The hidden strong suit of the 2012 Subaru Outback is its light weight. It performs adequately with just a 170-horsepower, 2.5-liter engine because the base vehicle weighs less than 3,400 pounds--hundreds of pounds less than its closest competitors. The flat-four engine is paired with either a six-speed manual transmission (in a few base models) or an all-new continuously variable transmission (CVT).
That new CVT boosts fuel economy substantially, and it's nowhere near as annoying as some CVTs from other carmakers. On a full-throttle takeoff, it revs the engine to its strongest power band--around 5500 rpm--quite quickly, but somehow manages to keep the engine from being as loud and intrusive as are other fours fitted with CVTs. Level highway cruising is accomplished with engine speeds of less than 2000 rpm, and for drivers who want more control, paddle shifters behind the steering wheel permit simulated "upshifts" and "downshifts" among six "ratios" for quicker power delivery or quieter running.
While most Outbacks will be fitted with the four, there's an optional 256-hp, 3.6-liter flat-six that comes paired with five-speed conventional automatic. The six is a nicer driving experience; it's smooth, torquey, and quiet, and will move the Outback off the line in surprisingly quick fashion. While the four is adequate, the six is actually fun, but you'll pay the penalty in vastly reduced fuel economy, with the combined rating falling from 24 mpg to 20 mpg--a substantial difference that'll cost you almost 1 gallon extra every 100 miles.
Despite its height, the Outback is remarkably adept on the road. The horizontally opposed engines--also called "boxers"--lower the car's center of gravity, giving it better handling than pretty much any competitor. It feels like a car, not a truck, under any circumstances--but an exceptionally capable car that might well climb trees if you asked it to. The steering feel isn't the best we've experienced, but the roadholding makes up for it.
The 2012 Outback shines when you leave the pavement and take it onto dirt or gravel trails. Its stiff structure, high ground clearance, and the sophisticated control systems for its all-wheel drive work together to give it abilities that leave other makers' all-wheel drive entries stuck halfway up the slope or dug into muddy ruts. It will even keep up with four-wheel drive pickup trucks under some circumstances.