Subaru owners don't use a stopwatch to measure fuel economy. Their preferred tools? Calendars and tape measures. The Outback's chief virtues are its reputed longevity and its ability on a wide range of road surfaces, since its acceleration and roadholding are competitive, if not spectacular.
The new 2.5-liter engine in the 2.5i model is the same size as last year's flat four, but it's an all-new design with marginally better performance and higher fuel economy. It puts out 173 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque, with more torque at the low end of the range for better responsiveness. Subaru continues to offer a six-speed manual gearbox with that engine in all but the 2.5i Limited, though most buyers opt for the continuously variable transmission (CVT), which comes with paddle shifters behind the wheel to simulate manual mode when needed.
Subaru's CVT is one of the better examples of the breed, unobtrusive under full-throttle acceleration but responsive enough to move the car smartly away from rest. 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.
The EPA pegs the new four at 24/30 mpg with the CVT, 21/28 mpg with the manual.
At the high end of the range, the Outback 3.6R model continues with an unchanged 256-hp, 3.6-liter flat six paired to a five-speed automatic transmission. 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. You'll pay the penalty in shrunken fuel economy, with the combined rating falling from 26 mpg to 20 mpg.
With lightweight vehicles and a low center of gravity due to their boxer engines, Subarus have always offered car-like handling and good roadholding for vehicles with all-wheel drive and as much ground clearance as they provide. For 2013, Subaru has stiffened the body structure, and re-tuned the steering and suspension to improve handling and agility. There's not much body roll, as promised, and the Outback feels more like a car than many crossovers--except something as nimble as a Ford Escape, that is. The Subaru's steering feel isn't the best we've experienced, but the fine roadholding makes up for it, though its tires are clearly optimized for weather, not outright grip.
The Outback really comes into its own off road. Its 8.7 inches of ground clearance beats every other rival, including the brawny Jeep Grand Cherokee, making it a deft and practical vehicle for everything from muddy country lanes to deep snow. As owners routinely prove, the stiff structure, long wheel travel, and electronic control systems can take the cars up slippery slopes and rutted trails that leave other crossovers spinning their wheels.
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.