The Subaru Outback occupies a unique niche in the US market. The company calls it a "sport utility wagon," which slightly overshadows the fact that it's ... yes ... a station wagon. A wagon with all-wheel-drive, like all Subarus, but a wagon nonetheless.
The Outback, in fact, is the highest-volume wagon sold here, with annual sales of 40,000-plus.
Now the brand-new, fourth-generation 2010 Subaru Outback reminds us once again why a properly designed wagon runs rings around your typical heavy, hulking, inefficient sport utility vehicle or crossover.
2010 Subaru OutbackEnlarge Photo
During an all-day drive of several models in the Montana hills, the new 2010 Outback showed far greater refinement inside while maintaining every bit of its traditional dogged ability to climb hills and handle rutted tracks and off-road trails that would sideline tougher-looking pretenders.
Larger inside, shorter outside
Compared to the previous '09 Outback, the new 2010 model is far roomier inside, especially in the back seat, which now seats 6-foot-tall passengers comfortably even when the front seats are pushed all the way back. The 60-40 split rear seat not only folds flat but also reclines.
2010 Subaru OutbackEnlarge Photo
Subaru has added 2.8 inches to the wheelbase of the 2010 Subaru Outback, upped the width by 2.0 inches, and made it a whopping 4.1 inches higher. Yet with shorter front and rear overhangs, the 2010 Outback is almost an inch shorter than the previous model.
The company is proudest of the Outback's light weight: Despite greater interior space and far more equipment, no model of the 2010 Outback gains more than 95 pounds on its predecessor.
With a base weight of just 3,386 pounds with standard all-wheel-drive, the 2010 Outback is 450 to 1,000 pounds lighter than competitors like the 2009 Volvo XC70, 2009 Toyota Venza, and 2009 Jeep Grand Cherokee when they're fitted with AWD.
24 mpg, 440 miles of range
Fitted with the base 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter horizontally opposed 'flat' four-cylinder engine and an all-new continuously variable transmission (CVT) that Subaru calls Lineartronic, the 2010 Outback returns 22 mpg city / 29 mpg highway.
At 24 mpg combined, the Subaru's enlarged 18.5-gallon gas tank gives it a 444-mile range, better even than that of a 2009 Ford Escape Hybrid.
If you fit the 2.5-liter four with the new six-speed manual--Subaru is one of a dwindling number of carmakers that still offer manual transmissions--the mileage figures fall to 19 mpg city / 27 mpg highway. Both four-cylinder models best the mileage of virtually any other midsize crossover or sport utility.
The 2.5-liter four is one of two engine options, the other being a 3.6-liter flat six that kicks out 256 horsepower, mated to a conventional five-speed automatic transmission. And new for 2010, the six runs on regular fuel.
Subaru doesn't quote acceleration figures, but the 3.6-liter six is clearly the engine for anyone who has to be first off the line from stoplights, though the company expects more than half of all 2010 Outbacks to be fitted with the 2.5i four and the Lineartronic CVT.
Subaru adds an unusual feature to its CVT: paddle shifters behind the steering wheel that simulate six fixed ratios, holding the engine in the chosen "gear". This somewhat compromises the CVT's efficiency but gives drivers more control over its variable nature for, say, merging into fast traffic.