2006 Subaru Outback Road Test

When Subaru jacked up its Legacy wagon, stuck on some all-terrain tires and a roof rack it, albeit unwittingly, created a whole new market segment – the Outback was the original crossover vehicle. It blended the best of a wagon with the versatility of a small SUV, but without any of the compromises. True its off-road ability is iffy, but then again so is that of many so-called sport-utes.

If there was a problem with the first generation vehicle, it was the fact that it did not spout the type of machismo for which the brute-ute sort is famed. It was also lacking in the power department and the interior design, while functional, was not one to write home about. The latter has been dealt with very effectively. Along with top-notch materials come tasteful accents (a trendy faux wood/titanium combination), full leather and a natty two-tone finish to the dash and door panels. The Limited tested also came with all the mod cons (everything from heated seats to a full suite of power items), plus a massive moonroof-skylight that occupies roughly half the roof. The combination underscores the Outback’s upscale nature.

The layout is also entirely logical. Not only are the dials and knobs large enough to be operated with a gloved hand, they are situated high enough up that peripheral vision is all that’s required to locate a given control.

It’s also comfortable. Part of the reason lies in the richly padded seats and part in the compliant suspension. Riding on MacPherson struts up front and a multi-link design in back, the Outback delivers a very good balance between said ride and the handling demanded today – the set up is firm enough to control body roll, yet soft enough to impart a plush feel.

Obviously, the Outback’s elevated stance raises the centre of gravity, however, it still manages to hold its own in a faster corner. Indeed, unlike a small sports-ute with similar a ground clearance you can actually press-on without puckering up. Add to that the precise steering feel and
you have a car that handles rather nicely.

The brakes follow this lead – the pedal easily modulated, which helps to keep the standard anti-lock system at bay, and nose-dive at the threshold is minimal.

A big part of the Outback’s balanced feel is the manner in which all of the mechanical bits are laid out – as everything sits on the longitudinal centre line of the car, the mass is evenly distributed and the driveshafts are all the same length. The latter is important as it eliminates torque steer. Even when launched off the line at full throttle the Outback stays straight and true.

As for the power issue, well, it has been addressed – sort of. The base and Limited models must make do with a naturally-aspirated, 2.5L flat-four. I say make do because the 175 horsepower and 169 pound-feet of torque are on the low side of what’s rapidly becoming the norm. The saving
grace is that while the 0-100-km/h time is rather leisurely (9 seconds) the engine does have the wherewithal to pass a slower moving vehicle with reassuring speed – it takes around 7.4 seconds to get from 80 to 120 km/h.

If you are seriously considering an Outback, it’s worth paying the extra and opting for the 250 hp (and 250 lb-ft of torque at 3,600 rpm), turbocharged version of the Limited’s engine. Not only is it much more rewarding to drive in just about every circumstance, its blown horses gallop to 100 km/h in a very quick 6.6 seconds. Needless to say, this makes a big difference.

The other disappointment is that the Limited has to live with four gears in its automatic transmission rather than the five speeds featured in the turbocharged-four and 3.0L flat-six versions of Outback. Subaru needs to step up to the place and put the five-speed transmission in all models. Simply stated, the extra cog would keep the base engine in its sweet spot for much more of its working life. More importantly, it would keep the company in touch with the current trend.

The Outback also does the utility thing better than most small utes – with the seats in the upright position there’s a generous 33.5 cubic feet of cargo space. Folding the 60/40 split seats down reveals a floor that’s flat, 1,072-mm wide (between the wheel arches), 1,855-mm long and boasts 66.2 cu. ft. of storage space. There’s also a privacy cover to keep prying eyes off your valuable, storage boxes and cubby holes galore and, in spite of the elevated ground clearance, a lift over that measures just 670-mm.

The Outback is a well-conceived, well-built package that has a ton going for it – decent power, balanced handling and plenty of comfort and versatility. However, all of the above pales in comparison to the Outback’s most likable trait – when the snow falls few vehicles handle winter as well as the Outback, especially when it is equipped with a good set of snow tires.

Simply, the snows deliver superior grip as the all-wheel-drive system shuttles the power around in an invisible manner. Forgive me for what I write, but the combination is good enough it almost made me wish for another 10-centimetres of snow.