2011 Subaru Outback
The 2011 Subaru Outback is named after a mammoth, flat expanse of Australia filled with red dirt, dingoes and places with names like Woolloomooloo. With its generous ground clearance and standard all-wheel drive, the Outback would probably be pretty good at dealing with the deserted vastness of the Outback. Here in the United States, though, Subaru's blending of wagon and SUV has become a favorite for those who live in mountainous and/or snowy climates. Yet, because of last year's full redesign, the Outback is now bigger and more comfortable than before, catering better to those who live in a variety of places and climates.
While we lament that this increase in size removed much of the responsive and fun-to-drive nature from the Outback, its massive increase in sales certainly shows that these "big" changes are resonating with the crossover-buying populace. Interior space is of particular note, as there's plenty of headroom, loads of rear seat sprawl space and more cargo capacity than many midsize SUVs. If you can't fit all your cargo inside, adjustable roof rails easily swing inward to serve double duty as cross rails. It's a nifty feature that cuts down on the wind noise and air drag that go along with fixed cross rails.
Despite the Outback's size, the use of high-tensile steel allows it to earn perfect crash scores across the board and keep weight down. In fact, the Outback weighs about 550 pounds less than a Toyota Venza. This certainly makes things easier for the four- and six-cylinder "boxer" engines. Although the latter provides more than enough gusto for those who live in those mountainous places, the four-cylinder's impressive fuel economy when equipped with the optional continuously variable transmission (CVT) should make it the choice for most. Unfortunately, a turbocharged engine is no longer available -- the previous Outback's turbo engine helped compensate for the typical power drop in high-altitude environments.
However, now that the Outback is more crossover than wagon, it does have a greater number of vehicles it must compete with such as the Chevy Equinox, Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4. There's also Subaru's similarly sized Forester, though the Outback differs with a higher-quality interior, a quieter and more comfortable ride and a more carlike driving position. Should you desire a more traditional wagon with better handling than the big-boned Outback, the Volvo V50 and VW Jetta are good choices.
All are worth a look but in general we're impressed with the 2011 Subaru Outback and think it now appeals to a greater number of people. Whether you live in Woolloomooloo or Walla Walla, Washington, the Outback should be able to tackle whatever Mother Nature or your family throws at it.
The current Outback is roomier than pre-2010 models. Added roof height makes the new Outback roomier, with an additional 8 cubic feet of passenger space, and another 5.9 cubic feet of cargo area with the seats folded. Front legroom, still ample for taller drivers, has actually been trimmed slightly in favor of making the back seat more comfortable for long trips. Rear legroom is extended by 4 inches, and the use of curved front seatbacks adds knee room as well.
The Outback models we drove had Premium trim and the better, 10-way driver's seat. The standard seats, four-way adjustable, might not be as adjustable, but they are well designed and there is lots of legroom and headroom. The cabin feels roomy, even after a long day of driving. There is a standard cargo tray, under floor storage, and grocery bag hooks behind the rear seats.
Past Subaru interiors might have been considered quirky, but the current Outback incorporates mainstream design and content characteristics. The dash and cockpit are built around a sporty, four-dial instrument panel and a contemporary upswept center stack. The instrument panel includes a multi-information display that indicates outside temperature, fuel consumption, time, and warning functions for seatbelts and passenger air bags. The transmission gear readout is digital. The steering wheel, a three-spoke design, has four large buttons to control the audio system and cruise control. When equipped with an automatic transmission, paddle shifters are located behind the wheel. Taken as a whole, the interior is clean and contemporary, without being excessively ornate.
The parking brake is controlled electronically via a button to the left of the steering wheel, and has a Hill Hold feature. Higher trim levels offer voice activated GPS navigation, rear backup camera, Bluetooth, USB/iPod input and other amenities.
Employing a car-based four-wheel-independent suspension since its mid-1990s inception, the Outback displays admirable ride quality. It soaks up bumps with little driver disturbance but maintains good control over stretches of broken pavement. Rough pavement can stunt a soft-riding car's reflexes and leave it bobbing up and down, but the Outback suffers little of that.
Steering and handling are good, if not as sharp as they were in the last Outback. Driving enthusiasts will appreciate the steering wheel's heavy weight at low speeds, while average drivers will want more power assist for easier parking-lot maneuvers. On the highway, I could use a little less assist. Holding the wheel at 12 o'clock, it feels a bit too loose.
Find a winding road, however, and the Outback handles well. The steering has good turn-in precision and little midcorner sloppiness. The nose pushes wide in hard corners, exacerbated by our tester's all-season Continental ContiProContact tires, which didn't offer much grip. Stomp hard on the gas coming out of a sweeping corner, though, and you can swing the tail out eventually. Credit the standard all-wheel drive, whose power distribution skews slightly rearward in six-cylinder Outbacks. All automatic Outbacks distribute power between the axles electronically; the manual Outback uses a simpler viscous coupling that's less proactive in doling out power when the wheels start to slip. Still, both systems distribute constant power to each axle. Many on-demand systems send power rearward only when a drive wheel begins to slip; some allow you to enforce a 50/50 split via a locking center differential. We've driven previous Outbacks on trails, and the all-wheel drive � along with an impressive 8.7 inches of ground clearance � make for better capability than you'd expect in a crossover.
Four-wheel-disc antilock brakes are standard, with larger discs installed on six-cylinder Outbacks. The pedal has linear response, making it easy to smooth out your stops. Cram the car full of passengers, and you'll want to plan your stopping distances accordingly. Loaded down with some 500 pounds of cargo, our test car took significantly farther to come to a halt.
The Outback's base engine � a 170-horsepower four-cylinder � delivers leisurely acceleration, in large part because of a continuously variable automatic transmission that's in no hurry to respond to your right foot. (A six-speed manual is standard, but we haven't tested it.) Loaded with passengers, the four-cylinder drivetrain requires patience reaching highway speeds, and it strains to keep up under hard acceleration.
That's not the case with the optional 256-hp six-cylinder. It's a muscular drivetrain, in part because it trades the CVT for a responsive five-speed automatic that's not afraid to hold lower gears or kick down on the highway. Even loaded with cargo, our test car had the sort of torque to pull strongly around town, though getting up to highway speeds didn't leave much extra power on tap.
With the six-cylinder, towing capacity tops out at 3,000 pounds. That's 500 pounds less than many competitors, but the four-cylinder Outback has a 2,700-pound rating � none too shabby for a four-banger.
The combined EPA gas mileage estimates range from 20 mpg with the six-cylinder and automatic to 24 mpg with the four-cylinder and automatic. Both figures are competitive.
The 2011 Subaru Outback comes standard with stability and traction control, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, front side airbags and side curtain airbags. In brake testing, a base 2.5i came to a stop from 60 mph in a longer-than-average 133 feet.
In the government's new, more strenuous crash testing for 2011, the Outback earned an overall rating of four stars out of a possible five, with four stars for overall frontal crash protection and four stars for overall side crash protection.It also achieved the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's top rating of "Good" in its frontal-offset, side and roof strength tests.