We've been paving roads since Roman times, yet there are still plenty of dirt roads left to drive. You don't need a monster SUV to conquer dirt and gravel -- you need adequate ground clearance, intelligent all-wheel drive and a gutsy engine. Subaru knows that, so they build the 2010 Subaru Outback. With base prices from $22,995 to $30,995, the 2010 Subaru Outback arrives with a 3 year/36,000 mile basic warranty, a 5 year/60,000 mile powertrain warranty and EPA estimates from 18 mpg city/25 mpg highway (6-cylinder 5AT) to 22 city/29 highway (4-cylinder CVT). Let's drive.
Outback used to be a trim level of the Subaru Legacy, but it has broken loose from its car roots, and has been its own model since the 2000 model year. The 2010 Subaru Outback represents the beginning of the fifth generation of Outback, which Subaru calls a "sport utility wagon." Over 803,000 Outbacks have been sold since the initial launch in 1994.
I'm not a Subaru spotter by trade. Honestly, I get lost in their lineup, even though it's small. I can never remember the difference between Forester and Outback, Impreza and Legacy. A shared corporate grille doesn't help me put together a quick taxonomy, either.
After spending some time with Outback in Montana around the Resort at Paws Up a few weeks ago, I feel better acquainted. I now realize that Outback and Legacy have longer wheelbases (107.9") than Forester and Impreza (103.1"), and that Outback is shorter (63.9") than Forester (65.9"). With this new generation, Outback has become more chiseled, less ovoid than earlier editions.
A few exterior design touches have be enhanced to make sure that we know that Outback is an SUV and not just a station wagon. Functional cladding skirts the entire vehicle, guarding against brush rash and unsightly paint damage. It also serves to give the Outback more of a sense of elevation, of separation from the ground, so that it looks like it has even more than the 8.7" of ground clearance that's been engineered in.
In the Driver's Seat
The real measure of an SUV for me is the "U" part -- "Utility." Outback has that, with very generous interior dimensions. There's 34.3 cubic feet of luggage space behind the second row of seats. Flop those 60/40 split rear seats down, and you can cram 71.3 cubic feet of gear in the SUV. As the owner of a tall Standard Poodle, I particularly appreciated not just the volume, but also the configuration of the space. I'm pretty sure that Truman (that's his name) could stand up in the luggage area (though his ‘doo might get a little mussed). He'd also appreciate the low load floor -- he doesn't like to jump in. We're working on that.
Sitting up front is not torture, either. Subaru has done a nice job with material choices on each trim level, which are much simplified for 2010. There are three levels of trim, base, Premium and Limited, for each engine choice. The packaging goes just as you'd expect it to, and the incremental steps between trim levels are very logical. The good news is that even the base trim level is well equipped, so it's a matter of matching your budget with your need for luxury.
The Outback's driving position, dashboard and instrument panel are quite straightforward and nicely laid out. If you choose to order a model with navigation, you get a big 8" wide-format display, mounted in just the right spot at the top of the center stack. A small eyebrow houses a text display with climate control and audio settings, helping you to keep your eyes on the road.
On the Road
Outback comes with two engine choices for 2010: a 2.5 liter horizontally-opposed 4-cylinder engine that produces 170 hp and 170 lb-ft of torque, and a 3.6 liter horizontally-opposed 6-cylinder powerplant that cranks out 256 hp and 247 lb-ft of torque. The 4-cylinder comes with a 6-speed manual transmission standard, or an optional continuously variable transmission (CVT). The 6-cylinder gets a conventional 5-speed automatic transmission with paddle shifters. I didn't get a chance to drive the manual 4-cylinder, but I drove the other two combinations. I had a hard time passing a truck on a two-lane highway when driving the 4-cylinder Outback -- it took three tries to get enough momentum and distance to slingshot by an 18-wheeler doing 55 mph. I blame the CVT, because 170 hp is certainly sufficient to propel the approximately 3,500 lb Outback. I didn't have any problems passing in the 3.6 liter Outback. I would gladly accept the 4 mpg penalty for the bigger engine and more satisfying performance.
We actually got a chance to drive the Outback on some dirt roads, and that's where Subaru's symmetrical all-wheel drive system shows its stuff. I found myself driving way faster on the gravel and dirt roads than I would in most other SUVs, and with total confidence. Very impressive. I also took part in a very unscientific hill climb competition, where the Outback soundly and repeatedly defeated a Ford Explorer and a Toyota Venza (!) up a rutted vertical trail. Even a stacked deck can be fun to play with on occasion, and this was a blast.
If you live in a wet, hilly climate, you know how valuable all-wheel drive can be. Look around Portland, Oregon or Portland, Maine, and you'll see a passel of Subarus, plenty of them Outbacks. They make a whole lot of sense there, combining utility with sure-footedness and more than a little driving pleasure. In hot dry places like Los Angeles, all-wheel drive is considered a luxury feature. It can make your canyon driving much more fun and even safer. If you ever choose to go off-roading, all-wheel drive is the price of entry, and a healthy amount of ground clearance is essential. Outback's got all of that and more. It can be a daily driver in good conditions and in adverse conditions, with a sane, comfortable interior and an exterior that says "rugged" without saying "red neck."
Outback isn't the only game in town for all-wheel drive sport wagons. Mitsubishi is in the hunt with its Outlander. Toyota's RAV4 and Honda's CR-V can both be ordered up with all-wheel drive. Subaru also targeted the Toyota Venza, Volvo XC70, Ford Edge and Jeep Grand Cherokee as competitors. I'm not sure that Venza or Edge really belongs, as they don't even pretend to have off-road ambition. XC70 is a great choice, but winds up in a different price category at over $37,000. I'd put the Jeep Liberty up against the Outback, and then let the Outback run circles around it on-road and off.
I'd gladly jump into a 2010 Subaru Outback for a trip across the country. I wouldn't take a map, just a compass. Because I wouldn't worry about the roads, just the journey.