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.
Beneath the navigation system's LCD screen, the Outback features a highly stylized stereo head-unit arrangement, incorporating a six-disc in-dash CD changer with the ability to play MP3 and WMA discs, as well as the option of XM or Sirius satellite radio; while these two may soon become a single company, we do like the fact that Subaru gives customers the option while it still exists. We also like the circular four-way rocker switch that enables drivers to switch between audio sources at the push of a single button.
On the downside, there is no integration between the stereo controls and the in-dash LCD display, which means that drivers cannot use the touch screen to either view or select music. Instead, they have to rely on a secondary monochrome LCD display buried at the foot of the central column. This display shows ID3 tag information for MP3 and WMA audio discs and XM or Sirius satellite radio, but only one category of information (artist, track, album, station name, etc) can be viewed at once and even then, no more than eight characters can be displayed.
Users can cycle through the different information categories by pressing the Text button, but, again, this is a cumbersome process as the display shows the category of text for about 5 seconds before showing the details themselves (for example: press Text button > display shows "Artist name" > wait 5 seconds > display shows "Green Day"). Alternatively, users can play their digital audio libraries direct from an iPod or other portable player via the Outback's auxilliary input jack located conveniently in the center console.
When you have finally managed to select the song you want to hear, the Outback's 100-watt six-speaker audio system delivers surprisingly good sound quality thanks to its SRS WOW 3D audio enhancement sound-processing technology. While the bass begins to distort at higher volumes, the system provides the clear separation and crisp audio reproduction that we would usually associate with far more speakers and more powerful systems. There is still no factory- installed Bluetooth hands-free calling available on any Subaru models--a fact that we have bemoaned before, and likely will continue to bemoan until it is remedied. Drivers wishing to make hands-free calls in the Outback will have to resort to an aftermarket Bluetooth kit from the likes of Parrot.
As a wagon, the Outback delivers plenty of cargo room with more than 65 cubic feet of space with the rear seats folded flat. The Outback XT Limited also comes standard with roof rails and crossbars in case you want to take your canoe or a couple of extra bikes.
Under the hood
At 189 inches long and with a curb weight of over 3,600 pounds, the 2008 Subaru Outback is something of a porker. Contributing to its heft is an as-standard all-wheel drive system and a heavy-duty raised suspension system, which give it the ability to hold its own on unmade roads and certain off-road trails. The Outback feels very capable and comfortable when driving around town and on the freeway; the car's raised suspension leads to an elevated ride height somewhere between that of a car and an SUV.
Despite its bulk, the Outback whips along when called into action, thanks to its 2.5-liter four-cylinder boxer engine, which, with the aid of a turbocharger, puts out an admirable 243 horsepower. As we noted in our tech test, the Outback's SI Drive engine-management system can be used to optimize the powertrain for performance driving, economy driving, or something in between.
The difference between Intelligent and Sport/Sport Sharp modes in terms of straightline performance was clearly demonstrated in our test, but the SI Drive also works as advertised when it comes to fuel economy. On a roundtrip drive of 100 miles, we drove the outbound journey in Sport Sharp mode and the return leg in Intelligent mode, in identical freeway driving conditions. Resetting the trip computer and mpg monitor before each journey, we recorded an average fuel economy of 27mpg in Sport Sharp mode, and 29.7mpg in Intelligent mode--impressive figures, and exactly in line with Subaru's contention that Intelligent mode can deliver up to a 10 percent improvement on fuel economy. (Incidentally, the gas mileage we observed in both Intelligent and Sport Sharp modes was better than the EPA estimated mileage of 18 city and 24 highway.)
The increased fuel economy does come at a price, however, as the Outback feels neutered in Intelligent mode. Even on the freeway, the difference between Sport Sharp and Intelligent is conspicuous: in Intelligent mode, the car feels sluggish, with dilatory throttle response and none of the edginess of Sport or Sport Sharp modes.
The 2008 Outback Limited comes with Subaru's VDC stability control system as standard, as well as traction control and front-, side curtain-, and front-seat side airbags. This safety battery gives it a five-star NHTSA safety rating for frontal and both front- and rear-seat impacts.
The 2008 Subaru Outback XT Limited combines the agility of a sedan, the practicality of a wagon, and the comfort and interior appointments of a luxury SUV. Subaru's symmetrical all-wheel drive system, a heavy-duty suspension system, and its elevated ride height give it respectable off-road capabilities, while its SI Drive engine management system gives on-road drivers the luxury of choice between performance and economical driving.
Our five-speed automatic Outback XT Limited tester came with GPS navigation, a six-disc CD changer, satellite radio prewiring, heated front seats, remote keyless entry, and leather seats, all as standard for the base price of $34,195. To that we added the $268 Convenience Group 2 package (auto-dimming mirrors, rear dome reading light); and $456 for XM satellite radio, making for a final sticker price of $35,619 including destination. Those considering an Outback likely will also be interested in the 2007 Volvo XC70 and the 2007 Audi A4 Avant.