First Drive: 2010 Subaru Outback

July 27, 2009

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 Outback

2010 Subaru Outback

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 Outback

2010 Subaru Outback

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.

As editor Bengt Halvorson noted in last month's first drive of the new 2010 Subaru Legacy sedan, it's weight that really affects handling, efficiency, and gas mileage.

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.

Drivers can select the Manual mode or just temporarily flick a paddle to up- or down-shift, in which case the CVT will return to automatic operation after an interval.

Full-tilt acceleration is relatively unobtrusive; the Lineartronic quickly runs the engine up to its most efficient speed of about 5500 rpm and keeps it there, but improved sound insulation alleviates much of the typical CVT whine. Highway cruising is mostly placid at engine speeds below 2000 rpm.

2010 Subaru Outback

2010 Subaru Outback

During our test, we spent more time off-road than on, but we'd expect the 2.5i-CVT combination to return mileage in the mid- to high-20s in mixed use. We'll have a press vehicle soon so we can test our own mileage.

Bolder styling, better equipment

For 2010, Subaru has given the Outback bolder styling, with what it calls "SUV details"--especially thicker rear roof pillar. More importantly, its ground clearance is the highest ever, at 8.7 inches, besting rivals that even include the 2009 Jeep Grand Cherokee.

To reduce wind noise, Subaru made two critical changes. First, the door windows now have frames, dispensing with the Outback's long-standing frameless design. Secondly, the cross-bars for the roof rack swing back and stow parallel to the rails, significantly cutting whistle. We still heard whistling on two pre-production Outbacks, but interior noise is significantly lower.

The maker has also added standard features that bring the 2010 Outback up to par with other crossovers. The steering column not only tilts but telescopes, a blessing for tall drivers. There's a standard outdoor temperature display, and three 12-Volt power outlets.

The parking brake is now electronic, opening up space on the console, and Subaru has returned to fitting its traditional Hill Holder, which keeps the brakes engaged to make starting easier on uphill or downhill slopes of 5 percent or higher.

The base model 2.5i comes with 16-inch steel wheels, while all other models upgrade to 17-inch alloy wheels.

2010 Subaru Outback

2010 Subaru Outback

Subaru has replaced the temperature gauge with an "Eco" meter, to show how economically you're driving. Mounted at the bottom left of the instrument cluster, we're not convinced it adds a lot of value.

Premium and Limited trim levels are available with all three engine/transmission combinations. Options include Subaru's traditional all-weather package, with heated seats and mirrors and a de-icer for the windshield wipers; a 10-way power driver's seat; dual-zone automatic climate control; a 440-Watt, 9-speaker Harman/Kardon premium sound system; and a power moonroof.

Limited models offer a voice-activated navigation system with an 8-inch display and a reversing camera. To our surprise, ordering the navigation system requires the moonroof to be specified as well.

Annoyingly, the auto-up driver's window is an option--we strongly feel it should be standard on all cars-- and memory functions for seat and mirror settings for different drivers aren't available at all. Nor are auto-up and -down for all the windows.

For more detail about features, along with more photos, specs, and other news, we'll be updating our Bottom Line on the 2010 Subaru Outback.

2010 Subaru Outback

2010 Subaru Outback

Building on traditional strengths

Unlike its sedan counterpart the 2010 Subaru Legacy, the Outback has always been a major player for Subaru. Its fans approach the cult-like in their appreciation of everything the Outback does well: hauls people and their stuff, climbs mountains, lasts for decades, and provides unpretentious, reliable, economical transport.

The fourth-generation 2010 Subaru Outback builds on those strengths, adding more room, more standard equipment, and best-yet fuel economy in a sensibly sized package. We think it will do well, appealing to its core fans while attracting new buyers to the quirky little brand that could.

The areas around Missoula, Montana, offered the best possible setting for Subaru. Every fourth car in Missoula seemed to be a Subaru, some 15 years old and going strong. With the hilly settings and an abundance of rafters, kayakers, cyclists, climbers, and other outdoor enthusiasts, Subaru was in its element in a state where residents use their cars hard and expect them to last.

The first 2010 Subaru Outbacks are arriving at dealers now; prices start at $22,995 for the base 2.5i model with six-speed manual transmission, rising to $30,995 for the 3.6R Limited model with all the bells and whistles.

2010 Subaru Outback

2010 Subaru Outback

2010 Subaru Outback

2010 Subaru Outback

High Gear Media drove a vehicle loaned by the manufacturer to produce this hands-on road test. Subaru provided airfare and lodging for the purposes of testing this vehicle.

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