My first experience with station wagons came as a result of watching, over and over again, National Lampoon’s Vacation (the original and still my favorite). Clark is taking the kids across the country with aunt Edna strapped to the roof of the family truckster. Big, green, with wood-paneled sides; I feel this car is the quiet, true winner of Most Under-Whelming Car of All-Time. Leap forward 20 years and the wagon has seen some serious change, both in performance and public image. At least in the Northwest, Subaruâ€™s Outback is synonymous with greatness, featuring one of the largest cargo areas in the way-way back, lots of leg room in the rear seats, and standard all-wheel handling. It’s somewhere between rally car and family truckster, with a dash of mountain-biking cool thrown in for good measure.
I’ve heard in Texas people don’t really care about Subarus, but in Oregon, these are the cars people drive. As someone who’s grown up mountain biking and snowboarding, for the past 15 years my friends have driven pretty much every possible configuration of Subaru wagon made. And each year, they get a little nicer, a little more refined, and a little more revered in â€œadventure sport’â€ lifestyles. Myself, I’ve always appreciated the Outback’s tall ride height, its stock use of roof racks and fog lights, tight turning radius, and its ability to drive through any road condition I could throw at it. This test car came with all of that goodness included.
Inside you find the 6-disc, in-dash CD changer, steering wheel-mounted controls for almost everything, the largest moon roof I’ve ever seen outside the Outback’s Forester brother, and overall the most headroom, foot room and shoulder space found in a car I’ve driven. It was very nice to have four passengers and not have to adjust my seat to make room for three people in the back. With my seat the maximum distance from the pedals, I often have to shorten up to be fair to those not driving, but not in the Outback. That monster moon roof gives lots of light to fill the cabin and create giant views of the sky. It had several different automatic settings, tipped open, slightly open, halfway open, and all-the-way-strap-the-kids-in-we-don’t-want-to-lose-one open. At all settings it only returned slight wind noise and minimal cabin drafts, something I appreciate.
Despite all of these refinements and niceties, I did notice some downsides. One of which was a truly touchy volume knob on the stereo. From 0 (silent) to 1 on the indicator made a large jump, and often I wanted much quieter than what 1 offered. It felt odd to use large increments for the volume, as I’ve known many people to be very picky about the exact level of sound they want coming out of the speakers. And at stoplights, even at level 1, the radio was loud enough to warrant having to raise your voice to speak over it. Small annoyance, but one that should have been addressed in R & D.
Another small annoyance was the carâ€™s inability to normalize cabin temperatures. Using Auto on the climate controls only made the fans click on to High and blow the crap out of your face. Closing vents just made it blow harder. And when I tried to adjust it manually, I could never get it to change in an increment that would come close to the temperature I wanted. There were several times when the only solution was to open the windows and let the outside air normalize the inside of the car. Even when it was a nice 72 degrees outside, I had a hard time getting that temperature inside. Very odd and annoying.
While driving, this car handled pretty much as expected. Like a larger wagon. However, it certainly didn’t get any of the WRX’s raw sportiness. This Outback had the same engine as a similar Impreza I got to drive a while back, and the extra weight found in the Outback made itself obvious. There was plenty of power to get around town, and even to pass, but there was absolutely none of the thrill of driving that other Subarus I’ve driven provideâ€”with or without the turbo. On the highway though, it was a solid, comfortable car that made you forget all about it. With nothing really to distract you, good or bad, it gave me plenty of room to focus on the inability to exactly control the stereo volume or climate control.
At the end of the ride, I felt like the Outback held few surprises. It is a good-sized car and you are awarded plenty of space inside as a result. It has nice features, and in the right part of the country, it has a sexy allure to it. However, it doesn’t look like a sports car, nor is it overly luxurious to drive. But it doesnâ€™t try to be either of those. Instead, it’s a practical car, giving practical mileage and power output. It has lots of room to get you wherever you need to go, and an all-wheel ability to get there regardless of driving conditions. For those who love the outdoors, it’s a symbol of the lifestyle. For those who want attention, or to make up for other deficiencies, this car has nothing to offer. I would gladly drive it and would be happy owning it, but I knew that before I got in and drove it for the first time. 3.5 stars.