- Surefooted all-wheel drive system
- Handles like a smaller car
- Huge back seat
- Chunkier SUV-like styling
- Few standard convenience features
- 3.6R makes a big fuel-economy sacrifice
The 2011 Subaru Outback is the equivalent of a good cross-trainer—offering satisfying on-road performance, modest trail capability, and enviable interior versatility and space, all with just a taste of luxury, too.
Subaru completely redesigned its rugged Outback wagon last year. Taller, stouter, and roomier than the model it replaced—though not much longer—the Outback moved firmly into midsize territory and now takes on sport-utility crossovers as the Toyota Venza, Volvo XC60, and Jeep Grand Cherokee. The 2011 Subaru Outback has a design that prioritizes real-world versatility and space—perhaps more than any of those vehicles—while offering good handling and fuel economy, as well as being an exceptional value in some trims.
The Subaru Outback was completely redesigned last year and given what Subaru calls "SUV details"— exaggerated wheel arches, a thicker rear roof pillar, and chunkier rear side windows. It added 2.8 inches to the wheelbase, upped the width by 2.0 inches, and made it a whopping 4.1 inches higher, but actually kept it almost an inch shorter than the previous model. And at 8.7 inches, ground clearance is the highest ever, besting rivals that include the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Inside, the 2011 Outback has styling that's pleasant and uncontroversial but doesn't take any chances. Overall, the swooping instrument-panel design is a step in the right direction for Subaru, and it's hard to find fault with any single element of the layout.
Because the 2011 Subaru Outback is 450 to 1,000 pounds lighter than most other all-wheel-drive competitors, at a base weight of just 3,386 pounds, it can move just fine with the 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter horizontally opposed 'flat' four-cylinder engine; that's paired with an all-new continuously variable transmission (CVT) called Lineartronic, or with a reasonably good six-speed manual gearbox. The CVT is one of the better ones to live with—both relatively quick to wind up to access the engine's powerband and somehow, not as obtrusive at full-tilt acceleration as most other four-cylinder/CVT combinations. The optional engine is a 3.6-liter flat six that makes 256 horsepower. It's mated to a conventional five-speed automatic transmission. The six—in addition to feeling considerably faster and more responsive—is smooth, quiet, and offers rather torquey, un-Subaru-like hustle off the line. It won't win you any drag races, but while the four is adequate, the six is actually fun. If you choose the four-cylinder, the 2011 Subaru Outback returns exceptional fuel economy for its class—with ratings of up to 22/29 mpg.
Subaru's horizontally opposed, or 'boxer', engines keep the Outback's center of gravity low, despite its tall profile and high ground clearance. It handles better than virtually any competitor, always driving like a car rather than a truck. On-road steering feel isn't spectacular, however. If you really want to experience the Outback Subaru in its element, take it off road—rather to a gravel road or dirt trail—and this wagon's generous ground clearance makes more sense. It has a very stiff structure, and electronic control systems work so well with the all-wheel drive system (and again the lighter weight) that that the Outback is able to take on some slippery slopes that might give traditional trucks trouble.
Thanks to the longer wheelbase and higher roof, the Outback is significantly more spacious than the previous version (prior to 2010), especially when it comes to back seat legroom. Front seats in the 2011 Outback have copious amounts of legroom, while tall adults will find plenty of legroom and headroom in the back seat. There's no third row, however if you're stepping out of a crossover SUV like a Honda Pilot or Toyota Highlander, you're going to find just as much useful interior space. Although it can't be considered a luxury, or even premium, vehicle, it does offer materials and build quality that are entirely appropriate for the price point. The interior feels a bit basic, even on our dressed-up limited, with some hard, scuffable plastic in places that are going to show it—like the center console and lower door panels—but it's right in line with what you'd expect in a built-to-be-used family vehicle.
The 2011 Subaru Outback is offered in three different trim levels: base 2.5i, Premium, and Limited. Base equipment isn't bad, but doesn't feel quite luxurious either, even in top-of-the-line Limited trims. Perhaps the best feature on the 2011 Subaru Outback is the low MSRP; base models begin at about $23k, and a tricked-out Limited model still comes in under $35,000, significantly undercutting the competition from Volvo and Jeep. Subaru doesn't wow with high-tech options either, but there are a few noteworthy extras: Subaru's traditional all-weather package adds heated seats and mirrors and a deicer for the windshield wipers; a 10-way power driver's seat; dual-zone automatic climate control; a power mooonroof; and a 440-watt, nine-speaker harman/kardon premium sound system. Voice-activated navigation system with a reversing camera that shows in the eight-inch dash-mounted display. Newly available this year is a Subaru Mobile Internet accessory system, powered by Autonet, which can turn the Outback into a mobile WiFi hot spot.