Subaru has been selling all-wheel drive cars in this country for the better part of forty years. Unlike other four-wheel drive vehicles whose systems can only be deployed in low-speed and highly slippery situations, Subaru's Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive requires no activation from the driver and is remarkably adept in delivering on its promise of year-round drivability. Although every car it builds is equipped with all-wheel drive, it is the company's flagship Outback wagon that is probably best known. From Boulder, Colorado to Missoula, Montana to Bangor, Maine, the Outback is adored by those who have to fight raging blizzards and endless snowdrifts just to get to work every morning. With its combination of car-like ride and handling, good fuel economy and strong safety history, the 2005-2009 Subaru Outback makes the perfect do-all vehicle for small families and those with active lifestyles.
Why You Want It
When it comes to tackling deep snow and unpaved trails there are few vehicles as well-suited to the task as the 2005-2009 Subaru Outback. While you can find more advanced all-wheel-drive systems, they are usually attached to much more expensive (and sometimes less reliable) SUVs. Unlike most part-time all-wheel-drive setups (think Honda CR-V, Ford Escape and Toyota RAV4), the Outback's symmetrical all-wheel-drive system is always engaged, sending power to whichever tire or tires have the best traction.
The Outback's high ground clearance allows it to roll over deep snowdrifts or fallen logs without fear. And, although the rear seat is a bit cramped for a midsize wagon, there is plenty of cargo space as well as a sturdy roof rack on which to mount mountain bikes, skis or a cargo container. Thoughtful features, such as the electric defrosters that rest beneath the front and rear windshield wipers, show how Subaru engineers really thought about what it's like to live in a winter wonderland nine months out of the year.
The Outback's four-cylinder engine may not be much on power, but it gets the job done and returns better fuel economy than any Jeep Wrangler or Ford Explorer model. Those requiring more power can purchase a six-cylinder or turbocharged Outback. There are also manual and automatic transmissions choices, as well as three different all-wheel drive systems (they vary based on transmission and trim). The long and short of it is, if you're looking for affordable used transportation that can overcome the worst winter has to offer, the Outback is as comfortable scampering through brush-covered back roads as it is cruising the highway and won't destroy your savings account every time you go to fill it up.
Notable Features & Options
There are numerous models and trims covering the 2005-2009 Outback's run. The most basic cars are powered by a 2.5-liter four-cylinder boxer engine and have either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. The Outback features power windows and locks, air conditioning, cruise control, 16-inch wheels, remote keyless entry, roof rack and rear wiper/washer. The 2.5i (later 2.5 SE) adds an eight-way power adjustable driver's seat, heated side mirrors, heated seats, front/rear wiper de-icer, six-speaker stereo with single CD player, fog lights, and alloy wheels. Premium models such as the Limited, VDC and L.L. Bean have leather seating, a huge dual-panel sunroof and an available 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine.
The Outback XT adds a turbocharged four-cylinder engine and SI-Drive, a performance oriented transmission that allows the driver to set the front/rear torque distribution. Some of the Outback's more appealing options include a 440-watt harman/kardon audio system, DVD navigation, steering-wheel mounted audio controls and unique paint and trim details. Standard safety features include front-side and side-curtain airbags, and ABS. The Limited and L.L Bean trims include VDC (traction and stability control), which became standard on all models in 2009. Subaru dealers also have a plethora of accessories including a multi-use roof rack system, mud guards, bike carriers, short-shift kits and a stereo upgrade (subwoofer and tweeter) kit.
2006: The Outback receives a new security system, while navigation is offered for the first time on the 2.5i Limited (previously only available on X/T and 3.6R, standard on VDC).
2007: Highlights include some model designation shuffling and the addition of SI-Drive to the X/T trim.
2008: All models receive new front and rear fascias, a new instrument panel and new interior seats fabrics. An iPod integration kit is made available, while a tilt/telescopic steering wheel is made standard. The 2.5-liter engine now produces 170 horsepower.
2009: The L.L. Bean trim is dropped, while the 2.5 Special Edition is added. A 440-watt harman/kardon audio system is standard on SE, Limited and X/T trims. VDC (electronic traction and stability control) was made standard on all models.
Engines and Performance
There are three distinct Outback engines teamed to three distinct drivetrains. All three achieve the same basic goal, with varying degrees of effectiveness. The base engine is a 2.4-liter boxer four-cylinder. All Subaru engines are called "boxer engines" due to their horizontally placed piston (when in motion, the moving pistons resemble a boxer's arms punching back and forth.) This design allows the engine to sit lower in the engine bay, and thus helps lower the car's center of gravity. The 2.5-liter engine makes about 170 horsepower, which is adequate for moving the Outback from 0-60 in about nine seconds.
The larger 3.0-liter engine produces 245 horsepower and is recommended for those who prefer power over fuel economy. A rare bird in the Outback flock is the short-lived XT, which pairs a 243-horsepower turbocharged 2.5-liter engine with a five-speed manual transmission, sport suspension and WRX-inspired SI-Drive.
Cars equipped with the 2.5-liter engine and manual transmission get a 50/50 front to rear all-wheel-drive system that uses a mechanical viscous coupling and a limited-slip rear differential to engage the system. Outback's with the automatic transmission get a more sophisticated electronically controlled constantly varying system with a 90 percent front bias and 10 percent rear (this means the front wheels get most of the power until they begin to slip.) The last system is available only with the 3.0-liter engine or the 2.5-Turbo equipped with the five-speed automatic. It is called VDC with VDT symmetrical all-wheel drive. Basically, the VDC is an electronic traction control, and the VDT (Variable Torque Distribution) is a 45/55 front-to rear power distribution that favors more power to the rear wheels, a design preferred by most performance driving enthusiasts.
Fuel economy figures for the four-cylinder car hover around 20 mpg in the city and 26 mpg on the highway; the turbo gets about 18 mpg city and 24 mpg highway, while the 3.0-liter flat six turns in figures closer to 17 mpg city and 24 mpg highway.
Recalls, Safety Ratings and Warranties
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, has issued the following recalls for the 2005-2009 Subaru Outback.
2005: A recall was issued for some side curtain airbags that don't deploy quickly enough to meet federal standards.
Recall repairs are required by law even if the vehicle is out of warranty. Your dealer can check to see if the repairs were performed and if not, will fix the car at no charge to you.
As for safety, the government gives the 2005-2009 Subaru Outback five out of five stars in the front and side impact crash tests, and four out of five stars in its roof strength crash test. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) didn't test the Outback, but it did test the Outback's sister car, the Legacy Sedan, and gives it its best rating of "Good" in the frontal offset and side-impact crash test.
The 2005-2009 Subaru Outback is backed by a 3-year/36,000 mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, and a 5-year/60,000 mile powertrain warranty. If you buy your Outback from a Subaru Certified Pre-Owned dealer, the powertrain warranty period is extended to 6-years/100,000 miles, and owners have the option to buy plans that will cover electrical, steering, suspension, brakes, air conditioning and fuel system.
Word on the Web
There are a lot of consumer and enthusiast sites dedicated to the Outback, almost to the point of being cult-like. Consumer Reports gives the Outback good marks in almost all categories, and the car retains excellent five-year resale values, even when the mileage has ticked up over 100,000 miles. But the Outback does have a few noteworthy chinks in its armor, the most glaring being the 2.5-liter engines' reputation for blowing head gaskets around the 100,000 mile mark. This problem seems more prevalent among 1998-2004 cars, but given that most 2005-2009 models are still far from the 100,000 mark, it's worth watching to see if they suffer the same fate.
We did find some complaints regarding 2006 and 2007 high-mileage models suffering head gasket failure. The turbo model also doesn't fare as well, with Consumer reports noting problems on the 2005 and 2009 models related to engine cooling and transmission operation. Consumers roundly criticize the Outback's seat comfort, which seems to place the lumbar support too high on the seatback and can also cause leg and back pain after prolonged driving. On the plus side, the Outback wins big praise for its car-like ride and handling, thoughtful equipment packaging and off-road ability. Many Outback owners take their cars camping, four-wheeling and of course, skiing. And, there are lots of fun stories and videos of Subaru's towing bigger, more established four-wheel drive vehicles out of snow banks and mud bogs.
Those looking for a five-passenger wagon with the same abilities as the 2005-2009 Subaru Outback can look toward the Jeep Grand Cherokee, which is equipped with a pretty good four-wheel drive system, but slurps gas and has a less than enviable repair record. The Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 equal the Outback's resale values and reliability ratings, but they are not true all-wheel-drive vehicles and can't follow where the Outback ventures. The Forester, also made by Subaru, has the same 2.5-liter and 2.5-liter turbocharged engine, not to mention the same all-wheel drive system, as the Outback, and is much less expensive (but also offers less equipment).
As safety is always a top concern, we recommend finding an Outback equipped with the VDC (traction and stability control) system. Any 2009 model will have it standard, but if you're looking for older models, then try to get into a Limited, L.L. Bean or VDC trim. Although we love the turbo, we'd stay away from it due to the cost of repair and its questionable reliability record. If fuel economy and a low sticker price are you first priority, we'd say shop for a 2006-2009 2.5 Limited, or a 2009 2.5 SE. If you have a bit more to spend, the 3.0R is also a great choice.