We drove the Subaru Outback on highways, back roads and forest service trails in and around Missoula, Montana, for two days, and later for one week in the Pacific Northwest. Our Montana route took us along the Blackfoot River and north to the Bob Marshall Wilderness area, and eventually along a series of dirt trails that lead to the Continental Divide, where we could look out over the mountains, hills and valleys of western Montana. We covered more than 200 miles, splitting time between a 2.5i with the CVT and a 3.6R with a 5-speed automatic transmission.
Most of the time, driving a Subaru Outback feels about the same as driving any other family sedan, but with a slightly taller stance and longer-travel suspension. Because of its low center of gravity and all-wheel-drive system, there is a distinctive rally car quality seldom seen in other crossovers and SUVs.
It's the suspension that allows the Outback to travel unpaved roads comfortably at higher speeds with excellent control. It cushions the Outback on cracked roadway surfaces, highway bumps, and on dirt and gravel roads.
The suspension also does a good job in corners thanks partly to stabilizer bars front and rear. It invites spirited driving and rewards playful cornering with sure-footed grip and a nice, steady set in every corner. The suspension tolerates a certain amount of driver error with grace. Enter a corner too fast, or come up on an unforeseen pothole too quickly and there is minimal impact, shudder or rebound. Should a tire drop into a pothole or eroded washout, the tire on the opposite side stays flat and in full contact with the surface.
The brakes are nicely balanced, with good pedal feel, so a driver falls into rhythm as the Outback squats into corners and rockets outward.
The Outback is quick in the dirt and has relatively high ground clearance. It is not intended as a low-speed off-road crawler, however, and it does not have a low-range transfer case. Still, especially with the six-cylinder engine, there is a surprising amount of torque at low rpm, and good traction. To underscore the Outback's capability, Subaru arranged an off-road hill climb comparison with two other all-wheel-drive vehicles, a Ford Explorer AWD and a Toyota Venza. While neither of the other two could make it more than halfway up the long steep hill with anyone driving, every Outback was able to steadily churn and grind its way to the top, no matter who was driving.
Later we drove our test model Outback 3.6R Limited in an event appropriately called Mudfest, at the DirtFish Rally School's 315-acre facility in Snoqualmie, Washington, where the Outback clearly proved the value of its effortless traction, controllability and even ground clearance, in deep slippery mud. In 2010, the Outback won its class at Mudfest, and was named Best Affordable SUV by the Northwest Automotive Press Association.
Back on the highway, the Outback becomes something more like a station wagon than an SUV. It corners more precisely with less body roll, and it rides at least as comfortably as other crossover vehicles we have driven. Compared to utility wagons like the Toyota Venza, the Subaru feels especially solid on the roadway, with perhaps slightly more road noise coming from all season tires, but remains a restful and relaxing vehicle to drive at legal speeds. The reduced NVH is partly because of the addition of framed glass and better sealing around the doors. Still, to our ear, it is not as quiet as some of the newest light-duty crossover wagons.
Competent on the road and downright sporty on dirt, the Outback 2.5i with the 2.5-liter engine and CVT feels a tad underpowered on the highway. Climbing mountain highway passes took more throttle, and there is a little more noise from the four-cylinder engine.
The more powerful 3.6-liter engine allowed for steady acceleration uphill and gave us ready passing power at highway speeds, but gives up fuel economy in the process. Neither drivetrain showed any appreciable tendency to generate torque steer.
Because of the different types of transmissions, there are three types of all-wheel-drive systems used across the Outback line. Vehicle dynamics and performance would be about the same across the board, but there are subtle differences.
With the 6-speed manual transmission in the 2.5i, there is a locking center differential that can distribute power evenly from front to rear in a 50/50 ratio. This would likely be the best-traction option in the worst of circumstances, such as an icy road covered with blowing snow.
The other two AWD systems actively control power distribution in response to driving conditions; they normally bias power toward the rear wheels to reduce torque steer and enhance agility. These systems are best at compensating for ice patches and wet spots on otherwise dry roads. Both systems are augmented by electronic traction control, which as we saw at the hillclimb, does a nice job of balancing power distribution as needed.
By combining a low-mounted engine with all-wheel-drive, the Outback conveys an unusual sense of security and well-being. It is, in the end, a satisfying machine to operate. We found that the more we drove it, the more we liked it.
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