possible, I'm confident few owners will be fording rivers.

Subaru's turbocharged boxer engines push you back into the seat. But the Outback's naturally aspirated six-cylinder engine comes on rather disappointingly. The 3.0R sounds like a cross between an asthmatic and a sewing machine -- in low revs, it produces a pronounced whine. Although the 3.0R's motor is good for 245 horsepower and 215 foot pounds of torque, it's missing the fun factor of the turbocharged 2.5-liter boxer engine.

On the highway, the car's suspension creates float. It's kind of like riding a ferry on a morning commute. Good fun at first, but it wears off after several minutes and then you become seasick.

That said, the steering is uncomfortably light, yet sharp and agile. Although it may take time to get used to, once you adjust appropriately, it's not as worrying as when you first get behind the wheel.

The neat features of the Outback are found within the vehicle's cabin. Specifically, the SI-Drive and its navigation system are superb. SI-Drive is activated by a dial on the center console, which has three settings: "intelligent," "sport" and "sport sharp." The purpose of the system is to adjust the engine and transmission control units so the driver has options of throttle response, power and torque. Whether you want a more relaxed drive with lower fuel consumption or race-car-inspired shifting, the choice is yours.

Through a mix of the three settings, I achieved a respectable 20 miles per gallon. Not bad, considering the EPA suggests it's more likely to achieve a mediocre 17.

Concerning the navigation, the touch-screen system is hasty and certainly boasts the qualities of a Lexus- or Infiniti-based unit. Although the interface may not be as sexy or come equipped with Bluetooth, like the aforementioned cars, operation is nearly in a class of its own.

Bang for the buck is where the Outback shines. Taking a look at the competitors, the Audi A4 Avant and the BMW 328 wagon, both equipped with all-wheel drive and navigation systems, exceed $40,000. And they are less powerful. Although a major fault of many Japanese vehicles is component quality, especially on the interiors, Subaru has exceeded the mark.

The Outback has a high-quality feel, while fit and finish are top notch. There are no squeaks or rattles, and the interior has a handsome design. And I can attest to Subarus being able to take a wallop -- a friend put over 60,000 hard miles on the clock after one year of ownership and the interior held up considerably well given the circumstances.

As the automotive industry deteriorates, the Japanese manufacturer has managed to increase its market share to its highest level in 20 years. Sales increased 0.3% last year. General Motors' sales dropped 11% (Stock Quote: GM).

Clearly, the firm is doing something right. Sales are relatively strong, and I have noticed an increasing number of Subarus in the New York area. Perhaps they have migrated from closer to the Canadian border.



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