With leather seats and a robust six-cylinder engine, the 3.6R Limited version of the 2010 Subaru Outback goes against the grain of what makes this brand so popular among a certain class of people. The practical-minded Subaru loyalist will say cloth seats are good enough for him. Environmentally aware, the Subaru fan will find that the available 2.5-liter four-cylinder combines adequate power with superior mileage.
However, the Limited version of the 2010 Outback, the highest trim, is the most techie, bringing in Harman Kardon audio, a Bluetooth phone system, and making the option of a navigation system available. It would seem Subaru is reaching out to a younger audience.
The four-cylinder Outback has a continuously variable transmission (CVT) available, as opposed to the 3.6R's five-speed automatic standard gearbox. And that CVT delivers drastically better mileage. Subaru leaves the way engines and trims can be matched unrestricted, so, for example, you can get an Outback 2.5i Limited, combining good cabin tech and fuel economy.
Being Subarus, all trim levels get all-wheel drive, but the CVT-equipped four-cylinder and the 3.6-liter six-cylinder get more-advanced differentials than the base model, which comes with a six-speed manual transmission.
This latest generation of the Outback sits up at the height of a small SUV and embodies the virtues of a crossover. The cabin easily seats five, with ample cargo room in the back.
High wheel arches and prominent front fenders are not exactly groundbreaking design cues, but they serve to keep the Outback looking as if it comes from this decade. One could imagine a more modern design smoothing out the sides, but Subaru has never been a style leader.
Easy driving, soft ride
What we found after climbing into the driver's seat of our 2010 Outback 3.6R Limited was a vehicle with easy around town driving characteristics, a car that would be comfortable and maneuverable enough to find its way through a shopping mall parking lot at Christmas time or taking the daily commute to work with a stopover to drop off the kids at school.
This generation of Outback also uses an electronic parking brake, another modern, techie touch. We were never sure whether to push or pull the parking brake button, which sits on the lower left end of the dashboard, but using it repeatedly should reinforce how it operates in the minds of owners. The electronic parking brake allows hill start assistance, a handy feature to prevent roll back even with the automatic.
The car's 3.6-liter six-cylinder engine, laid out boxer style, generates 256 horsepower and 247 pound-feet of torque, which is more than enough power to get the Outback moving quickly. In fact, it led to slightly lurching starts when we didn't modulate the gas pedal. By comparison, the four-cylinder Outback produces 170 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque, making the six-cylinder the better choice for passing on two-lane highways.
The 3.6-liter engine uses variable-valve timing, but no direct injection, to help it get an EPA-rated 18 mpg city and 25 mpg highway. Typically for us, we came in somewhat low in that range, at 19.5 mpg. The best fuel economy in an Outback comes with the four-cylinder engine and CVT, with an EPA rated 22 mpg city and 29 mpg highway.
The five-speed automatic transmission, the only choice with the six-cylinder, shifts with reasonable smoothness. When the transmission downshifts, it is programmed to blip the throttle, matching the engine speed to the gear. This technology is not intrusive, and we generally did not notice it, which is the point.
During one test, we floored the gas so the transmission would kick down for passing. Although there was still a perceptible boost to acceleration, the car did not react harshly to the lower gear because of the effect of the rev matching.
The transmission comes with a manual mode, plus paddle shifters in our Limited trim vehicle. No sports car, this manual mode worked for us during a long descent, where we put it in second to save the brakes. For serious and slippery hills, the car also had descent control.
One quirk of the Outback that became immediately apparent was that the suspension is tuned for softness. During city driving, that soft tuning led to a nice ride over rough pavement, but pushing a bit hard in the turns we noticed quite a bit of body roll. During a drive over hilly highways, in one uneven turn the car got thrown around so much that we could feel the vehicle stability control step in, noticeably braking one wheel to slow body movement down.
The soft tuning may be a byproduct of the car's suspension travel, useful for traversing the kinds of areas from which the Outback gets its name. All-wheel drive is, of course, standard on the Outback, and this model uses what Subaru calls variable torque distribution, a fancy phrase for an active electro-hydraulic center differential. The Outback defaults to a 55/45 rear/front torque split, with that ratio changing depending on which set of wheels needs torque the most. There is no differential lock, so you have to trust that the all-wheel-drive system knows what it is doing.