This is not Paul Hogan's Outback. Back in 1995, Subaru introduced an entirely new concept -- the sport-utility wagon -- with advertisements featuring Crocodile Dundee himself boasting that it had more interior space than the SUVs of the day, just as much ground clearance, better fuel economy and a carlike ride. Actually, you could argue that the Subaru Outback is the evolutionary starting point of today's car-based crossover SUVs.
Yet there was no confusing Paul Hogan's Outback (or the two following generations) for anything other than a wagon, a type of vehicle growing less popular by the day as crossovers flourish. As such, the new 2010 Subaru Outback takes a big step in a new direction to keep pace with its evolutionary descendants.
Most of the virtues that Dundee touted are still there, but virtually every dimension has been pumped up to make the Outback more crossoverlike than ever before. Think Toyota Venza, except with standard all-wheel drive and enough ground clearance to do some light off-roading. The result is a vehicle that's friendlier for families and road trips, with a spacious reclining backseat and more cargo capacity than both its predecessor and the Subaru Forester.
Despite its added size, the 2010 Subaru Outback 2.5i is 568 pounds lighter than a four-cylinder Venza and 911 pounds lighter than the Ford Edge -- two all-wheel-drive competitors that feature similar interior space. Better yet, more power is available for 2010 thanks to the 3.6-liter flat-6 engine borrowed from Subaru's otherwise forgettable Tribeca. However, most people will probably go for the standard 170-horsepower flat-4, so that's the engine we got in our test car. In fact, at $23,690, our Outback 2.5i didn't include a single optional feature.
The 2010 Outback has grown up to meet a changing marketplace, but there are downsides to its evolution. Its added bulk and an emphasis on comfort have diluted its handling to no better (and occasionally worse) than the crossover SUV competition.
This probably won't be a problem for many consumers. But Outbacks do tend to be popular in mountainous regions where winding roads are common, and in this environment the new Outback simply isn't as responsive and confidence-inspiring as before. We're not sure how Subaru's faithful will take to this new direction -- never mind Crocodile Dundee -- but for the rest of the crossover-buying public, the new 2010 Subaru Outback certainly has appeal.
The Outback's base 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine is rated at 170 hp, which isn't a lot of grunt for a family-hauling crossover/wagon. Indeed, from zero to 60 mph, the Outback 2.5i dawdled up to 60 mph in 9.4 seconds with our tester's six-speed manual transmission. However, that's in the same ballpark as most four-cylinder-powered compact crossovers, and the "boxer" four's 170 pound-feet of torque makes it punchy enough when driving around town. Plus, we managed 24 mpg over 1,000 miles in the Outback, a slight improvement on the EPA's estimates of 19 mpg city/27 mpg highway and 22 mpg combined.
If you live in the hills, however, this engine probably won't cut it. Even gradual inclines require a drop in gear, with more severe grades requiring two or three gearchanges from the precise shifter. Of course, most buyers will opt for the continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), which not only achieves better fuel economy (22/29/24 mpg) but also operates smoothly and keeps the engine in its sweet spot. Nevertheless, high altitudes sap power from any naturally aspirated engine, and that includes the Outback's optional six-cylinder -- so if you live where the air is thin, Subaru's turbocharged Forester 2.5XT deserves a close look.
All-wheel drive is standard on the 2010 Subaru Outback, and with 8.7 inches of ground clearance, light off-roading is possible. This, in addition to the Subaru's rigid structure and well-insulated steering, made it easy to traverse narrow, deeply rutted trails from which crossovers like the Nissan Murano would cower. A rock-crawler the Outback is not, but delivering kayaks and mountain bikes off the beaten path is a cinch.
Unfortunately, the Outback is less friendly for the well-paved path. The steering that was well-suited to that rutted trail proves numb on-center and vaguely twitchy through corners, and body roll is pronounced. Tackling a winding road isn't as pleasurable or confidence-inspiring as in previous Outbacks or even Subaru's current Forester.
The Outback's ride quality is notably smooth, and its interior noise levels are low. Our base model came standard with a tilt-and-telescoping steering column, assuring a comfortable carlike driving position for a wide variety of people. You don't get that typical SUV-style elevated driving position in the Outback, but with its healthy ride height, you're still above most cars. The Outback's seats proved to be all-stars for comfort and support. Taller folks may find the base model's manual driver seat lacking in adjustability, but that can be corrected by stepping up to the 2.5i Premium trim level and its power driver seat.
The backseat is even more welcoming, growing in legroom by a whopping 4 inches from '09 and providing the sort of headroom challenged only by the Popemobile. The rear seatback also reclines, making the Outback an even better family road trip companion.
The 2010 Subaru Outback 2.5i's interior controls are a model of simplicity. The buttons and knobs for audio and climate functions are easily decipherable at a glance. It should be noted, though, that higher trim levels feature more complicated controls thanks to such features as automatic climate control and navigation. Sound quality from the six-speaker stereo is notably poor -- especially through the auxiliary audio jack.
Visibility out back in the Outback is excellent, and the airy greenhouse aids in negotiating tight spaces and locating blind-spot lurkers. The automatic headlights are also quite good despite being of the old-fashioned, non-xenon variety.
The literal big news is the Outback's expanded dimensions. Cargo capacity is now 34.2 cubic feet with the backseats raised and 71.3 cubes with them lowered, making the Outback slightly roomier than the Forester, Ford Edge and Toyota Venza by both measures. Two sets of golf clubs and a pair of suitcases fit easily behind the backseats. Should you run out of interior space or need to carry bikes, snowboards or a kayak, the Outback's nifty integrated crossbars swing out from the roof rails. For young children who might be tagging along, front- and rear-facing child safety seats fit in the backseat with plenty of room to spare.
Design/Fit and Finish
The redesigned 2010 Subaru Outback is visually challenging, and that's being kind. The back end in particular is rather bulbous. However, Subaru loyalists have gravitated to oddball designs for years, so why should this Outback be any different? Inside, the cabin is less stylish than before, with an emphasis placed on function rather than form. Overall materials quality seems to have slipped a bit, but it should be pleasant enough for most buyers at this price point.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2010 Outback can be considered a competitor for compact and midsize crossovers like the Ford Edge, Subaru's own Forester and the Toyota RAV4, but the Toyota Venza is perhaps the closest rival given its similar elevated wagon body style.
Judged against these models, the 2010 Subaru Outback 2.5i delivers in terms of utility and fuel economy. Those who prioritize on-road performance may be better served by a traditional wagon like the Volkswagen Passat. But for road trips to the great outdoors, the Outback excels as always.