2011 Subaru Outback

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Somewhere amid the parade of crossovers and wagon-like vehicles is the Subaru Outback. Once merely a version of the Legacy wagon, which has since been discontinued, it's now a household name among family-car shoppers. Indeed, a year after its redesign, the Outback has sold more than the competing Toyota Venza and Honda Accord Crosstour combined.

The Outback's formula for success is no secret. Where others have tried in so many ways to reinvent the crossover concept, the Outback is happy to nail all of its essentials: utility, capability and drivability.

Trim levels include the four-cylinder Outback 2.5i and six-cylinder Outback 3.6R, each of which come in three versions: base, Premium and Limited (compare them here). As with all Subarus, all-wheel drive is standard. The Outback was redesigned for 2010. We evaluated the four-cylinder Outback last year; this time around we tested a six-cylinder Outback 3.6R Limited.

Quick With the Six

The Outback's base engine — a 170-horsepower four-cylinder — delivers leisurely acceleration, in large part because of a continuously variable automatic transmission that's in no hurry to respond to your right foot. (A six-speed manual is standard, but we haven't tested it.) Loaded with passengers, the four-cylinder drivetrain requires patience reaching highway speeds, and it strains to keep up under hard acceleration.

That's not the case with the optional 256-hp six-cylinder. It's a muscular drivetrain, in part because it trades the CVT for a responsive five-speed automatic that's not afraid to hold lower gears or kick down on the highway. Even loaded with cargo, our test car had the sort of torque to pull strongly around town, though getting up to highway speeds didn't leave much extra power on tap.

With the six-cylinder, towing capacity tops out at 3,000 pounds. That's 500 pounds less than many competitors, but the four-cylinder Outback has a 2,700-pound rating — none too shabby for a four-banger.

The combined EPA gas mileage estimates range from 20 mpg with the six-cylinder and automatic to 24 mpg with the four-cylinder and automatic. Both figures are competitive.

Ride, Handling & Braking

Employing a car-based four-wheel-independent suspension since its mid-1990s inception, the Outback displays admirable ride quality. It soaks up bumps with little driver disturbance but maintains good control over stretches of broken pavement. Rough pavement can stunt a soft-riding car's reflexes and leave it bobbing up and down, but the Outback suffers little of that.

Steering and handling are good, if not as sharp as they were in the last Outback. Driving enthusiasts will appreciate the steering wheel's heavy weight at low speeds, while average drivers will want more power assist for easier parking-lot maneuvers. On the highway, I could use a little less assist. Holding the wheel at 12 o'clock, it feels a bit too loose.

Find a winding road, however, and the Outback handles well. The steering has good turn-in precision and little midcorner sloppiness. The nose pushes wide in hard corners, exacerbated by our tester's all-season Continental ContiProContact tires, which didn't offer much grip. Stomp hard on the gas coming out of a sweeping corner, though, and you can swing the tail out eventually. Credit the standard all-wheel drive, whose power distribution skews slightly rearward in six-cylinder Outbacks. All automatic Outbacks distribute power between the axles electronically; the manual Outback uses a simpler viscous coupling that's less proactive in doling out power when the wheels start to slip. Still, both systems distribute constant power to each axle. Many on-demand systems send power rearward only when a drive wheel begins to slip; some allow you to enforce a 50/50 split via a locking center differential. We've driven previous Outbacks on trails, and the all-wheel drive — along with an impressive 8.7 inches of ground clearance — make for better capability than you'd expect in a crossover.

Four-wheel-disc antilock brakes are standard, with larger discs installed on six-cylinder Outbacks. The pedal has linear response, making it easy to smooth out your stops. Cram the car full of passengers, and you'll want to plan your stopping distances accordingly. Loaded down with some 500 pounds of cargo, our test car took significantly farther to come to a halt.

Cabin & Utility

Roomier by almost 10 percent, the Outback's cabin addresses some of its predecessor's biggest issues — namely, backseat room. There's plenty of it now, and abundant headroom, too. The front seats could use longer seat cushions for better thigh support, and drivers over 6 feet tall will want to be able to move the seat farther back. (I'm 5-foot-11, and I drove with the seat all the way back.)

Our test car came outfitted in a nice grade of leather — it wouldn't be out of place in an entry-level luxury car — but the grainier upholstery along the center console and door armrests doesn't live up to the same quality, and both areas are short on padding. Chrome door handles and nicely textured faux-metal trim add an upscale touch, but our test car's shiny faux-wood trim is among the worst of its kind.

So is the optional navigation system. The graphics look dated, particularly once you get into the menus, and it all runs off old-school DVDs, not a hard drive. That makes for slow map and menu loading, and it requires you to put in additional map discs if you travel to new parts of the country. The map view has too few street labels, and overhead sunlight or polarized sunglasses render the whole display difficult to see. The system includes iPod/USB integration, but it locks out most functions while the car is moving. On a road trip and wanting a new iPod playlist? Better make a pit stop.

Cargo volume behind the rear seat is a competitive 34.3 cubic feet, and the Outback's wide, rectangular cargo area accommodates large cargo better than many. Fold the rear seats down, and the crossover has an impressive 71.3 cubic feet of space.

Reliability, Safety & Features

The prior Outback had above-average reliability, but the new one hasn't been on the market long enough to gauge. In crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Outback received the highest score, Good, in front, rear, side-impact and roof-crush tests. The current generation is an IIHS Top Safety Pick — which is no easy feat these days, given IIHS' addition of roof-crush tests. Standard features include six airbags, antilock brakes and an electronic stability system. Click here for a full list of safety features.

The Outback 2.5i comes with power windows and locks, remote entry, cruise control, air conditioning and a CD stereo with an auxiliary jack and steering-wheel audio controls. Move up to the 2.5i Premium or Limited, and you can have alloy wheels, power front seats, heated leather upholstery, dual-zone automatic climate control and an upgraded Harman Kardon stereo. A conventional moonroof (not the dual moonroof available in prior Outbacks) and the navigation system are optional.

The six-cylinder Outback 3.6R comes standard with a five-speed automatic transmission; the CVT automatic runs $1,000 in the 2.5i and 2.5i Premium (it's standard on the 2.5i Limited). Load up a six-cylinder Outback, and the price tops out around $34,000.

Outback in the Market

Utility and crossovers go hand-in-hand, and the Outback comes up strong on all the basics. Like every Subaru, its success will be limited by the automaker's insistence on standard all-wheel drive, which typically raises prices and lowers gas mileage — great in Maine, not so much in Mississippi.

More than other carmakers, Subaru has managed to lessen the sting in both price and mileage, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the Outback: It boasts competitive mileage and a lower starting price than much of the front-drive competition. Add to that Subaru's loyal owner base, and the Outback's future looks bright.

Snapshot

Starting MSRP $23,195 – $31,495

EPA Fuel Economy:

City: 18 – 22

Highway: 25 – 29

Available Engines:

170-hp, 2.5-liter H-4 (regular gas)

256-hp, 3.6-liter H-6 (regular gas)

Available Transmissions:

5-speed automatic w/OD and auto-manual

6-speed CVT w/OD

6-speed CVT w/OD and auto-manual

6-speed manual w/OD

New or Notable

• Standard all-wheel drive

• Four-cylinder or six-cylinder engine

• Swiveling roof rails

• Manual or automatic

• Related to Legacy sedan

• Side mirrors now fold

What We Like

• Price and fuel efficiency

• Off-road capability

• Strong six-cylinder drivetrain

• Ride comfort

• Backseat and cargo room

• Handling

What We Don't

• Some inconsistent cabin materials

• Uninspiring four-cylinder drivetrain

• Navigation interface

• Braking performance when loaded

• Front-seat thigh support for taller drivers

[Buying topic of the week – Inside the Finance and Insurance Room]

By Joe Bruzek , Cars.com

With 0 images

862 words

If you've bought a car from a dealership, you've likely been in a Finance and Insurance room. Those are the rooms salespeople take you to after you've finished haggling and have settled on a price. In that room, many dealerships offer financing for the car, as well as other products and services, including extended warranties, rustproofing and paint protection, all of which can make money for the dealer. It's important that you be prepared before entering the F&I room, because what's discussed in there is negotiable and — depending on the driver and the car — sometimes unnecessary.

Before the F&I room became a dealership standard, a customer and salesperson finalized vehicle pricing on their own and the deal was done. When customers were offered extras, they typically turned them down. With the arrival of the F&I room, dealerships were able to separate those processes and start fresh in a seemingly lower-pressure environment where a finance person took the part of finalizing paperwork while offering consumers some extras.

Interest Rate and Credit Score

It may be tempting to go with the dealership's lender simply because it's convenient, but dealerships typically serve as middlemen, marking up interest rates to give them a share of the finance money. Always shop around to banks and credit unions and find your best rate before you set foot in a dealership.

When you're securing a car loan, one of the main factors that lenders use to determine your interest rate is your credit rating. Have your credit score with you in the F&I room in case there's a discrepancy between what the dealership shows and what you have.

These days, many automakers offer low-interest rates with longer terms to stimulate sales, like zero-percent financing for 60 months. These low rates are usually a good deal — and sometimes the best you'll be able to get from any source — but only people with top-tier credit scores qualify.

• Special interest rates are sometimes available through dealership financing institutions that aren't advertised as national incentives. Ask the finance manager if there are any special rates available.

• Know the national average interest rate for new and used cars, which you can find on Cars.com.

• Read the fine print on websites that offer to give you your credit score for free, as some do so through a free trial, then charge you if you don't cancel your membership. (See Your Credit Rating for more details.)

Extended Warranties

Extended warranties aren't always bad, but they may not be necessary in the age of well-built cars with long-term factory warranties, and manufacturer-backed certified pre-owned cars. If you're buying a certified pre-owned car, it likely already has an extended powertrain warranty.

Many new cars have factory 100,000-mile powertrain warranties that are good for the original owner of the car. Some have offers for even longer. If you want the peace of mind that comes with extended protection sold by the dealer, though, consider the following:

• The price of an extended warranty is often negotiable.

• Extended factory warranties are preferable over private programs, mainly because you know what you're getting — a reasonable level of coverage and support at any same-brand dealership. A third-party warranty may only be supported by the dealer who sells the warranty to you.

• Be cautious of the way dealerships present total tallies. Some may lump the extended warranty into monthly payments, which masks the overall cost; make sure you know exactly how much the warranty will cost you over the length of the loan.

 
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