2013 Subaru Outback - A Big Fish, Actually The Only Fish, In A Small Pond
Beggars can’t be choosers – particularly as it relates to large, affordable wagons, which are growing increasingly scarce in the US market. So, we commend Subaru for their 2013 Outback AWD. Subaru remains committed to producing wagons and it seems like a clever strategy for the brand. In the Northeast, the Outback remains an impressive seller – and has all but inherited the entire market for traditional wagons.
We just concluded a 5 day 800 mile test of a 2013 Outback, equipped with a 2.5 litre horizontal 4 and CVT transmission. In so doing, we had a chance to experience the car under a wide range of road and weather conditions – including a heavy snow squall on return from New Jersey.
The Outback is a study of contrasts – in some respects it is a brilliant and innovative vehicle, but the excellence is maddeningly offset by some decidedly mediocre characteristics.
Drivetrain – The 2.5 litre H4 “boxer” PZEV engine makes a modest 170 HP and 177 lb/ft of torque. What it lacks in power, it makes up for with staggering amounts of unharmonious noise. This engine is easily capable of moving the Outback along with traffic flow, but modest power, a noisy engine, CVT transmission and a relatively large vehicle is not a pleasing combination. Step on the throttle and the engine immediately revs to 5,500 RPM and then stays there as the car languidly accelerates up to speed. Once to speed, the revs then start to taper off with a loud, sustained bellow reminiscent of an angry male Hippo. At low speeds, throttle tip-in often catches the CVT napping – and the engine lugs perceptibly before the transmission finds the right ratio.
Subaru equips the CVT with paddle shifters, and this is one detail that they got just right. In manual shift mode, the CVT does a very convincing emulation of a traditional automatic, and response to the paddles is refreshingly immediate and crisp. Another nice feature is that the Outback’s shifter need not be moved into the manual gate to use the paddles. This comes in handy when an immediate gear change is needed to facilitate a pass or climb a steep hill. With the shifter in the drive position, the transmission returns to automatic mode shortly after the paddles are actuated. Very nice.
Subaru’s AWD system is similarly well executed and totally transparent in normal driving. Driving the Outback in snow, we realized just how much our winter driving habits have subconsciously adjusted to accommodate the capabilities of cars with lower traction. It turns out that we’d been intentionally avoiding certain hills, steep driveways or inclined intersections where 2wd cars always struggled to gain winter traction. In the Outback you need not give those treacherous spots a second thought – it just powers through with zero drama.
Fuel economy was impressive – we averaged about 28.5 MPG on regular fuel in mixed driving – and our aggressive driving style was not tempered to achieve those figures.
Chassis – The Outback has a very smooth, comfortable ride even over decidedly poor roads. We attribute part of this performance to 17" Continental ContiPro Contact all-weather tires, spring rates and shocks that are strongly biased to ride comfort. The trade-off is that enthusiasts will find the Subaru’s handling characteristics to be woeful. Driven aggressively the Outback flops around as ungracefully as a fish on a pier. Body control, roll response and grip are marginal at best. What’s worse is the Outback’s electrically assisted steering is simply awful; numb on center, notchy just off center and imprecise absolutely everywhere. We’ve driven live axle 4x4 trucks with better steering feel than the Subaru.
On a positive note, the body and chassis is impressively rigid – and the car exhibits absolutely no squeaks or rattles. The brakes are also strong, with short stopping distances and a firm, linear pedal response.
Interior – Subaru did a fine job on the interior. It is expansively large inside. The front seats are comfortable, and the seat heaters very effective, but we found side bolstering on the seatbacks to be inadequate. Rear seat room is excellent, and the rear seatbacks recline. This is a VERY thoughtful and useful feature indeed.
Rear cargo room is generous, and the rear seats fold flat with a simple pull of a lever. With the seats folded - the rear of the Outback transforms into a virtual blimp hangar on wheels.
Exterior visibility is superb. The greenhouse is properly tall, roof pillars are slim and this provides excellent sightlines in every direction. It also makes the Outback a cheery place to hang around.
Primary ergonomics are good, but some of the secondary controls (hill descent, traction control, fog lamp and trip computer switches) are hidden from view or awkwardly placed. The turn signals do not have a 3-blink lane change tap feature – which in this era is simply ridiculous.
Dash configuration is dated in design (e.g. circa 1985 Nissan plastic “brushed aluminum”) but intuitive and functional. We applaud Subaru for sticking with simple knobs to control audio and climate functions.
The sound system in the Outback was fantastic – loud and with excellent bass and midrange. Unlike Kia and Hyundai, who use a proprietary USB port that only works with their cable, the Subaru is compatible with standard USB cables. Kudos to Subaru for their avoidance of cheesy profiteering in this regard.
The Bluetooth handsfree phone feature, however, was a disaster. Our test car had no owner’s manual in the glove box to guide us (then again, 99% of the rental cars we drive are missing owner’s manuals - and we usually don’t have problems figuring out the technology in other cars.) In the Outback, phone pairing was confusing and the system rendered voice instructions at a volume that was completely inaudible above 30 MPH. For nearly a week we tried in vain to use the voice dial feature, but all efforts resulted in a condescending “Pardon?” response from the system. What’s worse, the Outback’s autoplay feature would automatically launch the iPod every time we entered the car, and we couldn’t figure out how to disable it. By week’s end, I was ready to take a ball peen hammer to the dash. Bluetooth and phone integration is mature technology. This stuff needn’t be so hard.
Another feature we absolutely loathed was the “MPG” (vacuum) gauge in the left corner of the cluster. It is spastic and unhelpful, and constantly wags its finger in a disapproving manner each time you as much as think of touching the throttle. MPG gauges were avant gard in 1965 Pontiacs - but they are just stupid today - particularly when there is a functional trip computer already present.
Exterior – Styling is subjective, but we generally liked the butch exterior styling of the Outback. The tall stance, large wheels, angular body cladding and roof-rack give the car an aggressive look – but just remember that these rugged looks are hewn in plastic, not iron. Those macho bumper covers and sill cladding may suggest Rubicon Trail, but you’re well advised to limit off-road excursions.
The Outback does have some of the best high-beam headlamps we’ve ever experienced. They exhibit no hot spots and cast a huge pool of wide, even lighting.
Conclusion – If you like traditional wagons as much as we do, you’ll appreciate the Outback on its merits and Subaru’s contrarian commitment to the wagon segment. We give the Outback a solid B grade, but you'll note the test scores illustrate the massive contrasts inherent in the Outback. As a daily driver, the Outback is a safe, reliable, capacious, competent and cushy companion that will faithfully serve in a wide range of weather conditions. It is priced attractively and is fairly stingy on fuel.
Enthusiast drivers however, will not find much sustenance in the Outback. It is noisy, slow and handles poorly in aggressive driving. The CVT is unrefined and suitable only for routine driving. The paddle shifters however are very well executed and effective. We’d like to say the available six-speed manual is the solution to the Outback’s performance ills, but we tested a six-speed Outback in 2012 and found the shifter to be extremely balky and unpleasant.
So, for enthusiasts needing a wagon, the best we can say is the 2013 Outback is cheap enough that you can also afford a BR-Z in the garage to satisfy your driving Jones. Barring this, the next best alternative might be to take $6k extra and visit your Acura dealer for a decidely more sporty TSX Sportwagon. The Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagon is another cheaper and more sporting alternative, but far smaller and without the advantage of AWD.
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