2012 Subaru Outback: Room for compromise
By Warren Brown,
We chose power, comfort and utility over fuel economy. The 2012 Subaru Outback 3.6R Premium wagon offered lots of the former three. But there wasn’t much to cheer about in the mileage arena — 25 miles per gallon in combined city and highway travel.
That was an okay trade. Prices for regular gasoline on the East Coast had fallen by as much as 25 cents a gallon. In some places, prices were 50 cents a gallon lower than what was being charged for the same fuel on the West Coast.
We were happy. Schadenfreude has a way of boosting consumer confidence, even stupidly.
Besides, we were planning to drive locally, which meant piling on miles between our home in Northern Virginia and big-box home-improvement stores and specialty shops in the central and southern parts of the state.
The six-cylinder Subaru Outback 3.6R Premium, which will be cosmetically refreshed for 2013, is perfect for that kind of work. The 2012 model, also available with Subaru’s 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine instead of the 3.6-liter six, holds more people and stuff than predecessor versions of the wagon.
Credit the fattening of America. We are packing on more calories while simultaneously demanding better fuel economy, as if the extra weight can be moved free of charge or without physical adjustment.
The automobile industry is responding by increasing the size of everything, even while boasting a surge in the number of smaller cars and engines.
It is a peculiar form of madness in which bigger remains better while smaller becomes more desirable, if not actually needed. The trick for car manufacturers is to remain profitable while American consumers and their putative political leaders struggle to work out their collective psychosis.
Subaru, like many of its rivals, has worked out the manufacturing and retail version of the two-state solution. While the 2012 Outback offers more space and headroom than earlier models, it also comes with slightly better fuel economy — about two miles per gallon better for both the 2.5i four-cylinder model and the 3.6-liter six-cylinder wagon.
Credit a greater use of light-weight but high-strength materials, advanced engineering of gasoline engines and their power-transmission systems, increased use of low-rolling-resistance tires, and improved aerodynamic design of external body structures.
But Subaru, like its rivals, is acutely aware that improved fuel economy alone does not guarantee sales success, not even in a traditionally bread-and-butter, more-practical-than-thou vehicle line such as the Outback. Sex might be pilloried in such conservative consumer circles. But it still sells. Thus we have the Outback 3.6R (3.6-liter flat-six engine, 256 horsepower, 247 foot-pounds of torque) and its less-powerful, generally more fuel-efficient 2.5i sibling (2.5-liter flat four-cylinder engine, 170 horsepower, 170 foot-pounds of torque).
Left untouched in the compromise is Subaru’s DNA — the stuff that makes a Subaru a Subaru. Key components of that image-defining genetic pool are reliability, symmetric all-wheel-drive systems that simultaneously send drive power to all four wheels, class-leading utility, and exterior and interior styling so inoffensive it is accepted by tea party adherents and liberal Democrats alike.
Maybe there is a lesson in this — a vehicular work of passionate compromise that gets the job done on time every time without offending anyone. Perhaps that is what Subaru’s marketing team means in its claim that “Subaru means love.”