Whether you're an avid outdoors junkie or simply one of the millions who battles inclement weather on their daily commute, the 2012 Subaru Outback makes a great 4-wheeled companion. Though it may appear big, the Outback is actually about the same size as most midsize sedans but with much higher ground clearance. The Outback's large, roomy interior is nicely appointed with quality fabrics and plastics, as well as some cool options, such as a mobile Wi-Fi hot spot. Of course, the best reason to own this vehicle is the combination of its capable, permanently engaged all-wheel-drive (AWD) system and outstanding fuel economy.

The Outback's standard 2.5-liter engine has enough grunt to give it fair marks for acceleration and passing power, and the car's continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) delivers impressive fuel economy. For those who want or need the power of six cylinders, the Outback offers that, too. There is even a manual transmission option, but only on 4-cylinder cars. Add to this the cool accessories offered by Subaru, such as the numerous rooftop attachments, the gated dog partition and under-door puddle lights, and it's easy to understand why so many people find that the Subaru Outback is all the car they'll ever need.

What We Like

Excellent safety ratings; best all-wheel-drive setup in its class; impressive fuel economy; roomy back seat; comfortable ride; clever retractable roof rails

What We Don't

Light-colored cloth seats stain easily; outdated audio and navigation options; so-so front-seat comfort; imprecise feel of the manual transmission; polarizing styling

Fuel Economy & Engine Specs

Subaru engines use a horizontally opposed piston design known as a boxer engine (so named because the moving cylinders resemble a boxer's arms in motion). The base engine is a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder unit that produces 170 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque. Fuel economy for this engine with the 6-speed manual transmission is rated at 19 miles per gallon in the city and 27 mpg on the highway. When equipped with the CVT automatic, the Outback's fuel economy figures jump to an impressive 22 mpg city/29 mpg hwy.

The Outback's other engine is a 3.6-liter 6-cylinder, good for 256 hp and 247 lb-ft of torque. While this engine definitely provides more power and better acceleration, its fuel economy figures of 18 mpg city/25 mpg hwy give it a slightly smaller range than its 4-cylinder sibling.

Standard Features & Options

The Outback is offered in three trims: Base, Premium and Limited. Two engine options define the model names as 2.5i or 3.6R.

The base Outback 2.5i features a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder boxer engine, a 6-speed manual transmission and Subaru's Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive. Standard equipment includes power window, locks and mirrors, plus a tilt-telescopic steering wheel, an AM/FM stereo with a CD player, steering-wheel controls for the audio and cruise control, manual air conditioning, a roof rack with stowable crossbars, remote keyless entry, an electronic parking brake with the hill-holder function (which keeps the car from rolling back when the clutch is depressed) and a rear wiper/washer. The 3.6R base includes the same equipment but with a 3.6-liter engine and a 5-speed automatic.

The Outback 2.5i Premium adds an upgraded audio unit, a power driver's seat with power lumbar support, Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity, an iPod interface, 17-inch alloy wheels and rear privacy glass.

The Outback 3.6R Premium offers the same equipment, plus the 3.6-liter engine and standard 5-speed automatic transmission.

The Outback 2.5i Limited brings leather seating, heated front seats, a windshield wiper de-icer, a power passenger seat, the CVT automatic transmission, a 440-watt Harman Kardon audio system with a 6-disc CD changer, and automatic climate control. Equipment for the 3.6R Limited is the same, with the exception of the larger engine and 5-speed automatic.

Options for the 2.5i base trim include the All-Weather package (heated front seats, mirrors and windshield wiper de-icers), alloy wheels and fog lights. Ironically, the pricier 3.6R base offers no options, not even heated seats. The Premium trims can be upgraded to include a power glass sunroof, Harman Kardon audio, the All-Weather package and a rearview camera. The Limited models can be equipped with a power glass sunroof, voice-activated navigation, a rearview camera and auto-dimming mirrors. Subaru also offers a seemingly endless supply of dealer add-ons, including multiple roof-rack attachments for everything from bikes to skis to kayaks.

Pricing

The Subaru Outback retains excellent 5-year residual values. As such, finding a low-mileage, excellent-condition model will likely cost quite a bit more than a comparable crossover SUV from Ford, Chevrolet or Dodge. To get a good idea of the Outback's price range, we suggest using the Kelley Blue Book used-car values at kbb.com. You can also search the AutoTrader Classifieds to see what models are currently for sale in your area.

Recalls

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has issued the following recalls for the 2012 Subaru Outback:

A recall was issued for a possible situation where the sunroof's glass panel might come loose and leave the car.

A recall was issued for a possible problem with the wiper motor overheating, causing the plastic cover to melt and possibly catch fire.

A recall was issued for cars equipped with the Audiovox remote starter. If the remote fob is dropped, it could inadvertently send an engine-start signal without pressing the start button.

A recall was issued regarding improper propellant mixture for the side airbags, resulting in insufficient output of compressed gas needed to fully inflate the airbag.

A recall was issued for a possible defective master brake cylinder that could fail, causing excessive brake-pedal travel to slow or stop the vehicle.

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.

Safety Ratings & Warranties

As for safety, both NHTSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) give the Subaru Outback their highest marks for safety, scoring five out of five stars in NHTSA's front-end and side-impact tests, and four out of five stars in the rollover test. IIHS calls the Outback a Top Safety Pick, earning Good ratings in the frontal offset, side-impact and roof-strength crash tests.

All Subaru Outbacks come with a 3-year/36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and a 5-year/60,000-mile powertrain warranty. If you purchase your Outback through Subaru's certified pre-owned vehicle program, the powertrain warranty period is extended to six years and 100,000 miles, while owners have the option to buy plans that will cover electrical, steering, suspension, brakes, air-conditioning and fuel-system parts.

Other Cars to Consider

Subaru Forester -- The Forester is mechanically similar to the 4-cylinder Outback, sharing the same engine and AWD system, but it costs less and has a really cool panoramic moonroof on Premium and higher trims. The Outback, however, gets better gas mileage due to its CVT transmission.

Toyota RAV4 -- The RAV4 is more of a compact SUV than a wagon, but it is similar in size to the Outback and offers the option of front-wheel drive for better fuel economy. The RAV4 also offers a V6 engine, a better infotainment radio and an available third-row seat.

Jeep Wrangler Unlimited -- Those who need real off-road ability will find it in the Wrangler Unlimited. Four doors and a removable top make it more fun than an Outback, but its fuel economy and resale/reliability record lags far behind the Subaru.

AutoTrader's Advice

We think the Outback with the 2.5-liter engine does pretty well in most driving situations, prompting us to recommend a Premium or Limited model with the CVT automatic. Those who require more pulling power will be satisfied by the 3.6R, but know that going with the larger engine will definitely increase the bottom line. A look at some used Outbacks on the AutoTrader Classifieds reveals that, for the price of a base 3.6R, you can get a nicely equipped 2.5i Limited.

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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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