When a vehicle defies easy categorization, I'm forced to sit up and take notice. The 2011 Subaru Outback 3.6R Limited that I drove recently required additional contemplation. Is it an SUV? Is it a crossover? Is it a station wagon? I decided to define form by exploring function. With a base price of $29,995 ($32,368 as tested), the 2011 Subaru Outback 3.6R Limited comes with a 3-year/36,000-mile basic warranty, a 5-year/60,000-mile powertrain warranty and EPA estimated fuel economy ratings of 18 mpg city/25 mpg highway. Let’s drive.
My dogs are an important part of my life, and they're important members of the SUVs.About.com test team. I don't take them in every vehicle that I drive -- there are some cars and trucks where it doesn't make any sense. But a rugged crossover like the Outback called out to my four-legged test passengers, so we sniffed out the details.
Truman, my Standard Poodle, always checks out the tires and wheels first. He put his seal of approval on the Outback 3.6R's standard 17" alloys (2.5i models start out with 16" hoops) . Upsizing has been the fashion for several years now, but Outback's 17" wheels are in perfect proportion to the wheel openings, and allow for a nicely meaty tire, which can reduce harshness on the road.
Outback's overall shape, fresh off of a 2010 redesign, would have been called "station wagon" back in the day, but nobody wants that label anymore. Outback is about 9" longer than the Subaru Forester, and about 3" shorter than the Subaru Tribeca, so it sits right in the middle of the Subaru crossover lineup. Outback falls just short of "cute," with a pugnacious stance and clean lines. Modest textured black plastic cladding protects the rocker panels on Outback's sides, lifting the vehicle's appearance without looking cheap. I like Outback's looks, even though my taste tends to lean more toward the quirky appearance of Forester.
In the Driver’s Seat
Layla, my Chow mix, doesn't care too much what the exterior of and SUV looks like. She just wants to jump in. With a 33.9" cargo liftover height, Layla can easily leap into the back once the top-hinged liftgate is opened. Truman refuses to jump in -- I have to lift him in, even though he has no problem jumping up on the sofa or stealing things off of the kitchen counter. We have some training to do.
Layla's smart, and knows that she is only allowed to ride behind the second row. There's plenty of room back there for her and Truman -- 34.3 cubic feet. Fold down the second row and there's room for 71.3 cubic feet of dogs. That's a lot of dogs.
As far as human accommodations go, those are pretty sweet, too. The driver's seat is positioned as it would be in a sedan, with a decent, though not commanding, view of the road ahead. Outback's sight lines are quite good in all directions. Outback's optional ($2,995 as part of a package with Power Moonroof) navigation system uses an 8" LCD screen, properly positioned at the top of the center stack and flanked by air conditioning vents. Material selection, fit and finish are all at very high, near-luxury levels. Outback's second row is roomy enough for two grownups, with adequate head and legroom.
On the Road
My test Outback came with Subaru's big engine, a 3.6-liter horizontally-opposed Boxer six-cylinder, hooked up to a five-speed automatic transmission with steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. There's also a 2.5-liter Boxer four-cylinder available, and that engine comes with either a six-speed manual or a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). Even though the four-cylinder engine gets better fuel economy (19 mpg city/27 highway with the manual; 22 city/29 highway with the CVT), I prefer the six-cylinder. I'd like it even better with a manual transmission; but that's not an option. The difference is horsepower and torque. At 256 hp and 247 lb-ft of torque, the big Boxer outdoes the little one by 86 hp and 77 lb-ft -- and that's not nothing. That's a 50% bump in horsepower and a 45% increase in torque, with less than 18% penalty in fuel economy. Those are numbers that make sense to me -- especially when the bigger Boxer engine provides so much fun. All Outbacks get Subaru's Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive, with a more sophisticated system hooked up with the bigger engine.
Like all Subarus in my experience, on-road performance is superb. The Outback is lively and responsive, and precise steering inspires confidence in the curves. I didn't take my 2011 test vehicle off road, but I drove the mechanically identical 2010 Outback on dirt roads and rugged hill climbs during its introduction, and found it to be very capable. With 8.7" of ground clearance, Outback can do its share of rough work where the pavement ends.
My complaints with Outback begin and end with its sticker price. In order to get the engine that I want, I have to start with a $28,920 Outback 3.6R base model. If I were willing to compromise, the price of entry for an Outback 2.5i base model, with the four-cylinder engine and six-speed manual transmission, is $23,920. That's quite a gulf for a relatively short list of features.
There are several worthy competitors in the all-wheel drive crossover/wagon camp. The Toyota Venza and the Honda Crosstour are favorites, though neither has any off-road pretensions. The Audi A4 Avant, BMW 328i xDrive Sports Wagon and Infiniti EX sit higher on the luxury (and price) food chain, but duplicate the Outback's layout and purpose. Ford, GM and Chrysler have abandoned the compact all-wheel drive wagon for all intents, with the possible exception of the Jeep Liberty.
Subaru has a chunk of my heart, as I have admitted many times. My first car was a 1972 Subaru GL (a front-wheel drive coupe), and I put myself through college selling cars at a Subaru/VW/Fiat dealership -- information that instantly dates me, as Fiat stopped selling cars in the US in 1981. I would be much more likely to stretch to buy a 2011 Outback than I would to buy a 2011 Audi, BMW or Infiniti, and Outback is more to my personal taste than the Venza or Crosstour. Your taste may vary -- but if you're looking for a compact wagon with go-anywhere chops, be sure and drive an Outback before you buy. Layla and Truman agree with me -- but they tend to agree with me about everything, as long as I keep taking them for rides.