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As much as we respect the general utility of many Subaru models, the cars have proved very limited in useful cabin electronics. That hasn't changed much for the 2010 model year, with Subaru moving very tentatively into accommodating personal electronics. The 2010 Subaru Outback 2.5i maintains Subaru's reputation with all wheel drive, but adds a quality audio system and Bluetooth phone integration, showing some interest in moving into the 21st century.
The 2010 Outback looked rather large when we first saw it in our garage, as if it suffered from the general bloat that many automakers inflict with each model update. A check of the specs showed that, while the new Outback is 4 inches taller than the 2009 model, it is also a tad bit shorter. What we don't get about the Subaru lineup is the need for the Forester, which is even taller, but shorter, than the 2010 Outback.
The 2010 Outback has midsize SUV dimensions, and seats five while offering a large cargo area. You can get it with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine in Subaru's signature flat layout, or a 3.6-liter flat six. With either engine the car comes in base, Premium, or Limited trim models, and what really irks us about Subaru is that the company only makes the navigation option available with the Limited trim.
Six on the floor
Surprisingly for any SUV these days, our 2010 Outback arrived with a six-speed manual transmission, a legacy option from when the Outback was just a jacked-up Legacy. But forget short throws; the transmission shifts like a bus. The gear ratios are well configured for everyday use, with the tall fifth and sixth gears letting the engine run slow at freeway speeds, improving fuel economy.
With an output of 170 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque, the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine is a little anemic for the Outback. The gentle acceleration when we mashed the pedal gave us little confidence for passing maneuvers, and we spent a lot of time working the low gears for power.
The small engine doesn't necessarily equal great fuel economy, either. The EPA ratings for the Outback with manual transmission and 2.5-liter engine are 19 mpg city and 27 mpg highway. We achieved 23 mpg in mixed driving city and freeway driving. The 3.6-liter engine Outback isn't much worse, getting 18 mpg city and 25 mpg highway, while producing 256 horsepower. But get the 2.5-liter Outback with the continuously variable transmission, the automatic option, and economy goes up to 22 mpg city and 29 mpg highway.
Subaru makes use of turbo technology in some of its other models to increase power while not taking too much of a hit in fuel economy, and it seems like it would have been appropriate here. As it is, the engine technology tops out at the use of variable valve and lift control.
The 2010 Outback's all-wheel-drive system is as good as ever, and combined with a chassis allowing 8.7 inches of clearance, the car can bang around off-road pretty successfully. The qualities that endear the Outback to the outdoor activity crowd are in good evidence with this 2010 model.
Although no sports car, we did tackle a few corners in the Outback, and found that the all-wheel-drive system contributes to handling as well as keeping grip in slippery conditions. The Outback leans in the corners, as we would expect, but under stress, the torque shifted from front to back, giving us pull from the front wheels when needed, then pushing from the back wheels to carry the car through a turn.
What we really didn't expect to find in the new Outback was an electronic parking brake, with a controller by the driver's left knee. Push it in to activate; pull it out to release. Sitting at a stop sign on a San Francisco hill, with the manual transmission, we began to think the electronic parking brake wasn't such a good idea at all. But then we figured out that the button next to it, showing a car going up an incline, activated a hill-hold feature. While welcome, we found this system a bit clunky, and slow to engage.
An audio highlight
We weren't as surprised to see Harmon Kardon branding on the car's speakers, as Subaru promised this audio system at last year's Los Angeles Auto Show. This optional upgrade brings in a 440-watt amp and nine speakers, and produces very good-quality sound. The amp in particular gives the system some oomph, helping the speakers reproduce music with good definition.
Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of audio sources. Our Outback was restricted to terrestrial radio, a CD changer, and an auxiliary input. Nothing else is available from the factory, although the changer does play MP3 CDs. There are a few dealer accessories listed on the Subaru Web site for satellite radio and iPod playback, but we can't verify how well these add-ons will integrate with the factory stereo.
Subaru is making a Bluetooth hands-free phone system available, with voice command controls on the steering wheel. This system is about where other automakers were five years ago. You can place calls by saying the phone number through the voice command system, and there is an onboard phonebook. But you have to make entries to the phonebook manually--you can't import your phone's contact list.
As mentioned above, the navigation system is only available with the Limited trim Outback. This system is DVD-based, and doesn't offer some of the more advanced features, such as live traffic, seen in other automaker's vehicles.
Finally, given the height of the Outback, a rearview camera would be a useful feature.
The small SUV segment isn't the most high tech of the automotive world, but even here the 2010 Subaru Outback is behind the times. The company's ancient rival Mitsubishi offers much more tech in its Outlander SUV, along with an equally capable all-wheel-drive system.
From a tech standpoint, the 2010 Outback proved itself average all around. There are a few high points, such as the standard all-wheel-drive system and the hill-hold feature. We were also impressed by the audio quality from the Harmon Kardon system, but really would have liked more modern options for audio sources. At this point, the mere presence of a Bluetooth phone system meets a minimum requirement for tech, as many states are outlawing hands-on cell phone use in cars.
|Model||2010 Subaru Outback|
|Power train||2.5-liter flat four cylinder|
|EPA fuel economy||19 mpg city/27 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||23 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional DVD-based system on Limited trim|
|Bluetooth phone support||Optional|
|Disc player||MP3 compatible six CD changer|
|MP3 player support||None|
|Other digital audio||Satellite radio, auxiliary input|
|Audio system||Optional nine-speaker 440-watt Harmon Kardon|
|Driver aids||Hill hold|
|Price as tested||$27,780|