2009 Subaru Outback 2.5i: Modest Power, Magnificent Details

March 31, 2009

We recently spent a few days in a 2009 Subaru Outback, which basically amounts to a Legacy sedan wearing a backpack and walking on stilts. With the 2010 Subaru Legacy debuting next week at the New York Auto Show and arriving at dealers this summer, it was a well-timed opportunity to get one last feel for the Legacy as it is now.

2009 Subaru Outback

2009 Subaru Outback

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Our non-turbo four-cylinder was not a powerful vehicle by any stretch. And yet, the softly-thrumming 2.5-liter boxer four is a perfect companion for around-town driving, as it gives you seemingly immediate access to its 170 lb-ft torque due in part to its i-Active Valve Lift system. Even spinning through an old-tech four-speed automatic, 0-30 mph is delivered in an quick, effortless manner, without need for big throttle openings or high engine rpm. And the inherently balanced, horizontally-opposed engine design means none of the typical four cylinder drone.

2009 Subaru Outback

2009 Subaru Outback

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At 40 mph and above, the powertrain does progress in a leisurely fashion, and highway passing maneuvers are deliberate. Maximizing ratios helps a vehicle with minimal power, and so it's a shame the roughly 3,500-lb Outback is saddled with only four ratios. This hurts both performance and economy (20/26 EPA), and the CVT that will be installed in the 2010 Legacy should improve both measures. We don't tend to be fans of CVT transmissions (except in hybrids devoted to economy such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight), and were positively annoyed with the stepless setup in the last Nissan Maxima we drove. Fingers crossed that Subaru engineers give their new unit a natural-feeling delivery. But even if they don't, ever-quirky Subaru aficionados will probably adopt the CVT with their usual abandon.

2009 Subaru Outback

2009 Subaru Outback

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The visibility in this car is fantastic. Not since Honda sedans from the late 80s and early 90s have I been in a car with such a wonderfully low cowl and beltline. As opposed to so many cars today that have massive A, B, C (and sometimes D) pillars, which obscure side views and make backup cameras a necessity, the upright, simple wagon format of the Outback means clear views out...back (ha).

2009 Subaru Outback

2009 Subaru Outback

Enlarge Photo

The Outback's ride/handling balance is excellent. Much like the 2009 WRX, the Outback manages a luxuriously creamy ride without handling slop. And with plenty of mechanicals turning the rear axle plus a wagon body in the back, the chassis is balanced front to rear and doesn't plow in turns like most front-drive sedans and wagons. Icing on the cake are five-star NHTSA crash ratings across the board, proving that you don't need size XL roof pillars for solid side impact crash protection.

2009 Subaru Outback

2009 Subaru Outback

Enlarge Photo

A trip to IKEA with a friend proved the Outback's versatility. After folding the rear seats down and removing the cargo shade, we easily fit an enormous mirror, a lamp, and all of the boxes and assembly parts/pieces for a bedroom dresser. We didn't need an SUV for this errand, and once we were done getting from point A to B we weren't left with an SUV's mass, high center of gravity, and gas-guzzling nature. Yet the Outback comports itself very well offroad, with standard full-time symmetrical all-wheel drive and 8.4 inches of ground clearance that beats some of its SUV competitors.

Subaru's trademark frameless windows are quite elegant and set the car apart. The company's latest generation interiors have improved dramatically in fit, finish, and feel. The Outback's large buttons, excellent control feedback, and simple to use interface had the precise, luxurious feel of an Acura.

It's only appropriate that a vehicle that costs $31,211, as did our loaded Subaru Ouback 2.5i Limited, is so well appointed inside, outside, and underneath. However, a base Outback starts at $22,295 and even without navigation, leather, 17-inch alloys, and other options, it still contains all of the goodness that make this vehicle such a satisfying drive.

We're excited about more power and a 6-speed manual, hopeful about the CVT coming on the 2010 Legacy. But we're concerned about potential reductions in visibility due to a higher beltline and cowl. And we're just sad about losing frameless windows in the new Legacy, though we've heard complaints from some owners about those windows squeaking in their rubber seals so perhaps it's a wise change.

Subaru made only good changes to the Forester with that vehicle's 2009 redesign, nabbing Motor Trend's SUV of The Year laurels in the process. We have faith they'll do at least as well with the 2010 Legacy and the Outback that will share its chassis.

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