Station wagons with manual transmissions are quickly going the way of the fedora. In fact, there are more gas-electric hybrids for sale stateside than row-your-boat wagons. If you want an all-wheel-drive model, the number plummets. Which makes me wonder: what's the point of the Subaru Outback five-speed?
Although I can't speak for Subie's Sapphic fans, sex appeal is NOT the Outback's raison d'etre. Oh, it's handsome enough; in a stern, trim, no grotesque affectations sticking you in the eye sort of way. Subaru's raised the beltline (to lose the Popemobile effect), added new lights (there was a sale on Japanese fish eyes) and stuck a Chrysler Pacifica logo on the snout. While the Outback now looks more expensive than it is, it's about as quirky as an accountant wearing different colored socks.
The interior is equally enthralling and twice as sensible. Fold down the Outback's rear seats and lifestyle load luggers enjoy almost as much schlepitude as Volvo's V70. Although Subaru's redesigned the Outback's instrument panel, "revised" the interior fabrics, added a telescoping wheel (yay!) and numbered the radio buttons from one to five, the cabin remains very much of a muchness. There's nothing tasteless, nothing tasty. Well, except for the meaty steering wheel…
The helm puts you in charge of Subaru's 170hp 2.5-liter SOHC aluminum-alloy 16-valve horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine. If Porsche went all Jaguar on us and tried to dip down market, this is the kind of engine I'd expect: smooth, free-revving and just about as gutsy as a four can be. But Outback drivers are never in any doubt that they're lugging around a couple hundred extra pounds of all wheel-drive (AWD) gear.
The Outback's ride is comfortable without the slightest hint of refinement. Dry road handling is exemplary, with predictable body roll and enough steering feel to tell you when to quit (early and often). Try to accelerate out of a couple of turns and the Outback's architecture tells you that the vehicle could stand another 80 horses– and the rest. The no-fun factor might be considered a plus in a wagon full and kids and dogs and things to be inflated, but it's a definite drawback when you're all alone and late for work. And then…
I was fortunate enough to test our base Outback on fresh powder and packed snow. The worse the conditions, the better it got.
Needless to say, I developed an immediate and intimate respect for Subaru's time-honed Symmetrical AWD system. While other drivetrain layouts have all kinds of 90 degree kinks to sap power and response, the Outback's in-line engine allows more direct power transfer to all the wheels. At the same time, the low-slung boxer engine provides a lower center of gravity, like bending your knees when you're skiing.
The Outback's four-wheel disc brakes, with ABS and electronic brake-force watching over each wheel, proved highly effective on the white stuff. More to the point (of the vehicle's existence), when traction is iffy, it's nice to have more options than merely stop and go. The Outback's manual transmission gives the set up more feel. Sure, you can crank the automatic's lever back and forth, but it's not the same as feathering the clutch, whipping up the revs or using the engine as a brake.
Taken as a whole, the Outback bites, rather than slides on, the snow; it felt like I had an invisible keel slicing through an unseen slot in the road. Although it doesn't have all the toys and [much of any] torque, the entry level Outback has still got the bad weather integrity that makes it an entirely justifiable for people who live in the… wait for it… outback.
Again, if you live in those parts of the country where you can get to grandma's house sans icy winds and killer snow drifts, and you're not likely to travel for hours on unpaved roads, the Outback is a different beast. Well, maybe "beast" is the wrong word. A different "animal:" one of those zoo dwellers that's odd but not terribly attractive. Though it's still adept at negotiating wet leaves, large puddles and the occasional hopped curb, the Outback's charms diminish in direct proportion to the civility of your driving environment.
The number of American drivers who favor a manual transmission is in the single digits and falling fast. But Subaru's right to continue offering a stick shift, low frills, Outback with a relatively anemic engine.
What's the reverse of a halo car? You know: a car that shows that a brand is still in touch with the austere competence that endeared its products to its original financially-challenged, mechanically savvy customers? The five-speed manual base Outback is it. Well done to Subaru for not pulling-up its roots. Now, if they could just strip and flip the STI…