2003 Subaru Outback

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2001 Subaru Outback

This 2001 review is representative of model years 2000 to 2004.
By Ann Job of MSN Autos
Rating: 9.75
Pros:
  • Two luxurious new flagship models
  • High-tech and comfort features that rival German brands
  • Good reputation for durability
Cons:
  • New flagships are pricey
  • Tall station wagon exterior lacks SUV sizzle
  • Only one model has free scheduled maintenance

Subaru's Outback wagons have a winning formula—versatile, right-sized packaging, capable all-wheel drive and a tall station wagon look. In 2001, Subaru adds 6-cylinder power and more luxury appointments to expand the Outback wagon line—but at a stiff price.

Confidence.

It is, according to Subaru of America Inc., "the No. 1 consideration for Subaru's buyers." They want to feel confident in their vehicle "in any situation."

It's a tall order. But the Subaru Outback wagons, with their reputation for reliability over the years, their all-wheel-drive capability and their safety and comfort features, have shown they've been up to the task for several years.

In the 2001 model year, with the addition of two top-of-the-line Outback wagons, Subaru offers buyers even more reasons to feel confident.

Looks much the same as in 2000 model year
All 2001 Outback wagons build on the already strong chassis and compact-sized body of the 2000 models. The look is much the same as last year. These are rather tall-looking wagons that don't dazzle with gimmickry or head-turning style. They look competent, capable and non-offensive, if a bit bland compared with the more-aggressive-looking sport-utility competition.

But the Outback wagons still maintain a surprising 7.3 inches of ground clearance, which is just 0.4 inch less than the 7.7 inches of the Lexus RX 300, but quite a bit less than the 9.2 inches of the Ford Explorer.

Outbacks also can tow 1,500 pounds with their long-running, 165-horsepower 4-cylinder engine. Now, with the addition of a 212-horsepower 6-cylinder in the 2001 model year, they can haul a maximum 2,000 pounds. It's still way below the 5,000-pound towing capacity of bigger vehicles, but it's enough to move a small, lightweight boat.

All-wheel drive is a standard feature on all Subarus, not just Outbacks. In 2001, all Outback wagons except the flagship Outback H6-3.0 VDC add a viscous limited-slip differential as standard equipment to provide side-to-side rear-wheel power transfer for improved handling and traction. Front brake discs are larger for stronger stopping power, too.

For the first time, a dual-stage frontal airbag is used on the front-passenger side, and net-type map pockets are installed on the back of the front seatbacks on all models.

Two new, luxury-appointed models
The biggest news, though, is the debut of two new top-of-the-line Outbacks with more high-tech wizardry, more power than ever before and new comfort features.

Both models, the 2001 Outback H6-3.0 L.L. Bean Edition and the flagship 2001 Outback H6-3.0 VDC, are equipped with the Outback's first 6-cylinder engine, which offers more power than ever before in an Outback.

Both also come standard with new luxury appointments to pamper you—yes, even in a Subaru. How about a mahogany and leather-wrapped steering wheel? It's standard in these models. You expect to find wood steering wheels in Jaguars and Lincoln Navigators, not Subarus.

There also is an 8-way power driver's seat—the first in a Subaru—and automatic climate control. These are added to the usual power windows, remote keyless entry, air conditioning, etc. that are on other Outback wagons.

Additionally, the L.L. Bean Edition includes free scheduled maintenance for three years—the first and only Subaru with this extra.

And the Outback VDC has a sophisticated stability control system, traction control and a high-end 200-watt McIntosh sound system. It's the first vehicle in the U.S. auto industry with a factory-installed McIntosh radio.

Last but certainly not least, like all Subarus, these new Outbacks have 3-point safety belts and head restraints at all five seats and standard anti-lock brakes. They also have side airbags for the two front seats.

Pricing is up there
But prepare for sticker shock. The L.L. Bean Edition has a starting manufacturer's suggested retail price including destination charge of more than $29,000, and the Outback VDC starts at more than $32,000.

In comparison, last year's highest-priced Subaru was the 2000 Outback Limited wagon with an MSRP and destination charge of $26,590.

I spent most of my time in the Outback VDC, which Subaru officials said, without joking, competes with the Audi A4 Avant Quattro and Volkswagen Passat Wagon with 4Motion all-wheel drive. That's pretty classy company. Still, the Outback H6-3.0 VDC has plenty to offer.

The new, compactly sized, 212-horsepower 6-cylinder gives a smoother, quieter ride than you get in the lesser Outbacks with the sometimes buzzy, 165-horsepower 4-cylinder.

The new engine, which weighs only about 100 pounds more than the 4-cylinder, also gets the Outback up to speed quicker.

In back-to-back rides of the 4- and 6-cylinder Outbacks, I found I was pressing the accelerator frequently, in small increments, to keep the 4-cylinder Outback going with traffic in city and hillside driving. Meanwhile, I was touching the brake more often to slow the 6-cylinder VDC model in traffic since it glided down streets easily.

But low-end torque isn't quite as exciting as it might be. Torque is 210 lb-ft at 4400 rpm with this new engine vs. 166 lb-ft at 4000 rpm in the 4-cylinder.

Note that the lighter-weight A4 Avant with V6 puts out its maximum 207 lb-ft of torque at a lower 3200 rpm. And while the Audi offers a manual transmission, too, Subaru only has a 4-speed automatic.

A final engine note: Subaru engineers were quite inventive in shoehorning the new 6-cylinder into the same space under the Outback hood that usually houses the horizontally opposed 4-cylinder engine. To maintain a compact size, the new six uses chain-driven cams, not belts, and a single serpentine belt drive powers accessories such as the air conditioner.

What's in a name? Lots!
Unfortunately, the new 6-cylinder engine also is partly responsible for the alphabet soup name that the Outback H6-3.0 VDC and the Outback H6-3.0 L.L. Bean Edition are saddled with.

Here's how to decipher it: H6-3.0 denotes that this is horizontally opposed 3.0-liter 6-cylinder. Subaru officials liked to point out that as of the 2001 model year, only Subaru and Porsche sell cars in the United States with horizontally opposed 6-cylinders.

The "VDC" part of the Outback flagship's name stands for vehicle dynamics control, a first-ever Outback stability control system that works like those on luxury cars to sense impending loss of control and restore directional stability.

How does it do it? First, VDC works with the car's new, advanced all-wheel-drive system called variable torque distribution (VTD). VTD uses a planetary-type center differential that splits torque for a rear-drive bias of 55 percent to the rear wheels and 45 percent to the front in normal driving.

This compares with the other Outbacks with automatic transmission that come with a hydraulically controlled clutch and where the torque split is 90 percent front and 10 percent rear in normal driving.

Without any input from the driver but with information provided from the stability control systems' sensors, the new VTD can adjust power to the front or rear, as needed, to maximize the all-wheel-drive system.

A limited-slip rear differential isn't used because this new Outback also has an all-speed traction control system that can add braking power as well as momentarily reduce engine power to further stabilize the vehicle.

A more compliant ride
There are few modifications to the regular Outback wagon suspension, save for things such as different spring rates to handle the slightly heavier weight of the 6-cylinder engine.

Tires are 16-inchers, the same as on other Outback wagons, and, overall, buyers who prefer a more cushioned, less-stiff ride than the German station wagons offer might gravitate to the Outback VDC.

Seats, which are standard leather, are softer and more compliant, too, than those in the German competition. But three adults sit closely in the back seat of all Outback wagons, where shoulder room is less than what you'll find in Ford's small sport utility, the Escape.

The Outback wagon's rear-seat legroom of 34.3 inches is more than the 33.4 inches in the A4 Avant. But it's less than the 35.3 inches in the Passat Wagon and the 36.4 inches in the Escape.

Cargo room in all Outback wagons is noteworthy at 68.6 cubic feet with the back seats folded down. This is better than the 64.8 cubic feet in the Escape and better than the 63.7 cubic feet of the A4 Avant.

Features abound
While Audi and VW maintain a certain no-nonsense look to their interiors, the Outback H6-3.0 VDC and L.L. Bean Edition proudly display their amenities.

I especially appreciate the two standard moonroofs in these models. They make the interior feel airy. You only get one moonroof in the Audi and VW, and it's an extra-cost option on most versions of those cars.

But note that the front moonroof in the Outback only opens upward for air circulation, since the second moonroof takes up the space where the mechanicals would be.

Check out the 43.3 inches of front-seat legroom. That's more than what you find in many other vehicles, including the Cadillac DeVille and the Toyota Avalon, two large sedans.

The McIntosh stereo in the VDC model sounded wonderful. But its silver-and-black, traditional faceplate with large, protruding knobs on the dashboard clashes badly with the other dashboard elements. Subaru said McIntosh insisted the car's stereo system had to look like a McIntosh.

Curiously, though, the Outback VDC, which has this stereo, doesn't have a special security system, while the non-McIntosh L.L. Bean Outback does.

And I was a bit disappointed that these new, expensive Outbacks don't look much different on the outside from the other Outback wagons, save for new wheels and different badging.

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BB04 - 7/26/2014 4:10:31 AM