Subaru Outback - Photo by Steve Rossi

Car Review: Subaru Outback Still Practical, Capable

EAST HADDAM, CT – Truth be told, I have a soft spot for station wagons like the Subaru Outback. Being car derived instead of sport utility inspired, it’s a practical and capable alternative for the discriminating few that continue to defy the norm. Thankfully.

Although the Outback is derived from the plain Jane Subaru Legacy, it’s not a new idea. In fact, the basic concept appeared more than 40 years ago when American Motors revamped its compact Concord to create a line of four-wheel drive passenger vehicles. That effort proved to be not quite ready for prime time.

But that was then and this is now. Subaru began exploiting the idea in the mid-1990’s with specific intentions for not only the U.S. market, but New England in particular. It was a Subaru of America idea that managed to get parent company approval back in Japan. To everyone’s advantage.

The secret to the Outback’s success was not merely in its standard all-wheel specification. Other car companies, like Audi, offered that. The conscious act of jacking the Subaru up, however, and increasing its ride height (and thus ground clearance) paid dividends beyond just putting the power to the pavement in poor weather, such as when the sloppy mud season arrives here in the Northeast. 

So Subaru carved out a niche by providing an all-purpose vehicle with truck-like pretensions that could still provide the comfort and convenience of a car. Combining that with the versatility of a station wagon made the Outback an outlier in the marketplace. 

The Outback was met with open arms. It’s no wonder that the New England Motor Press Association (NEMPA) has routinely recognized the Subaru as its Best-in-Class All-Weather Award Winner on numerous occasions over the years.

The Outback I enjoyed – over winter storm Aspen, coincidentally – proved to be a confidence-inspiring companion. It never set a foot (tire) wrong and was pressed into service to ferry a new set of mounted, studded snow tires for an old Saab in its competent cargo hold. 

Called the Touring XT, mine was the top-of-the-line model. It set itself apart with machine-finished alloy wheels, satin-finish side mirrors with integrated turn signals, chrome door handle inserts and a smart-dimming Compass Rear View Mirror. Yawn.

To justify its $44,231 price tag, the models also came with Nappa Leather upholstery with ventilated front seating and a CD Player. Since 2024 new car pricing is now averaging some $47,000 that’s not all bad. 

Pricing for the Subaru Outback starts at $28,895 and there are nine different trim levels. Consequently, finding just the right model in the right place, at the right time, and in the right color could be quite a task. Pity the poor dealer who has to manage the inventory. 

All upper range Outbacks include a 2.4-liter turbocharged engine, which delivers 260 horsepower. That’s compared to the base engine’s 182 hp 2.5. Turbo pressure is light, and you can hardly discern that the Subaru is charge-boosted. It’s clearly not a performance car, which I can confirm having been behind the wheel. 

The usual plethora of intelligent safety and infotainment features are part and parcel with the Outback. Subaru calls their suites EyeSight Driver-Assist and STARLINK, respectively. Some of the equipment proved advantageous, as it often does like blind spot detection and rear cross-traffic alert. 

Other systems, such as driver distraction mitigation, were nothing but an annoyance.

Being a Subaru, the front-mounted, horizontally opposed (in pairs), four-cylinder engine can be a bit growly and noisy on acceleration. The company does continue to improve on that by reducing harshness. 

What’s called a High Torque Lineartronic® Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) can be a bit balky and imprecise at times, particularly at light/part throttle when cold. The fuel-saving auto start/stop system remains crude and rude every time it actuates.

I believe that the overall beauty of the Outback and its ability to multitask is in its logical architecture. It’s just the right size – not too big, nor too small. It will comfortably accommodate a family and you can park it wherever you will. 

This unique Subaru station wagon rides high enough to contend with challenging road irregularities while simultaneously offering improved ingress/egress for those of us with creaky bones. Plus, it’s easy to live with considering such deliver 22 city and 29 highway miles per gallon. 

I’m glad the Outback’s not a sport utility vehicle. Because I appreciate outliers.

(Photos courtesy of Subaru unless otherwise noted.)

About Steven Rossi

Steve Rossi is an automotive engineer-turned-marketing communicator. With some 25 years in the industry, including three tours of duty in Detroit, he serves as senior columnist for "Antique Automobile" magazine. His work has also appeared in "Collectible Automobile" and "The New York Times." He holds 21 international speed and world automotive endurance records.

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