Miles Cook, Contributor
We had the crystal ball in top form a while back when we noted, "According to rumor, we should see a new boxer six installed in the Outback within the year..." in a road test of the 2000 Subaru Outback.
How right we were and we've got the goods to prove it. Yes, Subie fans, a 2001 six-cylinder Outback will be available soon after you've read this great news on your computer screen. Having recently returned from upstate Maine where we got some seat time in this new machine, the prognosis is good. Real good, in fact, as the Outback H6 VDC and its L.L. Bean Edition counterpart are very nice automobiles to ride in, drive, and look at.
Let's start with the techie-type goodies. The Outback H6's most significant feature is its 3.0-liter flat-six powerplant. Just one cc under (2999cc) the 3.0-liter mark, it produces an impressive 212 horsepower from its tidy 183 cubic-inches. Peak power comes at 6,000 rpm and a healthy 210 foot-pounds of torque is available at 4,400 rpm. Subaru also notes that 173 foot-pounds is on deck at only 2,000 rpm, clearly enough for any situation you might encounter, even with the given capability of the Outback's full-time all-wheel drive.
Since nearly all engines today are either of the inline or "V" variety, a quick primer on the Subie's unusual H configuration is in order. For starters, Porsche is the only other automaker that markets a flat-six engine, so Subaru is in good company, indeed. For the uninitiated, the "H" in H6 means the banks of cylinders are horizontally opposed (or flatly opposed) and it's an engine layout Subaru has used for nearly 35 years. Besides the "flat" nomenclature, other words that refer to this type of engine include "pancake" and "boxer" which comes from the way the pistons resemble a boxer throwing a punch.
Anyway, the flat layout of this new engine is short and low and it fits quite easily into the current-generation Outback. In fact, the six is less than an inch longer that the flat-four engine that powers lesser Outback and Outback Limited models. It also only weighs 100 pounds more than the flat-four. Furthermore, beefing up the car to accept the bigger mill was an easy task, too. All that was required was a reinforced crossmember (a piece of cake when you're Fuji Heavy Industries and build container ships on the side), a larger capacity radiator with different hose routing, and slightly thicker underhood sound insulation. Suspension changes were nearly zilch with a 1mm thicker front antisway bar enlarged from 20 to 21 mm. For 2001, all Outbacks also receive larger front brake rotors going from 10.7 to 11.4 inches.
Major features of the Subie flat-six include a two-piece aluminum block, a DOHC valvetrain and 24 valves (four per cylinder). A distributor and spark plugs are eliminated via a coil-per-plug system. Think of it as a separate ignition system for each cylinder, a popular setup on many cars today.
As we noted up front there are two H6-powered Outback modelsthe VDC and L.L Bean Edition. The main mechanical difference is the L.L Bean car does not have VDC. It does, however, have a bunch of L.L Bean logos on it and that's fine. But we're more interested in VDC than a bunch of clothing company labels.
So what is VDC? It stands for Vehicle Dynamics Control system and sounds cool on paper, but it's much more than that. VDC is an advanced stability system designed to help prevent skids under acceleration, braking, coasting, and generally poor driving conditions. The concept of VDC is it's counteracting forces that operate similar to that of a tank, bulldozer or Bobcat, which are all vehicles without steerable wheels. To steer these vehicles, the operator controls the left and right track or wheel speeds to rotate the vehicle on its axis. If the left side is moving faster than the right, the vehicle will turn right. If the right side is moving faster the left, the vehicle will turn left.
VDC functions on a similar principle. It monitors vehicle stability by continually measuring inputs from steering angle, yaw rate, and individual wheel speed. Using that data, VDC can detect understeer or oversteer to tell if the car is going where the driver is steering it. Under various driving situations, here's what VDC does: During an oversteer (or tail coming out) condition with the brakes applied, VDC will release brake pressure on the inner front and rear wheels. During an understeer (or push) condition with the brake applied, VDC will release brake pressure on the outer front and rear wheels.
During oversteer with the accelerator pedal being applied, VDC does a whole bunch of things all at once: It applies braking momentarily to the outer front wheel, it slightly applies momentary braking to the outer rear wheel (unless the road is slippery), it increases transfer clutch engagement to transfer power to the front wheels and it decreases engine power by shutting down one or more fuel injectors.
For understeer and when the driver is also accelerating, the scenario is similar but, of course, counteracts the opposite effect. In this instance VDC will apply slight braking to the inner front wheel (unless the road is slippery), apply a stronger braking action to the inner rear wheel, release the transfer clutch to send more power to the rear wheels and, as above, decrease engine power by turning off one or more fuel injectors.
So there you have it, the two biggest new features of Subaru's top-of-the-line car. The VDC system along with the smooth and powerful flat-six engine (it makes 22 horsepower more than the 2.8-liter six in a BMW 328i) transforms the Japanese-built Outback into a real contender among the current crop of quite tasty European-sourced wagons. Besides the Bimmer, there are others the Subie stacks up against quite well. The Audi A4 2.8 Avant, Volkswagen Passat 4Motion, and Volvo V70 XC Cross Country also have all-wheel drive, but like the Bimmer are all down on Wheaties with 190 horsepower. The H6 has catapulted the Outback into the big leagues and this became obvious when we drove it.
The refinement of the Outback is quite impressive. And naturally, the boatload of added power the six provides over the 165-horsepower flat-four has a lot to do with it. Doing the math shows a whopping 47-horse jump with the new engine's 212 ponies. Nearly 50 horsepower does great things for any car, but in the Outback, it's even more dramatic.
Hustling the Outback along Maine's curvy back roads on a 150-mile driving loop was giddy fun all day. The car powers out of tight turns and motivates down long straights at least as good as a Passat or BMW 323i Wagon, if not better. Unlike the automatic that disappointed our editor in our last Outback road test ("buy the stick," he said) the one behind the H6 works like a dream. Good thing, because a manual transmission isn't available with the flat-six engine. No worries, though, as downshifts are firm and quick, and upshifts happen right at the redline to keep the fun factor on the boil. Combining the ability the Outback surely has in foul weather (we didn't get to test its mettle in snow during Maine's late-July summer) with its fun-to-drive factor is impressive to say the least.
But that's not all we did during our day behind the wheel. To show how the VDC system really works, the Subaru folks set up a coned, low-speed slalom course on a piece of vinyl about 200 feet long and about 20 feet wide. Completely covered in water, it did a good job simulating slippery snowy conditions. Running the Outback through the course at about 15-20 mph actuated VDC throughout almost the entire length of the course. You could actually feel each wheel being individually tended to as the brakes were being applied by the VDC system. Without VDC, the car would've merely plowed through all the cones in a hopeless display of terminal understeer. Instead, VDC allowed us to pilot the Outback through as if the surface was providing much more traction than it was. And trust us, the level of traction on the wet vinyl was basically nonexistent.
On another note, we want to comment on the overall quality feel that we observed in the Outback H6, especially since our staff said of our 2000 test car, "quality-control supervisors at Subaru's Lafayette, Ind., plant must have had the day off when our test vehicle rolled down the assembly line." We're happy to say they're on the ball now. The Outback H6s we drove were bolted together as well as any Toyota or Honda we've experienced.
Furthermore, interior materials were quite appealing as the leather seats, nicely appointed black dash and steering wheel, both with wood trim, made for a very inviting place to while away time on the road. The driving position is quite pleasant and the controls are optimized for comfort and visibility. With the seat and all mirrors adjusted, Subaru maintains the most drivers won't have to roll their shoulders forward to reach the main controls. Standard interior feature are numerous with such goodies like front seat side-impact airbags, heated front seats, tilt wheel, a 60/40-split rear seat, an awesome McIntosh stereo, an eight-way power driver's seat, and a leather steering wheel designed by Momo.
Subaru is already at the top of the heap in terms of all-wheel-drive station wagon sales in America. The company reports it sells more all-wheel-drive wagons here than all other makes combined and 7 out of 10 all-wheel-drive wagons are Subies. The wonderfully executed and quite satisfying-to-drive Outback H6 VDC will clearly extend Subaru's streak as having the best-selling import wagon 17 years in a row. And even though it looks like it'll be fairly pricey at nearly 32 grand ($31,895, to be exact), we'd certainly buy one.
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