WHEELS

The Subaru Outback: Here’s to compromise

 The 2012 Subaru Outback makes perfect sense for a famiiy in need of a reliable, safe and affordable wagon.
Subaru
The 2012 Subaru Outback makes perfect sense for a famiiy in need of a reliable, safe and affordable wagon.
Posted June 03, 2012, at 7:09 a.m.
Last modified June 03, 2012, at 7:54 a.m.

We chose power, comfort and utility over fuel economy. The 2012 Subaru Outback 3.6R Premium wagon offered lots of the former three. But there wasn’t much to cheer about in the mileage arena — 25 miles per gallon in combined city and highway travel.

That was an OK trade. Prices for regular gasoline had fallen by as much as 25 cents a gallon. Besides, we were mostly driving between our home in Northern Virginia and big-box home-improvement stores and specialty shops in the central and southern parts of the state.

The six-cylinder Subaru Outback 3.6R Premium, which will be cosmetically refreshed for 2013, is perfect for that kind of work. The 2012 model, also available with Subaru’s 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine instead of the 3.6-liter six, holds more people and stuff than predecessor versions of the wagon.

Credit the fattening of America. We are packing on more calories while simultaneously demanding better fuel economy, as if the extra weight can be moved free of charge or without physical adjustment.

The automobile industry is responding by increasing the size of everything, even while boasting a surge in the number of smaller cars and engines.

It is a peculiar form of madness in which bigger remains better while smaller becomes more desirable, if not actually needed. The trick for car manufacturers is to remain profitable while American consumers and their putative political leaders struggle to work out their collective psychosis.

Subaru, like many of its rivals, has worked out the manufacturing and retail version of the two-state solution. While the 2012 Outback offers more space and headroom than earlier models, it also comes with slightly better fuel economy — about two miles per gallon better for both the 2.5i four-cylinder model and the 3.6-liter six-cylinder wagon.

Credit a greater use of lightweight but high-strength materials, advanced engineering of gasoline engines and their power-transmission systems, increased use of low-rolling-resistance tires, and improved aerodynamic design of external body structures.

But Subaru, like its rivals, is acutely aware that improved fuel economy alone does not guarantee sales success, not even in a traditionally bread-and-butter, more-practical-than-thou vehicle line such as the Outback. Sex might be pilloried in such conservative consumer circles. But it still sells. Thus we have the Outback 3.6R (3.6-liter flat-six engine, 256 horsepower, 247 foot-pounds of torque) and its less-powerful, generally more fuel-efficient 2.5i sibling (2.5-liter flat four-cylinder engine, 170 horsepower, 170 foot-pounds of torque).

Left untouched in the compromise is Subaru’s DNA — the stuff that makes a Subaru a Subaru. Key components of that image-defining genetic pool are reliability, symmetrical all-wheel-drive systems that simultaneously send drive power to all four wheels, class-leading utility, and exterior and interior styling so inoffensive it is accepted by tea party adherents and liberal Democrats alike.

Maybe there is a lesson in this — a vehicular work of passionate compromise that gets the job done on time every time without offending anyone. Perhaps that is what Subaru’s marketing team means in its claim that “Subaru means love.”

Bottom line: If you aren’t holding on to some cliched notion of “cool,” the Outback makes perfect sense for a family in need of reliable, thoroughly useful (check out the sub-floor rear storage compartment), safe, affordable, everyday and almost everywhere (symmetrical all-wheel drive with 8.7 inches of ground clearance) people-and-stuff hauler. This wagon is a true family friend.

Ride, acceleration and handling: The 2012 Outback gets very good marks in all three, more so in the 3.6R than in the 2.5i version. Power matters.

Head-turning quotient: The Outback is more an attractive marriage than a fancy wedding. In the long run, one means a heck of a lot more than the other.

Body style/layout: All Subaru vehicles sold in the United States are front-engine and all-wheel-drive. The 2012 Outback is a midsize wagon that pretends to be nothing else. It is available in six iterations — base, Premium and Limited in both the 2.5i and 3.6R versions.

Engines/transmissions: The Outback comes with two engines — a 2.5i flat (horizontally opposed cylinders) four generating a maximum 170 horsepower and 170 foot-pounds of torque and a 3.6-liter flat six with a maximum output of 256 horsepower and 247 foot pounds of torque. The 3.6R gets a standard five-speed automatic transmission that can also be shifted manually. The 2.5i gets a standard six-speed manual gearbox.

Capacities: There is comfortable seating for five adults in all versions of the 2012 Subaru Outback. Cargo space is a decent 34.3 cubic feet with the 60-40 split rear seats raised and 71.3 cubic feet with those seats folded. The fuel tank holds 18.5 gallons of gasoline (regular grade is recommended).

Mileage: The 3.6R Premium delivered 25 miles per gallon overall in heavy traffic on both highways and urban streets.

Safety: Standard equipment on the 3.6R Premium includes front and rear ventilated disc brakes, four-wheel anti-lock brake protection, emergency braking assistance, side and head air bags, electronic brake-force distribution; symmetrical all-wheel drive, and electronic stability and traction control.

Prices: Subaru Outback prices for the 2013 model year had not been released at this writing. But prices for the 2012 models range from $23,295 for the base Outback 2.5i to $31,695 for the 3.6R Limited. I expect that Subaru will pretty much hold the line on those prices in 2013. The Japan-based carmakers are in a price war in this country. If you are looking for a genuine passenger wagon, the Outback is hard to beat.

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