In the '90s, Paul Hogan (Crocodile Dundee) was the pitchman for the Subaru Outback — one of the first "crossover" vehicles. The wagon quickly gained popularity among the outdoors-loving crowd — particularly in the snowy Northeast. But a little AWD also comes in handy in the land of sand and sudden torrential downpours.
Appearance: Now in its fourth generation, the Outback has gone through several refinements, and it shows. The design is as familiar as a station wagon, but Subaru, thankfully, has greatly reduced the amount of two-tone body cladding. The overall look is contemporary, with a high hood profile and arched wheel wells.
Performance: The 256-horsepower, 6-cylinder engine has lots of pep, with no problem accelerating on the interstate. The five-speed automatic shifts smoothly, as do the manual-mode paddleshifters. At 18 mpg city and 25 highway, it's not the most efficient vehicle on the market.
Interior: Our tester had an off-white interior, which made it bright and airy but not necessarily kid friendly. The 3.6R Premium trim level we drove has enough options to push the sticker price a tad past 30 grand. (The entry-level price: $22,995.) There are lots of nooks for storage, and Lyra appreciated the antiskid rubber mats in some areas to keep things from sliding around. The two-tiered armrest is equipped with a power outlet and an auxiliary jack. The center console has an attractive, faux brushed-aluminum finish, and we liked the simple controls and gauges. But Peter found the fuel-economy gauge to be simple to the point of being useless. One surprise: Peter found the fabric front seats to be the most supportive and comfortable of any car he has driven. It doesn't have to cost a fortune to get something done right. The rear seats, which can be reclined, aren't too bad either. There were no vents in the back, but we found the AC strong enough to keep everyone comfortable. The rear hatch was heavy, which could make it difficult for some to pull down. But there's ample storage with a retractable cargo cover, and the rear seats easily folded flat for more space. A couple of complaints: The center armrest in the back doesn't have a tab to pull, so you have to dig your finger in to pry the cushion down, and Lyra found the driver's footwell to be narrow and the brake pedal too far to the left.
Exterior: It's refreshing to have the versatility of an SUV without having to step up a mile to get into the car. And because it sits lower, loading things onto the roof rack is much easier.
Our 3 favorites
Seats: My lower back appreciated the support.
The engine: Subaru's "boxer" powerplants have a well-earned reputation.
Solid build: It feels like you could take it off-road if the need arose.
Cargo area: The waterproof liner is easy to clean. Plus there's hidden storage under the deck lid.
Low profile: It's easier to load a kayak or bike onto the roof.
Road hugger: Thanks to the Vehicle Dynamics Control, traction control and AWD.
The bottom line: The Outback doesn't wow you in any category, but is solid in all of them. Maybe that's why it was Motor Trend's 2010 Sport/Utility of the Year for its combination of "comfort, efficiency, versatility and value." We agree.