At a recent press event with Subaru, I was fortunate enough to drive the 2011 Subaru Outback with both the 2.5 liter 170 horsepower “flat” four cylinder and the 3.6 liter 256 horsepower “flat” six motor on the same day in a multitude of environments from the freeway to a rather long mountain drive. Yes, I know that this kind of event was meant to highlight the differences between Subaru models but I didn’t realize how totally Bi-Polar some of their product offerings feel when driven back to back.
First off, driving the more basic 2.5i Premium and top of the line 3.6R Limited models proved to me that depending on engine choice you could either wind up with one of the best value family vehicles on the planet or you could get a slightly nutty power wagon with cornering stability that shames vehicles costing twice the price. Either way, they are both more fun to drive than even the best SUVs.
No matter which motor you pick, you get uniqueness in its cylinder layout which is referred to as “flat” or “pancake” because they fire vertically across the motor. They also lack the added height of cylinders firing in a V formation or in a straight row which helps lower the Outback’s center of gravity which always improves handling. Just ask Porsche how that works with their 911-this German sports car brand is the only automaker still building “flat” six-cylinder engines.
The four-cylinder Outback wagon admittedly has one of the quietest and smoothest CVT automatics on the market today but they are still not favorites for driving enthusiasts. In 2.5i form with the CVT, this Outback offers more utility than many SUVs, is frugal, solidly built as well as quick enough for freeway on-ramps and day to day traffic in Suburbia. It also boasts an 8.7 inch ground clearance so if you do decide to take your Outback on an unpaved road as you engage in your “active lifestyle,” you should have no problem getting stuck.
The Subaru Outback 2.5i CVT gets an incredible 22 city/29 highway according to the EPA which is amazing for a vehicle with four driven wheels (the 2.5i Premium comes with standard “Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive” sending power to whichever axle needs it most. The 3.6R Outback models return 18 city/25 highway but makes up for it with ample power and a much sportier feel to the driving experience.
This guttural “flat” six motor is not silent when you floor it but the noise it makes is truly intoxicating. Power builds smoothly all the way to redline and the standard issue five-speed automatic offered well timed shifts no matter what the occasion. Also note that all 3.6R models come with a more complex Variable Torque Distribution (VTD) all-wheel drive system that routinely stays with a 45/55 front axle and back axle split but when it detects a problem it can apportion more power to the wheel that needs it.
Steering feel, handling and ride quality are all exemplary in every 2011 Subaru Outback but somehow in my hands the 3.6R just felt more directly connected to the road. I hate to call it the “driver’s wagon” but that is the best descriptor that I can think of to explain why I came back from my drive in the 3.6R grinning like an idiot.
Subaru offers its most basic Outback for $23,195 with the 2.5 liter engine and a six-speed manual but I would always recommend that you at least specify the mid-line Premium trim level for some of the more essential creature comforts like a cargo cover, a leather wrapped steering wheel, 10-way power seats and offers you the option of adding features like a Moonroof package (which includes a back-up camera), heated seats and a 440-Watt Harmon Kardon audio system.
Sure, I have read some complaints about Subaru interior design being too simple, boring or minimalist but in a world full of cars that require a training session before you can tune the radio, this is in fact a true accolade. Anyone can hop in the Outback and be familiar and comfortable with the controls instantly. Everything is within easy reach and the navigation screen is very large, even if some of the controls lack the simplicity of a Honda or Acura navigation unit.
Apparently USB/iPod direct integration is only standard with models equipped with navigation though there is a retrofit kit available through Subaru dealers for the more basic audio set-ups. Call me crazy but new cars in 2011 shouldn’t be without iPod integration as standard. Are you still buying a lot of CDs?
Sure, there is an auxiliary input jack but those force you to look down at your iPod to change a song when driving and that’s as unsafe as texting from behind the wheel. Bluetooth is also available as an accessory even though it is standard on some top line models direct from the factory.
But maybe you don’t care about talking to anyone or listening to music and just want to haul your junk or “antiques” from place to place, so in that case you will be very happy to know that cargo volume is 34.3 cubic feet behind the second row. Fold those seats down and you have got a place to sleep with 71.3 cubic feet with the rear seats lowered. As is the Subaru way there are also storage cubbies under the floor of cargo hooks lining the sides of the cargo area.
So while I would personally buy a 2011 Subaru Outback with the 3.6 liter engine, I have found myself drawn to the brand’s quirkily sporting models for a while now. But that isn’t to say the 2.5 liter 4-cylinder variant wouldn’t make for a wise ownership proposition. Also, when you stop by the Subaru dealer and test drive the 2011 Subaru Forester XT Turbo. Rarely do family cars come much more fun than this.
2011 Subaru Outback Pricing