What's New for 2003
Only minor changes have been made to the 2003 Subaru Outback. All models have freshened front-end styling and revised front struts. The struts feature internal rebound springs that are said to reduce body roll when cornering, as well as brake dive. In terms of features, the four-cylinder powered Outbacks gain the formerly optional All-Weather Package as standard equipment. The base Outback now has a standard CD player, and Outback Limiteds have an upgraded audio system with an in-dash six-disc CD changer. All six-cylinder Outbacks now have the OnStar communications system. Finally, the Outback H-6 3.0 VDC's premium McIntosh audio system has been fitted with an in-dash six-disc CD changer.
Introduction: Regular readers will know we've been fans of the Outback since its inception. Little did Subaru know that back in 1995, when the tiny Japanese automaker introduced a gussied-up Legacy Wagon called the Outback, that it was about to revolutionize the way Americans thought of sport-utility vehicles. Essentially a trim package that included gray tape, white-lettered tires and a catchy name, the Outback became a phenomenon in 1996 after it was billed "The World's First Sport-Utility Wagon."
That's the year Subaru raised the suspension, added large headlight-size foglights, boosted power and tacked on more substantial SUV design cues like an optional metal bar on the tailgate and a raised roof section aft of the front seats. Further improvements during successive years included the addition of a leather-lined Limited model, dual sunroofs and powertrain refinements.
No doubt you also recall past commercials for the Outback wagon. Good 'ol Crocodile Dundee (Aussie actor Paul Hogan), flails an Outback through Australia's Outback, outrunning the bad guys. Admittedly, the advertising never showed this Subaru traversing any seriously rough terrain, but the message was simple: The Legacy Outback will outrun the competition when the pavement disappears because it's actually a tall, nimble car rather than a bulky, overweight truck.
With responsive handling, a choice of a flat-four or flat-six engine, a well-appointed interior and oodles of sheer chutzpah, the 2003 Subaru Outback is one of our preferred crossover vehicles. Furthermore, it has a solid reputation for durability and quality. Recent entries from Honda and Toyota (the Pilot and Highlander, specifically) have eclipsed the Outback in terms of versatility, but the Subaru is still certainly worth considering.
Body Styles, Trim Levels and Options: Like the Legacy that it's based on, the Outback is available as a sedan or a wagon. There are seven different versions: base wagon, a Limited sedan and wagon, an H6-3.0 sedan, an H6-3.0 L.L. Bean Edition wagon and an H6-3.0 VDC sedan or wagon. Even the base and Limited models have a high level of standard equipment, including air conditioning, a six-way power driver seat, heated front seats and side mirrors, cruise control, a CD player and keyless entry. The Limited also features dual power moonroofs (just one on the sedan), upgraded audio and leather upholstery.
Above and beyond the Limited, the H6 models automatic climate control, an air filtration system, an eight-way power driver seat and woodgrain-pattered trim. Order an L.L. Bean Edition, and you'll also get special leather trim and a three-year scheduled maintenance package. The VDC sedan and wagon come with Subaru's stability control system, called Vehicle Dynamics Control, as well as an impressive McIntosh audio system.
Powertrains and Performance: Every Outback comes with standard all-wheel drive. Powering the base and Limited models is a 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine producing 165 horsepower. Acceleration is barely adequate with this engine; those planning on frequent hauling of people and cargo will likely want the more powerful 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine. Like the four-cylinder, it's horizontally opposed, and it brews up 212 horsepower. The only transmission offered with the larger engine is a four-speed automatic.
Interior Design and Special Features: Cabin aesthetics have never been one of Subaru's strong points, but substantial improvements over the past few years in both design and material quality have turned the Outback into a legitimate near-luxury contender. The wood trim is convincing, the leather is supple and there's plenty of soft-touch material where it's needed. The rear seat is comfortable, but three adults will find it very cramped. In wagon form, the Outback can hold about as much cargo as an SUV; with the rear seats folded down, there's 68.6 cubic feet of room available.
Driving Impressions: Thanks to the AWD system, the Subaru is sure-footed on both dry and wet roads. The H6-3.0 VDC, with its stability control system, is even more so. A tight, responsive steering rack, along with a decent-riding suspension, allows Outback owners to overtake SUV owners quickly when the road gets twisty. While no match against SUVs like the Jeep Grand Cherokee or Nissan Xterra in terms of hill climbing, the Outback can hold its own in light off-road situations without losing an oil pan or cracking a differential.