Subaru, creator of the original sport utility wagon, returns with an all-new third-generation Outback for 2005. Unmistakably itself, the new model is better in every way.
There's more power available, which equals more fun. You can order up the beefy 3.0-liter six-cylinder model, which is bumped up to 250 horsepower this year. Or, opt for the fuel-sipping, yet still intriguing, 2.5-liter, single-overhead-cam, normally aspirated flat 4 engine. Also revised for 2005, it generates 168 horsepower and has Partial Zero Emission Vehicle (PZEV) status in states that mandate it (including California).
But the hottest Outback for 2005 is the new 2.5 XT, with its 250 horsepower, dual-overhead-cam, 2.5-liter boxer four with turbocharging and intercooling. Offered with a choice of a five-speed manual or five-speed electronic automatic, you can do light offroading, carry 66.2 cubic feet of cargo, and still feel like you're piloting a sports car.
My Brilliant Silver tester had the automatic, which you can throw into Drive and go or shift manually. With Sportshift you select gears with the normal lever or with buttons on the steering wheel, like a big-shot rally car guy. As I drove it, the Outback seemed to jump forward after every stop with more and more enthusiasm. Was it learning my driving habits or was I just pushing it more when I realized how much there was to push?
Subarus, of course, all come with all-wheel-drive standard. The system integrates the all-wheel-drive with a symmetrically balanced horizontally opposed engine and a carefully tuned independent suspension to give drivers a sense of connection with the road. The 3,480-pound car feels lighter on its feet than you'd expect. Subaru uses five different all-wheel-drive systems, depending on the model and the transmission.
Subarus were durable but funny looking early on, but since the original Outback arrived in the mid 1990s, the designs have become more attractive, to where this new car can stand up against European rivals like Audi and BMW. Subaru's goal is to become a high level player. There are no stripped, underpowered, or entry level Subarus available.
The new Outback gains about an inch in wheelbase and a couple of inches in length over the old one, but weight has been carefully managed. The styling is recognizable, but the design features are tightened up. The grille is more defined, on its way to the narrow nose featured on the new B9 Tribeca. The taillights curve more sharply around the sides, and the car's side panels are more macho-looking.
In keeping with Subaru's upwardly mobile mission, the interiors have received a through upgrade, with nicely padded dash and door trim, clean, metallic looking console surfaces, and more standard equipment. The entry level 2.5i gets an eight-way power driver's seat, for example, and 16-inch alloy wheels, a six-speaker, 120-watt AM/FM/CD system, air conditioning, cruise control, power locks, mirrors and windows, and keyless entry. The standard All-Weather package throws in four-stage heated front seats, heated outside mirrors, and even a windshield wiper de-icer. The All-Weather package isn't needed in most of California, most of the time, I agree, but this car could go on a lot of ski trips with its all-wheel-drive).
The Outback 2.5 XT and 3.0 R models get much more, including an upgraded stereo, 17-inch alloys in place of the 16s, dual-zone climate control, leather upholstery, leather steering wheel (the XT's is by MOMO), snazzier instrumentation (in the 2.5 XT), and an enormous two-panel power moonroof. These features move the car up to the previously mentioned level where the European imports come out to play.
Subaru prides itself on the ruggedness and safety of its vehicles. The Ring-Shaped Reinforcement Frame safety structure has been redone, and the airbag system is now even more sophisticated. As in some other vehicles, seat sensors give the airbag system more information, so in a crash the array of airbags can inflate as safely as possible. The Outback's active front head restraints help prevent neck injuries, and sound suspiciously like something you'd find on one of the high-priced Swedish brands.
My test car was rated at 19 mpg City, 24 mpg Highway on premium fuel (I averaged 18.0), which is a lot better than a big, lumbering SUV. Those road giants are increasingly going out of style with cost conscious buyers, and Subaru is perfectly placed to welcome them in with its Outback, Legacy, and Forester models, not to mention the new seven-passenger B9 Tribeca, the company's first real tall crossover vehicle.
The price of cars is rising, so even though you can buy the Outback 2.5i for $24,445, the top-level 3.0 R VDC Limited lists for $33,645. My 2.5 XT Limited started at $30,795, and with the optional five-speed automatic ($1,200) and $281 worth of auto-dimming mirror with compass, and a perimeter alarm, it hit $32,851. With an Audi price, the new Outback had better have equivalent amenities. It's definitely getting there.