The Subaru Outback, ride of choice for the fun-loving family-laden driver, gets spruced up for the 2008 model year. Gone is the bulky plastic skirting of previous generations, replaced by more refined styling complete with a chrome-trimmed grille and larger fog lights. In the cabin, the view is much improved as the car's leather- and wood-trimmed interior brims with useful technology. Despite its urban makeover, the Outback retains its elevated stance, giving it some off-road credibility and differentiating the now-wagon-only model from its Legacy stable mate.
Test the tech: sharp shifting
Like the 2007 Legacy Spec.B, the four-cylinder turbo-charged 2008 Outback 2.5-liter XT features Subaru's SI Drive system, a three-mode engine-management system that lets drivers select between economical or performance-optimized driving dynamics. In each of the three modes, a graphical display in the instrument cluster shows drivers a throttle response curve--a representation of how much torque is being applied to the wheels. Intelligent mode, designed for commuting or other high-traffic, stop-and-go driving situations, is the most fuel-efficient of the three settings. Intelligent mode relaxes the car's throttle response and reduces maximum power. Sport mode gives the Outback more linear acceleration and quicker throttle response, while Sport Sharp mode gives the car "lightning-quick throttle response," according to Subaru, delivering more power sooner.
For our tech test, we set out to discover how much difference the SI Drive feature actually makes. Using a performance computer, we clocked the 0-60mph times of the car, first in Intelligent mode, and then in Sport Sharp mode. If the SI Drive system worked as advertised, there would be a significant difference due to the improved throttle response times of the latter setting. For our test runs, we disabled traction control and let the five-speed automatic transmission shift for itself (a manual Sportshift mode is available, but in the interests of minimizing test variables, we let the car change gears automatically).
For the first run, we set SI Drive to intelligent mode and hit the gas pedal when the stoplight turned green. The Outback lurched into life, feeling conspicuously sluggish on its way to 60mph, which it reached in 8.32 seconds. Having regrouped and recalibrated the performance computer, we set SI Drive to Sport Sharp mode, and lined up on the start line once more.
Applying the same throttle input as that in the first run, we felt a noticeably sharper throttle tip-in from standing, followed by a far greater acceleration thrust as the tachometer got above 2,000rpm. In Sport Sharp mode, the car held first and second gear longer than in Intelligent mode, leading to louder engine whine and a far brisker feel. And the performance computer backed up our impressions, showing a 0-60mph time of 7.10, well over one second quicker than our first run. It is worth noting that, despite traction control being deactivated, the Outback did not lose traction on either of our two fast launches, probably due to its all-time all-wheel drive system.
In the cabin
The 2008 Subaru Outback 2.5 XT Limited with navigation is the best-equipped model in the Outback range in terms of cabin amenities and technology. Installed in the car's perforated leather seats and surrounded by wood and tasteful matte plastic trim, an array of tech features greets the front-seat passengers. The centerpiece of the cabin gadgetry is an as-standard in-dash GPS navigation system with a touch screen LCD display. We like the bright, colorful maps that this system presents, and the simple array of hard buttons along the bottom of the screen makes it easy to switch between maps and information screens.
Unlike some touch screen displays, the screen in the Outback is located high enough in the dash to be easily reached from the driver's seat. Programming destinations via the GPS system's onscreen keypad is straightforward, although the unit's processor is slower than we would like, which can lead to loss of valuable time as the navigation system digests each stage of a destination input with a lag of a couple of seconds between screens. When underway, the GPS system offers useful turn-by-turn directions and calls out individual names of major roads and freeways. For smaller, urban roads, however, there is no text-to-voice capability.