- Goat-like surefootedness of all-wheel drive
- Roadholding and handling of a sport sedan
- Remarkably spacious back seat
- SUV-like styling not to all tastes
- Equipment is somewhat basic
- Larger six-cylinder engine hurts MPGs
Like any all-around athlete, the 2012 Subaru Outback blends capable performance and rewarding handling, surprising interior volume and great versatility, with versatility and enough high-end options to keep most buyers quite happy.
The 2012 Subaru Outback, largely unchanged in its third year, sits right in the mid-size sport utility class, though whether it's a wagon or a crossover utility can be endlessly debated. It competes with five-seat utilities from the Toyota Venza and Volvo XC60 to the brawnier but less capacious Jeep Grand Cherokee. The Outback's design offers space and real-world practicality--much more so than some of its competitors--along with good handling and high gas mileage. In some of the lower trim levels, it's also a remarkable value, saving buyers as much as $3,000 upfront.
Styling of the Subaru Outback includes what the company calls "SUV details," with thicker roof pillars, exaggerated wheel arches, and a chunkier look than its predecessors. It's 2 inches wider and a remarkable 4 inches taller than the previous model, but length stays the same despite almost 3 more inches in the wheelbase--which enlarges the rear door openings and makes the rear seat capacious indeed. At 8.7 inches, its ground clearance bests virtually any competitor, including Jeep's range-topping Grand Cherokee. The interior styling is less noticeable, with a swooping dashboard design that's pleasant without being particularly polarizing.
The 2012 Subaru Outback comes with all-wheel drive on every model, but it's lighter than most other AWD competitors. That means the 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter flat-four engine moves it along just fine when paired to the company's Lineartronic continuously variable transmission (CVT) or the six-speed manual gearbox offered on lower-end models as well. Subaru's CVT is one of the better examples of the breed, not too obtrusive under full-throttle acceleration but quick enough to move the car away from rest. The optional 256-hp, 3.6-liter flat-six engine comes only with a conventional five-speed automatic. That combination is smooth and quiet, and definitely gives better acceleration through its range. It's probably more fun to drive, but that comes at the cost of significantly lower gas mileage. The four with CVT is rated at 22 mpg city, 29 mpg highway, for a combined 24-mpg rating--but the best the six can do is a combined rating of just 20 mpg. The larger engine is offered only with the Premium and Limited trim levels.
One of the 2012 Outback's unexpected delights is the handling and roadholding. The 'boxer,' or horizontally opposed, engine keeps the center of gravity low, so that despite its high ride height, the Outback handles better than virtually any other crossover or wagon--and it drives like a car, not a truck. The feel from the electric power steering isn't tremendous, but the vehicle really comes into its own off road. As Subaru and its owners routinely demonstrate, the stiff structure, abundant wheel travel, and electronic control systems can take the Outback up slippery slopes and rutted trails that many other crossovers just can't handle.
There's copious front and rear legroom in the 2012 Subaru Outback, and the rear seat can accommodate nearly any size of adult in comfort, including headroom. There's no option for a third-row seat, however; if you need that, Subaru still offers its low-volume Tribeca crossover. The interior materials aren't particularly luxurious, with scuffable hard plastics on high-contact points like the lower door panels and center console, but they reflect the Outback's utilitarian, built-to-be-used side.
Build quality is good and everything seems well screwed-together. And if you're concerned about such things, all Subaru Outbacks sold in the U.S. are built in Indiana. The IIHS has rated the 2012 Subaru Outback a "Top Safety Pick."
For 2012, the Outback gets a new pair of audio systems, and even lower-line models can now be ordered with optional 17-inch alloy wheels and the All-Weather Package that includes heated front seats and door mirrors, and wiper de-icing. There are three trim levels--base 2.5i, Premium, and Limited--starting at a MSRP of just $23,295 and moving up to the mid-30s for the most tricked-out Limited model. Options include a 10-way power driver's seat; a power moonroof; dual-zone automatic climate control; and a Mobile Internet system that can turn the entire car into a mobile WiFi hot spot with the addition of a wireless cellular modem card. The optional navigation system is voice-activated and includes a reversing camera that displays on the 8-inch screen at the top of the center stack.
The new 2012 standard audio system is an AM/FM stereo with a single CD player and Bluetooth phone and audio connectivity, iPod control, USB and auxiliary jack as standard, and six speakers. Subaru Outbacks with that system are pre-wired for Sirius XM satellite radio, which can be installed by the dealer. The higher-end audio, optional on the Premium models and standard on the Limited, is a Harmon/Kardon system with a 4.3-inch LCD display, standard XM satellite and HD radio, and nine speakers including a sub-woofer.