2003 Subaru Outback

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2001 Subaru Outback

This 2001 review is representative of model years 2000 to 2004.
By Dan Jedlicka of MSN Autos
Rating: 7

Bottom Line:

Pioneering sport-ute-style station wagon finally gets a suitable engine.
Pros:
  • Smooth new 6-cylinder
  • Refined
  • Nice all-wheel drive
  • New anti-skid system
Cons:
  • Pricey
  • Average highway acceleration
  • Front sunroof doesn't slide

A $30,000-plus Subaru station wagon seems a little hard to figure—especially considering that Subarus were cheap economy cars not all that long ago. "Inexpensive and built to stay that way," Subaru once said of its cars.

New 6-cylinder
But wait. The handsome new $31,895 Subaru Outback H6-3.0 VDC wagon has a smooth new 3.0-liter 6-cylinder engine that generates 212 horsepower. So does the new Outback H6-3.0 L.L. Bean Edition wagon, which slips under the 30-grand mark with a $29,495 base price.

Lesser Outback models cost less but have a smaller 4-cylinder engine.

By the way, don't let all those letters and numbers put you off. The "H" means that the engine has a horizontally opposed piston layout, like Porsche engines. The "6" means—you guessed it—that the engine has six cylinders. The 3.0 means it has a 3.0-liter displacement. And VDC stands for Subaru's new Vehicle Dynamics Control stability system.

The L.L. Bean version has such things as special leather upholstery and a liberal amount of L.L. Bean identification. But it doesn't have the VDC system.

New 4-Cylinder Model Features
The 4-cylinder Outback sedan and wagon models run from $22,895 to $26,295. These well-equipped models haven't changed much, although they have a new dual-stage deployment passenger side airbag, larger front brake discs, viscous limited-slip rear differential and interior refinements.

But those Outbacks only have a 2.5-liter 4-cylinder that produces 165 horsepower and considerably less torque than the 6-cylinder in the new H6-3.0 models. The 4-cylinder provides decent acceleration, but is no match for the smoother, quieter 6-cylinder.

The new engine has a horizontally opposed piston layout like the 4-cylinder to allow it to sit low and keep the center of gravity closer to the pavement. It's quite sophisticated, with chain-driven (for lower maintenance) dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder.

First "Six" Since 1997
The new Outback models get the first "six " since Subaru dropped its nifty SVX sports car in 1997. The SVX was fairly short-lived and never sold very well because people couldn't figure out why a outfit like Subaru with a thrifty car image sold a sports car that cost more than $30,000 in top-line trim.

There shouldn't be such price objections to the Outback H6-3.0 VDC. After all, Subaru pioneered 4-wheel drive for mass-produced cars nearly 30 years ago. Subarus looked frumpy and felt cheap for a long time, but they were inexpensive and tough. New Englanders loved them.

Subarus became more mainstream in the 1990s, with much better styling and a more solid feel. The automaker even came up with its above-average Forester sport-utility vehicle a few years ago. In fact, some might feel that the Forester should have gotten the 6-cylinder before the Outback.

Why Outback Got the Six
However, the Outback outsells the Forester and is Subaru's top image vehicle in wagon form. Based on the Subaru Legacy, the Outback debuted in 1995 as a higher-line, all-wheel-drive wagon. Subaru dealers were shouting for a new sport utility to join the sport-ute sales boom, but got the Outback because the Forester hadn't been fully developed.

In fact, the Outback was a decent substitute sport ute, and was continually made more attractive. Its off-road prowess matched car-based sport utes.

A Pioneer
Subaru inadvertently pioneered the increasingly popular hybrid—or crossover—car/sport-ute vehicle with the Outback. By 1999, the Outback accounted for almost 70 percent of Legacy sales, which prompted Subaru to make it a separate model line in 2000.

That timing was good because the 2000 Legacy was revamped and made larger. The 2000 Outback wagon version had such features as a higher roofline and raised suspension for sport-ute-style utility and off-road prowess. But it still had a 165-horsepower 4-cylinder when a larger engine was clearly needed.

The 2001 Outback still is based on the Legacy and has sport-ute features. But the 6-cylinder versions feel like different models. For one thing, the 6-cylinder doesn't sound as gruff as the 4-cylinder and need not work as hard.

New Engine No Fireball
However, the new engine is no fireball. It works with a responsive 4-speed automatic transmission, but provides strong acceleration only to 65 mph. The 65-75 mph passing time is disappointingly average.

Still, the 6-cylnder loafs at 2700 rpm at 70 mph, and it delivers an estimated 27 mpg on the highway. The city figure is acceptable at 20 because, after all, this is a fairly heavy vehicle, weighing from 3,715 to 3,735 pounds.

Feels Like Big Sedan
In fact, the compact, solidly built H6-3.0 often feels like a big roadworthy sedan. It has moderately quick steering with good road feel, and an all-independent suspension that helps provide sure-footed handling and a smooth ride. The brake pedal is too soft, but stopping distances are acceptable.

Stability Improvements
Both 6-cylinder Outback models have a good all-wheel-drive system that doesn't call for driver involvement. But the H6-3.0 VDC has Subaru's improved Variable Torque Distribution all-wheel drive, which works with a traction control system and the Vehicle Dynamics Control (VDC) system. The VDC system measures such things as steering angle to keep a car going in the direction the driver is steering even, say, if he enters a curve too quickly.

The systems are an effective trio, working simultaneously.

Elaborate Audio System
While both VDC and L.L. Bean versions of the new 6-cylinder model have much standard equipment, the VDC model also has an elaborate 11-speaker McIntosh audio system.

The L.L. Bean version has two-tone leather upholstery embossed with the L.L. Bean insignia and L.L. Bean badges on front fenders. Even floor mats are embroidered with the L.L. Bean logo. Importantly, owners of this model get free scheduled maintenance for three years.

The quiet interior has comfortable seats that offer good side support so occupants don't slide when the Outback H6-3.0 is zipping through curves. However, rear legroom is tight behind a tall driver who moves his seat back a lot to get comfortable.

Only One Sliding Sunroof
Gauges can be read at a glance and controls work smoothly, although audio controls are too small for comfortable driver operation. There are dual power sunroofs, but the front one just pops up to serve as a vent—instead of sliding open like the rear one. How about the other way around, Subaru?

The spacious cargo area has a wide opening and large hatch for easy loading. Split-fold rear seatbacks considerably enlarge the cargo area.

Subaru has finally grown up with its mainstream 6-cylinder Outback, which seems destined to be a hit.

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BB01 - 7/22/2014 3:09:15 AM