A preppy soccer mom wearing steel-toed boots and work gloves. That's the look copped by most wagon-based crossovers. And while grafting raised white letter tires and frightening quantities of ribbed cladding to the family transporter hardly qualifies today's genre-benders for MOMA's parking lot (let alone their exhibition hall), virtually every manufacturer in the segment uses the recipe. Unsurprisingly, all of Subaru's previous efforts became ensnared in the very clichéd design trap that they helped originate. Until now…
The athletic contours of Subaru's attractive Legacy are a welcome departure from the norm. Its tapering greenhouse, sloping backlight and interesting harp-shaped taillamps are inherently attractive. Fortunately, the team at Subaru charged with transforming the Legacy's basic form into an Outback didn't violate that trust. Yes, there's still lower cladding and a vestigial spear of door-ding armor, but both have been smoothly baked into the vehicle's form (available in body-color on certain hues). So even if the 2005 Outback it isn't a picture of modern maternal magnetism, it's still a second-look MILF. The design works particularly well up front, where eagle-eyed headlamps no longer appear malnourished (in comparison to the bumper's elephantine fogs). Handsome, broad-spoke alloys draped in 17" mud-and-snow rated Bridgestone Potenzas mark out their territory convincingly. A wisp of roof rack topside completes the picture.
One design caveat: although sashless windows are something of a Subaru hallmark, using them on a rough-and-tumble SUV simply doesn't work. More annoyingly, the resulting doors never thud home with genre-satisfying solidity. While the glass doesn't don't rattle like an old soda can kicked down a country road, the whole effect is decidedly tinny. It's a particularly perplexing obsession for a brand that doesn't have a convertible to justify this type of construction.
Inside, the Outback's been through the refinement wringer. Soft touch plastics, a chunky tri-spoke Momo and electroluminescent gauges (that do a nicely choreographed dance upon startup) give the Outback a refined aura, though stylistically it breaks no new ground. TTAC's tester arrived sporting the 'Limited Package': leather, dual-zone climate control, power everything and a panoramic sunroof. The six-puck stereo's fidelity was a marked improvement from the last few Subie's we've driven, but where's the satellite radio and steering wheel controls?
With almost 9" of daylight between terra firma and the Outback's greasy bits, one might expect the XT to bob and weave like Karl Rove in front of a press corps. It doesn't. Subaru's simultaneously lowered the Outback's center of gravity while raising its ground clearance (a feat tantamount to turning Evian into Shiraz amongst automotive engineering types). Oh, there's a skosh more body lean than in a garden-variety Legacy, but passengers will hardly reach for the Dramamine. If anything, the XT is under-tired; the 225/55-series Bridgestones cry foul long before the suspension gets flustered.
The XT handles root-strewn trails with the acumen of a larger body-on-frame vehicle. Our confidence was buoyed by the Outback's packaging— its ugly bits don't dangle low like other faux SUV's. While hardly Dakar-ready, the Outback's Mac strut front/rear multi-link setup boasts greater capability and articulation than many so-called 'real' trucks. It's also at home on the interstate, where this Subaru's game suspension, surprisingly direct steering, trustworthy brakes and ample passing power carry the day.
The XT renders its sauce from Subaru's 2.5L boxer engine, a reworking of the force-fed hellion normally found in the WRX STi. Detuned for 250hp and 250 lb-ft. of torque, Subaru's symmetrical all-wheel-drive system routes the power from front to back in an egalitarian fashion– at least until the Variable Torque Distribution system decides conditions (or your right foot) warrant otherwise. Of course, drivers must pay a premium for the privilege; this boxer only quaffs high-octane hooch. For those preoccupied with displacement, Subaru offers a pricier 3.0L H6, but enthusiasts in-the-know won't bother. The 2.5L is at once lighter, freer-revving and oddly enough… more torquetastic.
The automatic XT gets Subaru's new five-speed unit. This gearbox incorporates a 'Sportshift' manual feature: drivers can swap cogs manually via the +/- detent in the console shifter, or by a couple of steering-wheel resident rocker switches. We'd have preferred a set of paddles, with the vacant real-estate filled with audio controls. Regardless, the Sportshift is a more involving alternative than simply leaving the box in 'D'– especially as the Outback is decidedly reluctant to kickdown on steep inclines. However, the best choice for canyon carver and pinchfist alike remains the five-speed manual.
As an automotive journalist, the 'what's the best car' question regularly raises its unfortunate, misshapen head, sullying everything from office gatherings to block parties. It's a thorny question best tackled with a trite 'horses for courses' remark. Nevertheless, Subaru's Outback makes a compelling case for itself as an outstanding all-rounder. Who'd have figured a soccer mom sporting mukluks could be the life of the party?