Subaru was ahead of its time in offering a small four-wheel-drive station wagon in 1975, and it introduced one of the first station wagon/crossover vehicles with its Outback wagon, which got a raised suspension and higher roofline.
Subaru's first car in America was the tiny 360 minicar, which soon was thankfully followed in the early 1970s by larger front-wheel-drive economy cars. They looked cheap but were rugged, inexpensive and economical. New Englanders loved them.
Subarus began losing their reputation for being noisy, underpowered, rough-riding cars and wagons in the mid-1980s, although their bodies and interiors weren't considered long-term propositions.
By 1984, you could get a Subaru hardtop and sedan with a larger engine and four-wheel drive-a feature that helped save the Japanese automaker from failure here because Americans were warming up to the idea of such a drive system in mainstream vehicles. All Subarus eventually got full-time all-wheel-drive systems.
Subaru introduced one of the first crossover vehicles with its 1996 Outback wagon, which was an all-wheel-drive version of Subaru's Legacy with a raised suspension. It called the Outback "America's first sport-utility wagon" because it still had no SUV and the "crossover" vehicle description was in the future.
In 2001, the popular Outback got a higher roofline, along with the raised suspension, and became a separate model.
The 2008 Outback has a heavy-duty, raised four-wheel independent suspension and generous ground clearance (8.4 to 8.7 inches) to enable moderately rugged off-pavement driving.
Only Wagons Remain
List prices range from $21,995 to $33,495. There's a wide variety of trim levels, but the Outback sedan disappears for 2008 because the new Outback comes only as a wagon.
Subaru excels at all-wheel drive and four types of all-wheel-drive systems are featured across the Outback line.
Front and rear styling is revised, with new front sheet metal, larger grille opening, new front/rear bumper fascias and new headlights and taillights.
There also is a redesigned instrument panel. Electroluminescent gauges once found only in the turbocharged 2.5 trim level now also are in the 6-cylinder 3.0 R L.L. Bean Edition version.
A telescopic steering column and new integrated ignition key/remote entry feature become standard for all trim levels. On premium versions, a redesigned steering wheel offers more control buttons for the audio system, cruise control and multi-information display. And the 2.5 XT Limited with an automatic transmission has new paddle shifters.
A nicer ride is provided by a revised rear suspension, and a stability control system is available on more trim levels-and standard on the 6-cylinder version.
The Outback is sold with a 2.5-liter 170-horsepower 4-cylinder engine and a 243-horsepower turbocharged 4-cylinder. The hot-rod trim level has a 3.0-liter 6-cylinder with 245 horsepower.
The regular 2.5 engine delivers more torque and better fuel efficiency, while performance of the 6-cylinder is improved with more low- and midrange torque.
The 170-horsepower engine works with a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission, while the turbo version shoots power through a 5- or 6-speed manual or a 5-speed automatic. The 6-cylinder works only with a 5-speed automatic.
I tested the 170-horsepower (oddly named) 2.5 i Limited L.L. Bean trim level, which costs $27,695 with its Vehicle Dynamics Control stability system.
The L.L. Bean option, which includes a navigation system and power passenger seat, costs $2,300, although a $700 "value savings" knocked it down to $1,600. But several other options, including a $456 satellite radio kit, led to a final list price of $30,055, not including a $645 destination-delivery charge.
The days of low-cost Subarus clearly are long gone, but my test car was well-equipped. Standard features included a power sunroof, dual-zone automatic climate control, power driver's seat, heated front seats, tilt/telescopic wheel, cruise control, split-folding rear seatbacks, rear window wiper-washer and power windows, mirrors and door locks with remote keyless entry.
Safety items include front side-impact airbags and anti-lock/all-disc brakes with electronic brake force distribution-along with the all-wheel drive and a stability control system.
The car-like Outback has accurate steering and stable handling, thanks partly to its compact, low-set engine with horizontally opposed pistons. The brake pedal has a nice feel, and stopping distances are good. The ride is rather firm, but won't beat you up.
Acceleration is lively, even with the base 4-cylinder engine and the 4-speed automatic, which has an easily used manual-shift feature.
Estimated fuel economy is 20 mpg in the city and 26 on highways, but goes as low as 17 and 24 with the 6-cylinder engine. Only regular grade gasoline is needed, with only turbocharged and 6-cylinder engines calling for premium fuel.
The functional-looking interior is roomy, particularly in the rear-seat area, for four tall occupants. They sit higher than in many cars and have good visibility. It's easy to get in and out, and front seats are supportive.
Gauges can be easily read and sound system and climate controls are large. However, the ignition switch seems buried on the steering column and an automatic transmission shifter interferes with driver access to the front console cupholders, which have a sliding cover. Decent storage space is provided by a large glove box and storage pockets in all doors.
The cargo area is roomy, especially with the rear seatbacks folded forward. At the other end of the vehicle, however, the heavy hood must be held open with a prop rod because it lacks hydraulic struts.
The Outback should especially appeal to those looking for a very car-like crossover vehicle, although it also could be called a nicely modified station wagon