Driven: 2010 Subaru Outback

October 26, 2009
2010 Subaru Outback

2010 Subaru Outback

2010 Subaru Outback

2010 Subaru Outback

In Portland and Seattle, or throughout the coastal or mountain backcountry of the Pacific Northwest, you won't have to look long to find a Subaru Outback. They're every which way you look, in the driveways of everyone from windsurfers to skiers to antiquing empty nesters. And if there's an official car of this region, this is it.

With the relative ubiquity of this model, it didn't take long to feel at home behind the wheel of a 2010 Outback. Elsewhere in the country, we had to keep in mind, the Outback is still more of a niche vehicle—although the automaker is hoping to broaden its base with this completely redesigned Outback.

At first take, the new Outback looks and feels surprisingly big—even compared to the new 2010 Legacy sedan on which it's based. But the proportions are somehow deceiving; the new Outback has three inches more wheelbase, and it's several inches taller, while overall length is virtually the same. And from the outside, it actually looks a bit like the Subaru Tribeca crossover—albeit with a slightly lower roofline and more carlike stance.

Thanks to the longer wheelbase and higher roof, the Outback is significantly more spacious than the previous version, especially when it comes to back seat legroom. Front seats in the 2010 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.

2010 subaru outback 015

2010 subaru outback 015

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2010 subaru outback 020

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2010 subaru outback 021

2010 Subaru Outback

2010 Subaru Outback

The powertrain combination that we tested in a 2010 Subaru Outback 2.5i Limited—the 2.5-liter horizontally opposed (flat) four and new Lineartronic CVT (continuously variable) automatic transmission—is the most fuel-efficient one in the lineup, with EPA ratings of 22 mpg city, 29 highway.

One of your initial impressions with the four-cylinder engine in the Outback might be that it's a little unrefined; during normal, laid-back driving there's still a bit more engine noise in the Outback than in other four-cylinder mid-size sedans, or in crossover wagons like the Toyota Venza. The flat four is almost glassy-smooth at idle—unlike the automaker's quaking flat-fours of the not-so-distant past—and it idles quietly but otherwise thrums with the uniquely Subaru sound. Unlike most large fours, it revs quickly and seems to be quite happy in its upper ranges. Though it makes just 170 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque, the powertrain moves the almost 3,600-pound Outback with gusto if you're willing to step on it. Nail the accelerator to the floor from a standing start and the Outback doesn't exactly leap ahead, but torque off the line is surprisingly good for a four-cylinder in a large vehicle.

We found that the CVT was perfectly happy lugging around the city—'lugging' is the operative word because it would allow revs to rise just enough, then once you reach cruising speed they drop well below 2,000 rpm. The CVT shifts with quicker response than we've experienced with the Jatco unit in various vehicles and with less lumpiness than the Suzuki Kizashi we just drove. Revs don't spring up to redline right away, rather they rise quickly past the 4,000-rpm torque peak then more gradually settle past 5,500. Now for the surprise: The CVT actually worked really well for mountain driving. It's not an enthusiast choice, but we found the six preset ratios to be very useful to help hold speed on a mountain downgrade; and on the steep upgrade of a pass, we honestly didn't have the urge to select a ratio; revs just settled into an ideal range and stayed there without fuss.

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2010 subaru outback 012

2010 Subaru Outback

2010 Subaru Outback

2010 Subaru Outback

2010 Subaru Outback

2010 Subaru Outback

2010 Subaru Outback

Despite several steep mountain passes and some city driving, along with plenty of highway cruising, TheCarConnection.com averaged nearly 27 mpg in about 400 miles of driving. That's 5-7 mpg better than we would have seen in most other crossover models.

And here's probably the top reason why the Subaru Outback is so popular in Northwest, Rocky Mountain, and New England states: all-wheel drive is standard, and 8.7 inches of ground clearance make getting through deep snow a bit easier. The system handled the very steep climb up a loose, rutted, gravel road to a trailhead—a stretch that would have been problematic with only front-wheel drive—with such finesse that the wheels never lost traction or spat gravel onto the paintwork. Inside, even on surfaces like this, the cabin stays quite serene and although there's a lot of back-and-forth head-toss, the Outback has a rigid structure that seems built to take a lot of punishment.

We weren't without our gripes. 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. And while interior space is amazing, rearward visibility seems a step back compared to last year's Outback. Just as in our first drive of the 2010 Subaru Legacy earlier this year, I repeatedly bumped the hazard flashers when shifting into Park.

While engine noise could be kept better under wraps, the Outback doesn't allow a lot of wind or road noise on board. The roof rack in the Outback can very easily be folded back into roof rails, so that when they're in use they cause turbulence and add to aerodynamic drag. Why hasn't anyone done this before in an OEM roof rack? We're not sure, but it works extremely well.

The Subaru Outback 2.5i Limited that we tested carried a bottom-line price of $28,690. That's about the price of the average new car nowadays. Overall, the Outback is looking like a better deal than ever, and with an interior that's truly worthy of taking on crossover utes yet a sedan-like ride and fuel-efficiency, we bet people in other parts of the country might start noticing.

Be sure to check out all that TheCarConnection.com has to offer on the 2010 Subaru Outback, including specs, photos, pricing, and a one-stop summary of what other sources think.

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