I think I've watched Subaru grow up. It's probably because of a Subaru 360 that was on the lift at a gas station in Vermont in about 1973. The 360 was a bug-eyed microcar, the first Subie brought to America. It was advertised as "cheap and ugly," and in rural New England the former attribute still generally overshadows the latter. I remember that one because even then an engine rebuild at just 45,000 miles seemed lame, and the mechanic grumbled, "These things are made of reclaimed Narragansett cans."
That was then. Now, I still live in the Frozen North, if not Vermont, and Subarus have become wildly popular. They've matured, too. They're still inexpensive, and -- since the 360 -- they've gained a reputation for being weather-resistant and un-killable. There is an aura of quirkiness to them that appeals to people who aren't hostages to status, even if they can afford Audis or Volvos. Furthermore, Subarus are among the least expensive all-wheel-drivers, which in snow country is pure gold. And finally, extended-body Subarus -- wagons, that is -- offer a lot of the attributes of compact or midsize SUVs, but often with better fuel economy and handling.
Over the decades, "Subaru wagon" has become nearly one word, like "Volvo wagon," and it usually refers to the Outback. Until recently, the Outback was simply the wagon version of Subaru's Legacy sedan, but the Outback is now a separate, if still very similar, model line. Ours is a $33,000 2.5i Limited (two steps up from entry level; one below the new top-shelf trim, called Touring), motivated by Subaru's economical 2.5-liter boxer engine rated for 175 horsepower and 174 pound-feet of torque.
"Boxer" means the engine's cylinders are arranged horizontally, two on each side of the crankshaft, in a flat layout; this makes the engine unusually compact and low-slung. Outbacks are also available with a 3.6-liter, six-cylinder boxer engine good for 256 horsepower and 247 lb.-ft. of torque, but the Four delivers plenty of smooth power.
The only transmission in the Outback is a continuously variable Lineartronic automatic with a manual mode and shift paddles behind the steering wheel. In ordinary driving, this transmission doesn't whine like normal CVTs; it shows its true nature only under full throttle, and otherwise contributes to the Outback's 25 city/32 highway MPG estimates. We got less than that, but in snow and arctic temperatures, which take their toll. Generally, these are good MPG numbers for a driveline that powers all four wheels all the time, not just when a sensor demands help.
Subaru calls its 4X4 system Symmetrical All Wheel Drive -- torque flows straight back, in line with the engine, to the front and rear axles, and each axle half-shaft is the same length. It's relatively simple, proportional and neatly balanced, and improved with Active Torque Split, which adjusts the power from wheel to wheel, depending on which ones have traction. The Outback also uses the same continuously variable hydraulic clutch in each axle to send extra torque to the outside wheels in the bends. This torque vectoring helps cars corner better on any surface, not just slick ones.
With its slight extra ground clearance, the Outback can be made to lean in corners, but it tracks accurately while providing a comfortable, controlled ride -- and the AWD provides an extra margin of handling should you overcook it in a tight bend. (Remember, though, that any propulsion system is only as good as its tires.) The sole demerit in the Outback's handling report card is wooden steering; better feedback would help the driver figure out what's going on under those four driven wheels.
Symmetrical All Wheel Drive is an outstanding active safety feature. Outback Limiteds come with passive safety features too, including automatic braking in reverse, automatic high beams, blind-spot monitors and rear cross-traffic alert. Our Outback also has Subaru's best passive safety system, EyeSight Driver Assistance. This is, says Subaru, "the culmination of everything Subaru engineers know about safety." EyeSight monitors traffic, manages the cruise control, warns you if you drift outside your lane, and can slam on the brakes automatically in an emergency. As part of Option Package 24, EyeSight is worth every penny of its $1,995 price tag.
-- Silvio Calabi reviews the latest from Detroit, Munich, Yokohama, Gothenburg, Crewe, Seoul and wherever else interesting cars are born. Silvio is a member of the International Motor Press Association whose automotive reviews date back to the Reagan administration. He is the former publisher of Speedway Illustrated magazine and an author. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-- Symmetrical AWD
-- EyeSight Driver Assist
-- Good gas mileage for fulltime AWD
-- Value for $$$
-- Wooden steering
-- CVT howl under full-throttle acceleration