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.
A plastic cargo floor covering shows the practical nature of the Outback.
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.
The electronic parking brake control has explicit instructions, but they are not visible from behind the wheel.
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 includes a rev-matching feature for smooth downshifts.
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.
Following the cabin tech competition
As we saw in the Impreza WRX, Subaru is playing catch-up with its cabin tech, but it hasn't yet come even with the competition.
Our Outback came as well-equipped as you can get, but the navigation system is still only DVD-based, and lacks advanced features such as traffic. Being DVD-based, we had to ensure that our region of the country was selected before entering a destination. We also found that the points of interest database was limited; for example, it showed only major chain restaurants.
These maps look good, but they don't show traffic.
All of that said, the maps on the navigation system, although lacking a 3D view, are colorful and easy to read. The system also operated quickly, letting us search the map for destinations and recalculating with no hesitation when we took it off course. Graphics for route guidance are simple but explicit, and the system will read out highway numbers, but not street names.
One of our biggest complaints with this navigation system, and something we found in the WRX as well, is that it locks out all destination entry while on the move, except for an emergency locations section. We could not even choose a previous destination.
Similarly, in Subaru's overzealous concern for safety, we could not choose music from a connected iPod while under way. We quickly learned to get a playlist or genre playing before driving onto the freeway, unless we wanted to get stuck listening to the same album over and over.
Of course, we could switch to other audio sources, such as satellite radio or Bluetooth streaming. Typical for Bluetooth streaming, there isn't much onscreen control from the car's interface. The satellite radio interface was, however, easy to navigate.
This equalizer lets you adjust not only levels, but also frequency.
As we found on the WRX, the navigation head unit also holds very extensive audio controls, including a four-band parametric equalizer, which let us not only change frequency levels, but also choose which frequencies to adjust. It is a little more complex than simple bass and treble controls, but offers a satisfying level of tweaking. The head unit also includes a number of surround effects, but as we were listening to music we tended to choose simple stereo output.
We noted in our review of the WRX that these audio controls went to waste with the car's stock audio. Not so in our Outback. At the Limited trim, it comes standard with a 9 speaker Harman Kardon audio system, using a 440-watt amp. Although not an absolutely top-tier audio system, it is very good, with a level of detail you don't get from a typical six speaker system.
Although it has a subwoofer, the bass was not particularly strong, but it produced some thump when we really cranked up the stereo. And although we appreciated the detail, the highs were a little shrill for our taste.
The audio gets muted, of course, when a call comes in over the car's Bluetooth phone system. We easily paired an iPhone to this system, but although the car gives the option of transferring the phone's contact list to the car, it requires a push function not present on the iPhone.
The navigation screen is also used to show the view from the backup camera, a useful feature considering the height of the Outback. This view shows distance lines, but not trajectory lines. The Outback lacks other driver assistance features such as blind-spot detection or adaptive cruise control.
The high point of the 2010 Subaru Outback 3.6R Limited is its drivetrain tech, as it uses a smart all-wheel-drive system and the rev-matching transmission. The boxer-style engine is interesting, but its variable valve timing tech is only average by today's standards. The suspension is a little soft for our taste, but the amount of travel should help the car get over obstacles.
Subaru has certainly improved its cabin tech, but it is still behind the times. The DVD-based navigation is very limited in features, although the Harman Kardon audio system raises the bar a bit. The Bluetooth phone system has some nice features, but we would prefer a phone book function that can pull contact lists from phones.
As for design, the cabin tech interface looks good and is usable, but we do not like how it locks out inputs while the car is moving. The exterior of the Outback shows Subaru's unique design language, making it easily identifiable, and the interior space is laid out practically.
|Model||2010 Subaru Outback|
|Power train||3.6-liter flat six-cylinder, five-speed automatic transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||18 mpg city/25 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||19.5 mpg|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod integration|
|Other digital audio||USB drive, Bluetooth streaming audio, satellite radio|
|Audio system||Harman Kardon nine-speaker 440-watt system|
|Driver aids||Backup camera|
|Price as tested||$35,195|