From the July 2004 issue of Car and Driver.
Lake Tahoe, for those of you who've never been there, is solid Subaru country. You see the star-badged four-wheel-drive Subies everywhere you go. At a lunch stop during the company's 2005 Outback introductory drive, most of the staff admitted to owning one Subaru or another.
Obviously, the snowy winter climate in the Sierra Nevada predisposes Tahoans to durable, four-wheel-drive vehicles, and interest in the fleet of new Outbacks was wholehearted. And when the faithful learn that the midrange 2.5XT tested here has a 250-hp turbocharged engine-based on the unit in the WRX STi-that shrugs off most of the effects of power-robbing altitude, these folks will be standing in line at the dealerships.
There are three basic levels of the 2005 Outback, starting with the 2.5i and 2.5i Limited. A 168-hp naturally aspirated flat-four engine powers both of these, with the Limited offering a higher level of equipment.
The 2.5XT and 2.5XT Limited are intercooled turbo versions of the flat-four engine, with 250 horsepower on tap.
Most expensive are the top-dog Outback 3.0R and 3.0R sedan, powered by a 3.0-liter flat-six featuring variable intake-valve timing and lift. The 3.0R is also available in L.L.Bean livery and as the VDC Limited (for "vehicle dynamics control," a system that integrates an all-speed, all-wheel traction-control system with variable-torque all-wheel drive). At about $33,000, it is Subaru's most expensive Outback.
Highs: Turbo performance, refinement, all-weather versatility.
For 2005, the Outback has a slightly longer wheelbase and is 1.3 inches longer overall. It has a wider track, a lower center of gravity, and weighs less than the previous-generation car, despite being stiffer and stronger. Subaru used aluminum panels for the hood, front bumper assembly, and liftgate to reduce weight as well as decrease mass at the car's extremities for better handling. In the drive toward centralized mass, even the battery was shifted rearward.
At 3640 pounds, the 2.5XT Limited we tested isn't exactly svelte, but it isn't too bad for a fully equipped all-wheel-drive wagon, and it certainly performs and feels like a lighter car. A quarter-mile time of 15.6 seconds at 92 mph isn't too shabby for a nearly two-ton wagon with an automatic transmission.
The low center of gravity helps quell roll motions and reduce that tippy sensation you often get in heavy SUVs. And thanks to a steering rack bolted securely to the front suspension subframe, what Subaru calls a "cannon mount," the Outback has very direct responses to the helm. To reduce kickback shock, the rack has an integral shock-damping valve that produces a decent compromise between wheel tremor and feel.
Subaru engineers explained at length that horizontally opposed four-cylinder engines have perfect primary and second-order balance, and the new 2.5-liter engine is indeed amazingly smooth and quiet.
Subaru engineers explained at length that horizontally opposed four-cylinder engines have perfect primary and second-order balance, and the new 2.5-liter engine is indeed amazingly smooth and quiet. The layout boasts other advantages, too, such as a crankshaft that is short and stiff and-since no heavy counterweights are needed -comparatively light.
The engine is short, and its longitudinal location provides a straight shot for the transmission and driveshaft. The new five-speed automatic gearbox looks way long in comparison, but that's because it also houses the front and center differentials, along with the computer-directed multi-disc clutch mechanism that apportions torque in Subaru's so-called variable torque-distribution system. (Models with other engine-and-transmission configurations come with different center-differential systems.)
The "symmetrical all-wheel-drive" mechanism—as Subaru calls it—is mostly utterly transparent, but you can sense its variable operation in certain conditions. Because the torque is directed to the axle with the most grip, you can alter the car's handling characteristics in a corner on a gravel road by adding throttle and having the car transition from understeer to neutral or even mild oversteer simply by staying on the gas. For drivers accustomed to correcting slides, the process can be a little counterintuitive, but you soon become reliant on this useful handling tool.
Lows: Slow transmission kickdown, all-season tires.
We could feel the center diff manipulating torque during skidpad testing, too. In third gear, too low on the tach for serious boost, the Outback would squeal around with the front end pushing fairly resolutely. When we tried it again in second, the rapidly inflating boost levels would have the car up on its toes, ready to rotate.
The fact that the 2.5XT only pulled a fairly unexceptional 0.74 g has more to do with its all-season Bridgestones. The Potenza RE92s are engineered to keep those Lake Tahoe residents slogging through the slush, not for cornering at high speeds. Despite that, the Outback handles well, feeling stable and secure in all circumstances, and summer tires would really optimize its act.
In many ways the Subaru approach is paradoxical. The Outbacks (and Legacy siblings) have the necessary hardware, suspension geometry, and balance to be credible performance cars, but they're tuned for the middle of the road. Although body-motion control is well restrained, the ride is supple and comfortable. A four-into-one-into-two exhaust system is pleasant-sounding but muted to the point of inaudibility in normal motoring.
Control feedback in the cabin is clear but subtle, and you always get the impression that the cars are trying to please the largest possible audience. Yet lovers of high-performance machinery won't be disappointed with the 2.5XT's cockpit, which has the requisite instrumentation tidily presented by electroluminescent white-on-black gauges ringed by dimly glowing red circles. The seats in the 2.5XT are as firm and supportive as the furniture you'd find in reputable German sports sedans.
Another thoughtful feature typical of the Subaru approach is that the rear wiper will automatically switch from intermediate to constant speed when the driver selects reverse gear.
Even the Sportshift override system for the five-speed automatic caters to discerning drivers. Like other systems on the market, a sideways swipe of the console-mounted selector lever pops it over into the manual slot, where forward and backward movements provoke up- and downshifts. As in other cars, buttons on the steering wheel duplicate those selections. But in the Outback, you can thumb one of the buttons and get a response even when the center selector is in the normal drive position.
Thus, if you're dozing along in drive and suddenly spot a stationary car in your lane and a break in traffic, you can thumb the button for a downshift and scoot into the gap. You could also mash the gas pedal and wait for a downshift, but here you'd find a fairly deliberate pause while the computer thinks about the smoothest way to do that.
The system reverts to normal automatic operation within a few seconds, but it's nice to have the car standing by for further instruction, and we found ourselves taking advantage of the feature fairly often. Another thoughtful feature typical of the Subaru approach is that the rear wiper will automatically switch from intermediate to constant speed when the driver selects reverse gear. And here's something for those Lake Tahoe drivers: The outside-temperature gauge flashes when the ambient conditions drop below 37 degrees.
Most of what makes the Outback a convenient and pleasurable vehicle to use is less visible than obvious gadgetry. When they found that the previous brake booster was expanding under pressure, Subaru's engineers used tie rods (like those holding a kettledrum together) to stop it. The result is a more predictable brake-pedal feel.
The Verdict: High-end image and high performance in one package.
Subarus have always had sashless windows, and the new Outback is no exception. If you ask a Subaru engineer, such as Martyn Harding, why, he'll answer that it's better to add that metal to the door-aperture surround, where it forms part of the body's impact-absorbing cage structure. Not coincidentally, Subaru foresees a five-star rating in all the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's crash tests.
We're drawn strongly to the idea of a wagon that drives like a good car yet has nearly nine inches of ground clearance (along with pretty respectable approach and departure angles) and a four-wheel-drive system that will scramble up a rock-strewn grade like no leather-lined, quiet, smooth-riding luxury vehicle has a right to. We like that this Subaru is fast and stable on the road without ever suggesting its dual-purpose mechanicals. And we like very much that there is now a turbo Outback. Subarus were always cool. Now more of them are fast, too. That's progress.
2005 Subaru Outback 2.5XT Limited
Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 5-door wagon
PRICE AS TESTED
Turbocharged and intercooled flat-4, aluminum block and heads
Displacement: 150 cu in, 2457cc
Power (SAE net): 250 bhp @ 6000 rpm
Torque (SAE net): 250 lb-ft @ 3600 rpm
5-speed automatic with manumatic shifting
Wheelbase: 105.1 in
Length: 188.7 in
Width: 69.7 in
Height: 61.6 in
Curb weight: 3640 lb
Zero to 60 mph: 7.1 sec
Zero to 100 mph: 19.2 sec
Zero to 120 mph: 32.0 sec
Street start, 5-60 mph: 7.8 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 15.6 sec @ 92 mph
Top speed (governor limited): 130 mph
Braking, 70-0 mph @ impending lockup: 204 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.74 g
EPA fuel economy city/highway driving: 19/24 mpg
C/D-observed: 19 mpg