Pros: Permanent AWD; good fuel economy (2.5 liter); available windshield wiper de-icer; very roomy rear seat; IIHS Top Safety Pick

Cons: Expensive and not very fuel-efficient 6-cylinder engine; beige cloth seats that show dirt and stains; lousy navigation system; quirky styling

The 2012 Subaru Outback offers the utility of a large wagon, the ride and handling of a competent sedan and the kind of sure-footed grip you can expect from one of the best all-wheel-drive systems in the industry. The Outback has an almost cultlike following of loyal devotees who swear by the vehicle's reliability, safety and strong resale value-and the data backs them up. Sure, there is a sort of "love Mother Earth" stigma that goes along with the Outback, but not everyone who drives a Subie is so easily pigeonholed. From the mountains of Montana to the snow-covered side roads of New Hampshire, Outback owners choose this car for its impressive 8.7 inches of ground clearance and sophisticated all-wheel drive system.

To be fair, the Outback is a good car to have in foul weather, but it is no substitute for a true four-wheel-drive vehicle with a high/low transfer case. The Outback may be able to get you through a blizzard, or take you over a well-traveled dirt road, but it's not going to be able to run the Rubicon anytime soon. For that, you still need to look to something like the Jeep Wrangler or the Nissan Xterra.

Comfort & Utility

Although Subaru still calls the Outback a wagon, it has morphed into something more akin to a crossover SUV. Not that it's a bad thing, because the latest Outback provides a roomy, comfortable and well-appointed cabin with impressive legroom and headroom both front and rear. In fact, our test car without the sunroof provided even our tallest test driver (6' 4") nearly three inches of space between his head and the headliner. With the rear seats folded flat, there's a welcome cargo hold large enough to fit in a small kayak, some skis or a whole lot of groceries.

We like the Outback's overall interior design, which has a premium feel especially with the leather seating on the Limited version. However, we were not impressed by the light beige cloth seats, which stain easily and are hard to clean. On the plus side, even the cloth seats can be equipped with seat heaters.

Subaru equips the Outback with an ingenious roof rack system featuring folding cross rails that pivot and stow in the side rails when not in use. Subaru also provides a huge number of accessories including a dog gate, underbody floodlights and attachments to hold everything from bicycles to cargo carriers.

Technology

Base and Premium models of the Outback can be equipped with a cold weather package that includes heated seats, heated side mirrors and a windshield wiper de-icer. The Premium's optional moonroof package includes a backup monitor integrated into the rear-view mirror. Limited trims include a 440-watt Harman Kardon audio setup, Bluetooth hands-free connectivity and an available navigation system with a huge LCD screen. We don't recommend Subaru's navigation system, however, due to its poor interface, DVD-based mapping that requires interchanging among three separate discs and infuriating lockouts for the audio functions when the car is in motion.

Other cool standalone options include a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot, a 110-volt outlet, remote start, illuminated side sills and a rear-seat DVD entertainment system with dual seven -inch screens.

Performance & Fuel Economy

Outback owners can choose a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder or a 3.6-liter 6-cylinder boxer engine. The boxer engine is so named because its cylinders lie on their sides (as opposed to being in V formation or straight up and down) and mimic the fists of a boxer when moving back and forth. The real advantage to the boxer engine design is that it allows the engine to sit lower to the ground, helping reduce the Outback's high center of gravity.

The 2.5-liter engine produces 170 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque. The power isn't a lot for a vehicle of this size, but it can get the job done provided you're not in a rush. The base and Premium 2.5 comes standard with a six-speed manual transmission and offers the option of a continuously variable automatic transmission. We like the CVT in the Outback for two reasons. First, its infinite gear ratios deliver the best fuel economy, with an EPA estimated 22 mpg city/29 mpg highway, and second, it features manual paddle shifters that can be used for better passing performance or to slow the car on ice or snow.

The 3.6-liter engine promises better performance but has marginal fuel economy figures of 18/25 mpg. With 256 hp and 247 lb-ft of torque, the 3.6 has the power to climb, pass and generally move a loaded Outback the way most owners expect the car to move. The only transmission available with the larger engine is a traditional five-speed automatic.

All models come standard with Subaru's Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive that distributes power to all four wheels all the time. Manual-transmission cars feature a viscous coupling system that maintains a 50/50 balance of power front to rear, while Outbacks equipped with an automatic transmission use an electronic clutch setup that favors more power to the rear wheels under normal driving conditions.

Safety

Standard safety equipment on the Outback includes front side impact and front and rear side curtain airbags, electronic hill holder, electronic traction and stability control and standard all-wheel drive. The Outback ranks high in both NHTSA and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety front end, offset and side impact crash tests and roof strength testing.

Driving Impressions

The Outback is very quiet on the road, and its softly sprung suspension provides a comfortable ride. In combination with the car's 8.7 inches of ground clearance, though, that same suspension makes for a lot of sway and roll when pushed through sharp turns. But get the Outback onto a washboard road or a gravel path, and the car will happily absorb distortions that have other off-road vehicles bouncing their occupants off the ceiling.

We had the pleasure of testing the Outback in the middle of a Montana winter, and we must say we were glad we had it. The 2.5-liter engine performed well, averaged 28 mpg on the highway and was able to safely move a car full of grown men and their gear through the most densely snow-covered roads. We passed numerous lesser AWD vehicles that had either bogged down in the snow or pulled over to wait for a plow. In all, we found the Outback's AWD to be everything the company claims, packaged into a vehicle that seems to have been designed with winter in mind.

Other Cars to Consider

Honda CR-V - The CR-V has a bit more cargo space, and it isn't as expensive as the Outback, but its all-wheel drive is not permanently engaged, and Honda doesn't offer a V6.

Subaru Forester - The Forester may not be as plush or spacious as the Outback, but it costs less yet uses the same 2.5-liter engine and AWD setup. Also, it can be ordered with a huge panoramic glass moonroof.

Jeep Wrangler - The Jeep's transfer case and rugged suspension allow it to venture to places where the Outback dares not go. But the Wrangler also provides a much cruder driving experience, guzzles gas and does not perform as well in crash testing.

AutoTrader Recommends

For the combination of ability, price and good fuel economy, we would opt for the 2.5 Premium with automatic CVT. That model is nicely equipped for around $25,000. You can add on a moonroof and the Harman Kardon audio system for about $3,000 more. If power is the most important thing, we'd advise the same model in the 3.6R configuration. If you're worried about dirtying up the interior, get the Limited, which offers more durable leather seating surfaces.

author photo

Joe Tralongo started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2000 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He's well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to communicate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations.

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