All-wheel-drive is very popular. But all-wheel-drive-equipped wagons are fairly hard to find.
They are harder to find for about $25k to start.
Impossible to find with AWD standard for about $25k to start — and a lightweight (and long-lived) flat-four “boxer” engine under the hood.
With more ground clearance (almost 9 inches) than most crossovers (and even some 4×4 SUVs) give you.
But without being a crossover.
It’s amazing no else has copied this concept yet.
VW’s new Golf Alltrack comes kinda-sorta closest , but it’s smaller (more in the Impeza’s class), hasn’t got nearly as much ground clearance (not quite 7 inches) and less back seat room (just 35 inches vs. 38.1 in the Subaru) costs more (almost $27k to start) and does not come with a boxer engine, either.
There’s also the Volvo XC70 — but it’s almost $40k to start.
And the Audi Allroad — but its $44k to start.
WHAT IT IS
The Outback is a mid-sized hatchback wagon with standard AWD and additional ground clearance relative to the Legacy sedan on which it’s based.
It’s also a wagon.
The Legacy it’s based on comes only as a sedan. Which means it comes with a trunk. And so has just 15 cubic feet of cargo capacity.
The Outback’s hatchback layout gives you more than twice that (35.5 cubic feet) and that’s before you fold the second row seats flat. When you do, the available space expands to 73.3 cubic feet.
Base price is $25,645 for the 2.5i trim.
There are also Premium, Limited and (new for 2017) a Touring trim, which adds a heated steering wheel, low profile roof racks and a special 18-inch wheel/tire package. With the optional 3.6 liter six-cylinder engine (also available with the Limited trim) this new version of the Outback stickers for $38,195.
The new (2017) VW Golf-based AllTrack starts at $26,950 and runs to $32,980 for a top-of-the-line SEL trim. The VW comes standard with AWD, but only offers one engine (a 1.8 liter in-line four cylinder).
If you don’t need the additional ground clearance (or the hatchback’s extra cargo capacity) you might also cross-shop the Legacy sedan — which is basically the same package but stickers for just $21,995 to start.
In addition to the Touring trim, Subaru has added alloy wheels to the base 2.5i trim’s list of standard equipment and upgraded the EyeSight safety suite (some details follow) to include automated reverse braking.
The 2.5i is a deal — and pretty much the only deal of its kind out there.
Other than another Subaru.
Flat-four (and six) engines sit low in the car, a boon for handling. They are also naturally balanced and so don’t need heavy counterweights to tamp down the vibrations that other engines naturally have.
Much more room for legs and cargo than the new VW AllTrack.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Outbacks with the standard 2.5 liter engine get pretty good gas mileage but take almost 10 seconds to reach 60 — about two seconds behind the pace for mid-sized family/sedans with four cylinder engines.
Touring trim is swanky — but pricey. $38k-plus price is higher than the base price of a Volvo XC70 ($37,100 to start) and not too far away from the price of an Audi AllRoad wagon ($44,000 to start).
That’s a lot of shekels for a Subaru.
Over-the-top “safety” nannies — including an obnoxious buzzer that comes on (and stays on) if you try to drive with the liftgate even partially open.
UNDER THE HOOD
There’s so much sameness out there it’s a happy thing to find something different. Especially when those differences are good ones.
Subarus are powered by a type of engine — the “boxer” — that’s more compact, sits lower in the chassis and is lighter than others of the same displacement because they don’t need heavy counterweights to balance their reciprocating assembly (the pistons, connecting rods and the crankshaft). Instead of four in line (or six in a V) Subaru’s engines are flat — with the pistons “boxing” each other from opposite sides of the crankshaft. The back-and-forth movements of each set of opposing pistons equalizes the forces applied to the crankshaft.
It’s also a flat — rather than upright — layout. The engine’s weight is divided equally along the axis of the vehicle’s centerline (this is what Subaru means by symmetric all-wheel-drive). This is a kind of engineering Viagra for both traction and handling. It’s a big part of the reason why Subarus are particularly tenacious in snow — even when stacked up against 4WD trucks and SUVs.
And handle much better than they do when it’s not snowing (note that Porsche also uses the horizontally-opposed engine layout).
But neither of the Outback’s two engines are particularly powerful — relative to the weight of the Outback itself, anyhow.
The standard 2.5 liter four makes 175 hp and 174 ft.-lbs. of torque, which is right there with (as an example) the standard four cylinder power plant you’d find in an otherwise similar (but FWD) mid-size family sedan like the Toyota Camry (2.5 liters, in-line four, 178 hp and 170 ft.-lbs. of torque).
But, the AWD Soobie is several hundred pounds heavier — about 3,600 lbs. vs. 3,240 for the Camry. Which is why the Camry (and other FWD sedans, including the Honda Accord and Hyundai Sonata) are as much as two full seconds quicker getting to 60.
Of course, they are not nearly as adroit when it snows.
Mileage with the 2.5 liter engine and AWD is very good: 25 city, 32 on the highway — which is very close to what you’d get in the FWD Camry — 25 city, 35 highway.
Subarus used to be known for their not-great mileage but that issue has been addressed via the new continuously variable (CVT) automatic that’s paired with both engines.
The downside is you can’t get a manual-equipped Outback anymore — and while it might use more fuel, the stickshift version was more fun to drive.
For more power you can upgrade to a 3.6 liter flat six (available in the Limited and Touring trims). It makes 256 hp (and 247 ft.-lbs. f torque) but the weight prevents the car from matching the zero-to-60 runs of V6-powered version of family sedans like the Camry and Accord — which get there in about six seconds vs. just over seven for the six-cylinder Soobie.
Mileage with the larger engine dips to 20 city, 27 highway.
But — again — the V6 versions of FWD-only family cars like Camry and Accord are not the hot ticket for snow days.
You also get a larger-than-typical (for the class) 18.5 gallon gas tank — which increases the car’s range.
With either engine, you get a grunty 4.11 final drive ratio — another Big Help in snow (and mud/grass) and the AWD system, it should be mentioned, is more sophisticated than most. Instead of just sloshing the engine’s power front-to-back, the Subaru’s system has torque vectoring capability that routes power to (and away from) individual wheels, as traction is gained (and lost). This not only helps in snow, it helps when you’re hauling ass.
Though the Outback isn’t speedy, it shares kinship in the corners with the WRX.
Which ought to tell you something about how well it corners.
ON THE ROAD
Where I live — out in the Woods of rural SW Virginia — Outbacks (and Subarus generally) are very popular. Because when it snows, Subarus can be counted on to get you “down the mountain” … and back up again.
I still see ancient (early ‘80s-era) Brats running around as daily drivers.
Subarus (WRX excepted) aren’t speedy but they are mules and will stick with you for about as long (an actual mule lives 20-plus years without needing much from you except some water and straw every now and then).
The Outback’s higher skirts (8.7 inches vs. 5.9 for the Legacy) are its secret advantage, though.
AWD (symmetric or otherwise) helps but clearance is critical. No matter which wheels are powered, whether two or four, front or rear, if the car rides up on top of the snow pack, your traction will be nil and you will be stuck.
The Outback, almost uniquely, has 4×4 truck/SUV clearance without being a Tall Boy like a 4×4 truck or SUV.
So it’s not top-heavy.
Its 66.5 inches tall — which is short for a vehicle with almost nine inches of ground clearance. As a counterpoint, a crossover SUV like the Toyota RAV4 stands 72.6 inches high and only has 6.3 inches of ground clearance.
The new VW AllTrack sits lower overall (59.7 inches) but has much less ground clearance (just 6.9 inches) than the Soobie.
I find no fault with the way the Outback drives.
It’s a bit under-engined vs. other mid-sized family sedans in the same price ballpark (e.g., Camry, Accord) but it makes up for that with its Puma-like surefootedness no matter the weather — and its easygoing nature when the weather’s not a factor. It’s as no-fuss to drive (and live with) as a Camry or similar but with the all-weather safety net those cars don’t offer.
This is the car’s unique appeal (VW’s AllTrack notwithstanding). It’s still basically a car — as opposed to a crossover. So you just get in — as opposed to climbing in. Once in, you don’t feel you’re wheeling a Hummer around. And it’s different, by god. Not another crossover — and not another FWD car, either.
It is an Outback — and no one else makes anything quite like it.
The AllTrack is sportier, no doubt. But which would you rather be in during a blizzard? How about 16 years from now, with 235,000 miles on the clock?
Yeah, me too.
With a caveat:
Subaru is a bit heavy with the “safety” stuff.
For example, the liftgate buzzer. I had to cart a cat tree down to my ex-wife’s apartment. It almost fit inside the car — testimony to the fabulousness of the hatchback vs. sedan layout — but not quite. Had to leave the liftgate open a crack. This triggered a buzzer. Which would not go off. Not for several minutes. Hard to concentrate on driving with a loud buzzer hassling you.
Eventually, it does turn off — but if you stop the car for any reason (red light, etc.) it will start buzzing again.
Uber annoying — and for that reason arguably not safe, either. It literally drives you to distraction.
The Lane Departure Warning and Automated Braking systems are also extremely peremptory.
The Lane Departure system beeps at you — and blinks at you — if the tires touch either the yellow center line or the white shoulder line. Well, ok — that’s what it is supposed to do. But it will also do it even when you are deliberately crossing the yellow line — as to turn left or pass a car ahead — unless you turn on your blinker. Which is kind of parenty. Especially if there’s no reason to signal — for example, when you’re the only car on the road.
The Automated Braking, in similar fashion, gets huffy if you don’t at least feather the brake pedal when another car ahead of you is slowing to turn off if — in the judgment of the computer — you are “too close.”
Which is Cloverifically far away.
Luckily, most of this stuff can be turned off. And it’s all mostly optional — part of the EyeSight system that’s available in the Premium and Limited Trims.
Eyesight comes standard, however, on the new/top-of-the-line Touring trim.
AT THE CURB
The current Outback is based on the mid-sized Legacy; originally, the Outback was based on the smaller (compact-sized) Impreza.
In contrast, the new VW AllTrack is based on the compact-sized Golf — a strange decision, given VW’s clear intent to pirate away Outback sales.
Because the VW is a tighter squeeze — for people and for stuff.
The Subaru has 42.9 inches of front seat legroom and 38.1 inches of backseat legroom — vs. 35.6 inches of legroom in the more truncated VW.
Speaking of which: The VW’s cargo capacity behind the second row is 30.4 cubic feet and 66.5 cubic feet with the second row folded — vs. 35.5 behind the second row and 73.3 with the second row folded flat in the Outback.
VW would have done better to base the Alltrack on the larger Passat — if the object of the exercise was to directly compete with the Outback.
One thing that’s missing, though, are tie-down hooks in the cargo area to let you secure the open tailgate with bungee cords or similar. Subaru — obsessed with “safety,” remember, doesn’t want you to do that.
The electric-automatic opening tailgate (higher trims) is arthritically slow-opening (and closing). In the time it takes for the thing to raise itself open, ever-so-cautiously (might be kids around! safety!) you could have hand-opened it, put your stuff in and hand-closed it.
This is not exclusively a Subaru Thing. Every vehicle I have test-driven with an automatic-opening tailgate is set up this way. For Safety. The new Cult of our time. I recommend skipping this “feature” unless you are arthritic and need the assist. If not, the liftgate isn’t heavy — and because the Outback isn’t a jacked-up SUV, it’s easy enough to reach the handle and work the thing by hand.
The lower trims (2.5i, 2.5i Premium) make the most sense to me. Both are very well-equipped (even the base 2.5i includes a tilt-telescoping steering wheel, most power accessories — including a 6.2 inch LCD touchscreen with Subaru’s Starlink and an app package/Bluetooth connectivity — a 17-inch wheel tire package and the adjustable roof racks (you can move the inner bars aside to cut down on wind noise) that Outback pioneered.
That plus the AWD system — and the ground clearance that’s standard with every Outback — for just over $25k is a sweet deal.
The 2.5i Premium is well within reason, too. You get a power sunroof, a larger (7 inch) touchscreen and a better (six speaker) audio rig, dual-zone climate control (vs. plain ol’ manual AC in the base trim) heated outside mirrors and windshield wiper de-icers, leather trim, heated seats and an eight-way power driver’s seat.
The 3.6R Limited (and the new Touring 3.6R) are harder to make the case for. They are very swank, but it’s not as though the 2.5i (much less the 2.5i Premium) are metal-floorboarded strippers.
And while the 3.6 liter engine does give you more underhood action, you’ll have to balance that against the bigger engine’s heartier appetite and the 3.6R and 3.6R Touring’s much higher sticker prices.
The 2.5i and 2.5i Premium (and even the 2.5i Limited) are priced thousands less than cars like the Volvo XC70 and Audi AllRoad. But the 3.6R Touring’s price is higher than the MSRP of the XC70 — and not too far behind the price of the Allroad.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It’s still the only thing like it…