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car review

2010 Subaru Outback 3.6R

The basic version of the 2010 Subaru Outback, the 2.5i PZEV ($28,995), is $2,000 less expensive than last year's model and the ritzy Limited 2.5i ($35,795) is down $3,600.

And that's for a wagon-y crossover with new styling, more features, tighter handling and a bigger interior.

By the way, if you really want to go upmarket with the Outback, there is the six-cylinder 3.6R, which starts at $35,495.

Whichever one you're interested in, the Outback and its cousin, the Legacy sedan, rate as among the safest family vehicles, period. The U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says these cars are Top Safety Picks. Quality and reliability are strong suits, too.

So the rational reasons are in place. What Subaru wants now is some sort of emotional response from new buyers.

That's because Subaru Canada is in growth mode. Sales are up slightly on the year, despite a weak overall new car market. Company types think there are gains out there to be had and the updated Outback (along with the 2010 Legacy) should, if Subaru has its way, pull buyers beyond the immensely loyal accountants, school teachers and college professors who normally make up the cult-like fan base who fill up Subaru showrooms.

Still, the Outback is in a tough segment. Potential rivals include the Toyota Venza, for instance. Toyota introduced this all-new wagon to lure multipurpose buyers in search of a multipurpose vehicle - Outback types, in other words.

The Outback is also a rival to the Volkswagen Passat wagon, Volvo's XC70 and even the Hyundai Santa Fe. This new Outback dwarfs the Passat and the Volvo, and is about the same size at the Santa Fe.

So the 2010 Outback is much larger and better equipped than last year's version. It has adult-friendly rear seating, an iPod jack and Bluetooth connectivity, too.

The starter engine is the 170-horsepower, 2.5-litre, flat four, while the upmarket powerplant is the 256-hp, 3.6-litre ,flat six. Now you know why models are designated the Outback 2.5i and Outback 3.6R.

There are now three trim levels available with the smaller engine: Base, Sport and Limited. The six-cylinder comes in three flavours: Base and Limited.

Essentially there are five Outbacks from which to choose, with prices topping out at $38,495, plus another $2,300 for the multimedia option that gives you voice-activated navigation and Bluetooth mobile phone operation, along with a back-up camera.

The four-cylinder engine can be combined with either a six-speed manual or a continuously variable automatic transmission, while the six-cylinder models are equipped only with a five-speed automatic. The CVT helps with fuel economy, yet there is no real evidence of the rubber-band-like feeling - motor-boating - common with some other CVTs.

As for size, the Outback is a bit shorter bumper to bumper, yet the wheelbase, width and height have all grown substantially. Adults can sit in the back comfortably, which was not the case with the 2009 version.

Bigger adults have more room from side-to-side, too. In short, front-seat legroom is down slightly, but in the rear it's up some 10 centimetres. There is more room for luggage in back, too, and the rear seats fold flat.

In this makeover, Subaru made liberal use of high-strength steel to fortify the Outback's already rigid structure. Despite being bigger, the Outback has added only about 45 kilograms. So the fuel economy figures remain much the same. Oh, and the six-cylinder runs on regular 87-octane gas, just like the four-cylinder. That saves you a bit of cash, too.

Perhaps most important, the Outback is a really great wagon for driving. Both the 2.5i model with the CVT and the 3.6R with a five-speed auto deliver smooth, steady power to all four wheels. I will say that with a full load of passengers and cargo, the four-cylinder feels a bit sluggish for passing manoeuvres, but this is not a catastrophe. The six-cylinder is plenty gutsy, however.

Meanwhile, Subaru's Lineartronic CVT is excellent - as good as Nissan's CVT and that's saying something. The infinitely variable transmission ratios and throttle response are well suited for this wagon. Truth is, most buyers will never notice they've got a CVT channelling engine power to the wheels.

The Outback is a responsive wagon, but this 2010 version is, of course, bigger than last year's and it shows in the handling and general responses.

This Subie takes driver inputs and puts them into practice well enough, but not as quickly as before. That said, the Outback settles into corners with predictable responses. I'd just like the steering to have more feel. The almost excessive steering isolation is a little thing, I know, but I'll mention it anyway.

On the other hand, the high-strength-steel structure, all-new engine cradle, new rear sub-frame and new double-wishbone rear suspension are all well done. Together, they make for a car/crossover well able to smooth out ruts, washboards and loose stones.

I know; I tried the Outback on unpaved and at times steep, gravelly, rutted roads. No crossover is better at handling this type of terrain. Naturally, all-wheel-drive is standard.

Subaru believes the bigger, generally-less-expensive Outback has a chance to grab more buyers than the last version and the company might be proved right. Certainly the cabin materials and layout look as good and operate as easily as anything in the segment, too.

Buyers who want a wagon that's safe and entertaining and easy to live with might find the Outback a better choice than taller, lumpier-looking crossovers.

*****

2010 SUBARU OUTBACK 3.6R

Type: Crossover wagon

Base price: $35,695

Engine: 3.6-litre horizontally opposed or "boxer" six-cylinder

Horsepower/Torque: 256 hp/247 lb-ft

Transmission: Five-speed automatic

Drive: All-wheel-drive

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 11.8 city/8.2 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Toyota Venza, Volkswagen Passat 4Motion, Hyundai Santa Fe, Volvo XC60, Ford Edge, Kia Sorento, Mazda CX-7, Nissan Murano

Like

  • Outstanding safety rating
  • History of high quality
  • Roomier interior
  • Well-done instruments and controls

Don't like

  • Needs more steering feel
  • If you want a high seating position, shop elsewhere
  • Decent cargo area, but not exactly great - though fold-flat seats help

jcato@globeandmail.com