Oh, the glamorous life of an auto reviewer. Take Subaru's spanking-new VDC Outback wagon, for instance. Here I am with three inches of snow on the ground and more falling in mushy clumps as I stuff the cargo hold with a New Year's weekend worth of essentials for a trip for five to the mountains. Mind you, I'm surrounded by girls in this Title 9 family of mine, ranging in age from 9 to 46.
Because I sleep under the spec sheets, I knew I had about 34 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seat in use. The girls obviously divined that there would be almost 69 cu ft if the rear seat were folded — never mind that three of 'em would have nowhere to sit.
So there you have it: I'm stuffing about 70 cubes of kit into a 34-cube sack, never once being allowed to rest one of those precious, giant, overstuffed Adidas bags on the snowy, slushy ground.
I'm not even out of the driveway before my right arm reaches involuntarily into the backseat to begin the tell-tale paternal flail that seeks contact with the nearest available bickering face. Yes, I mentioned to the wife, a picture of our three grumpy gals sardined into that backseat with the tower of luggage perched precariously overhead would make a darned good Christmas card for next year.
Normally, Subaru's distinctive Outback—the first of the "sorta-SUV"wagons—stands a jaunty 7.3 inches off the ground. This day, it hadAssumed a Beverly Hillbillies posture, with the rear of the car sagging under the burden of all those flip-flops, tank tops, hair dryers, and curling irons. There were Jersey plates on the back, so the idea did at least cross my mind that some embittered Nashville native might take a pot shot at this car full of presumed Yankees in search of a winning pro football team.
2001 Subaru Outback
Let me tell you what class is: here you are, the celebrated, ultra-fancy, much anticipated flagship of the Subaru line, and you submit yourself willingly and without complaint to two-and-a-half hours of whine and chips over snowy, twisty mountain roads. Yes, it's one thing to show off with a lone driver and empty cargo hold for some vigorous backroads barnstorming.
Given the VDC Outback's impressive, class-leading 212-horsepower H6 engine (i.e., with a "boxer" or opposed-six cylinder layout), this sport wagon fairly yearns to flog about in emulation of its prize-winning siblings running World Rally Car events. There's not been a twin-cam six-cylinder Subaru since the days of the overachieving, under-selling SVX touring coupe. The case can be made, however, that Subaru's new high-tech wagon is much the better showcase for its heavyweight boxer. In our best impression of the Clampetts, the girls and I unwittingly set out to do just that.
I'll be the first to admit that 212 horsepower gets sort of lost in a packed-to-the-max Outback. Ditto for the four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes.
Even with larger front discs for 2001, our laden VDC Outback didn't seem much interested in stopping for the first couple of traffic signals on the way to the freeway. At least it felt that way, thanks to a very attenuated pedal feel. Once I got used to this personality quirk, however, it became clear that this smooth, reliable braking system was working very hard in ways I could hardly imagine.
By exploiting an on-board network of motion sensors, engine-management computer, acceleration control, and those anti-lock brakes, the VDCOutback debuts as the most advanced auto Subaru has ever offered in the U.S. The car features no fewer than four distinct, integrated technologies intended to get this car where its driver wants it to go: Active All-Wheel Drive, Vehicle Dynamics Control, Variable Torque Distribution, and a Traction Control System, in their acronymistic lingo.
2001 Subaru Outback
The nutshell version is this: sensors throughout the car monitor the driver's steering, braking, and acceleration inputs. Other sensors document what is actually happening to the car's motions, and a computer continuously compares the two data streams. Is there a disparity between driver intent and vehicle behavior? Is the rear end braking free to the right, for example, while the driver steers and accelerates to the left? If VDC determines the latter is true, it subtly yet forcefully intervenes.
First, VDC applies a strong braking force to the outside, or right, front wheel to bring the vehicle back into its intended line of direction. Simultaneously, it lightly clamps the outside rear wheel to retard the "oversteering" skid. In the next microsecond, VTD reproportions the all-wheel-drive system so that the front wheels now have the majority of pulling power. Finally, the VDC computer governs engine output to an appropriate throttle level by manipulating one or more of the fuel injectors.
The miracle is that all of this happens faster than you can say, "Subaru." The shame is that what you thought was your own driving genius is in fact acronym-managed reality. At the first wiggle of slip or twitch of skid, the Outback's Motion Goddess gently nudges you back in line as if you were a wayward puppy veering from the dog bowl. Before you know it, you're sailing down the Interstate and schussing along snowy lanes with a car full of sleeping dames while you listen to an Enya CD over the world's first McIntosh auto audio system.
As the miles roll off, it dawns that this is a glorious way to test a new car after all. You're packed to the twin sunroofs with babes and gear; you've a guardian angel that knows how to drive; you're immersed in 200 watts and 11 speakers of audio bliss.
That's what it is: safe and sound.
2001 Subaru Legacy Outback H6-3.0 VDC Wagon
Engine: 3.0-liter H-6, 212 hp
Transmission: four-speed automatic, all-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 187.4 in x 68.7 in x 63.3 in
Wheelbase: 104.3 in
Curb weight: 3735 lb
EPA City/Hwy: 20/27 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front and side airbags, anti-lock brakes, Vehicle Dynamics Control, traction control
Major standard equipment: Variable Torque Distribution; heavy-duty suspension; auto HVAC; 11-speaker McIntosh AM/FM/cassette/CD stereo; heated wipers, mirrors & seats; wood & leather trim
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles