Imagine, in 2018, that there is a station wagon that sells. It exists, and it is the Subaru Outback. In today’s fractured market, with crossovers and teeny 2.0L turbocharged Singer sewing machines powering a vast majority of new cars, the Subaru comes with boxer four- or six cylinder engines. And although Subaru has joined the CVT transmission party, both powerplants are-GASP!-normally aspirated. Imagine that.
About a month ago I was wandering around the showroom at McLaughlin Cadillac-Subaru-Volvo when I leaned in the open window of a black Outback Limited. I hadn’t really paid much attention to these wagons, although I noted their regular presence in traffic. It was rather nice inside. The beige leather was pleasing, and the wood trim on the doors and dash were attractive.
Intrigued, I got in behind the wheel. This was pretty cushy. It was especially nice with the light beige leather, and wood trim. Airy. No Bat Cave interior, with loophole windows, this! I thought perhaps it would be a good candidate for a test drive for Riverside Green.
And so over this past weekend I emailed Brian Cox at the dealership and relayed my interest. Brian and I go back several years. He sold me my first Town Car, and unlike many sales people, he knows the cars through and through. As per usual, he went above and beyond, not only arranging a car for me to try, but also topping it off with fuel and running it through the car wash. As I parked the Cartier at McLaughlin, there it was right out front, looking neat and tidy.
Now, for regular readers here at RG, you know I’m more partial to American lux cars, and am not particularly rah-rah about Japanese cars. Primarily Toyota, as their styling for the past decade seems to be ‘willfully ugly.’ But I’ve always had a grudging respect for Subaru. Their cars just seem to be well thought out and engineered. They have been going more mainstream over the past fifteen years, though.
They used to be the offbeat, weird choice from the 1970s to the 1990s, with four-wheel drive cars decades before the dreaded word ‘crossover’ was thought up, let alone uttered, the BRAT pickup, the XT coupes in the ’80s, and the cool yet doomed SVX, which last appeared in showrooms in 1997.
But going more mainstream seems to have worked out for Subaru, because I see a lot more on the road than I used to. And a hell of a lot of Outbacks.
I think one of the reasons I was drawn to that black over beige Outback in the showroom is that it camouflaged the approximately 42 pounds of matte black plastic ‘outdoorsy’ rickrack on the exterior.
Same as the Volvo V90 Cross Country, they take a clean design, then add all the fake-SUV stuff on the outside. I didn’t like it on the XC70 and Outbacks in 1998, and I still don’t like it now. But buyers want the look. As sales of the standard V70, and later on the V90, are a fraction of the ABS-plasticked variant.
Volvo will sell you a clean, aesthetically pleasing V90 in 2018, but you have to order it. Dealers don’t stock it. Because no one buys them. I don’t know why, but I guess people can be fooled into thinking their station wagon is really an SUV if it has cheap-looking plastic wheel arches and rocker trim. Subaru finally killed the regular Legacy station wagon for the same reason. Although it may still be available in the home market, where people actually buy wagons because they like wagons.
I see I have digressed, but it is a real pet peeve of mine. But never mind, I’ve vented enough for one day!
I also liked the light beige interior of this car. I can’t stand the black and gray interiors. They make a car’s interior look like a cave, and in the summer, you roast in the seat until the air conditioning can catch up.
The color is called ‘warm ivory’ in Subaru speak.
The tester was painted in Crystal Black Silica, although it wasn’t obvious it was metallic paint, even on a bright, sunny day.
Black, along with silver and white, take the lion’s share of the color palette on new cars, making for a very colorless environment when you’re on the road. I’ll never own another black car, but it contrasted nicely with the beige leather.
Initially I thought the wood trim was genuine, but a look at the brochure disproved that. But it’s pretty convincing. On some other cars I’ve seen genuine tree trim that looked fake. Go figure.
Pulling out of the dealer lot, the transmission seemed a little herky jerky. Or maybe a sensitive accelerator pedal? As this was the 3.6R, it had the boxer six-cylinder engine, normally aspirated, with 256 horsepower. It had good torque and acceleration-as you would expect with a six.
Too bad most sixes are being killed off by most manufacturers. Well, a lot of them anyway. Not everyone wants a Singer sewing machine-sized turbo four. And while Subaru’s styling can be, wagon model notwithstanding, termed nondescript, they do still use the boxer engines. And I’ve always heard Subaru people are like Volvo people or Saab people – fiercely loyal to the brand.
Thus my curiosity. So, what’s the verdict? Well, it was nice. But as my friend Carmine says, pretty much any 2018 car is pretty nice. True. We’re not really in an era of unreliable junk. Many of them may be ugly, but they’ll get you from Point A to Point B.
And while the Subaru isn’t ugly, and has a conventional front end and grille-none of that Predator-style crap like over at Toyota-it is not especially distinctive. But I think it looks all right. Damning with faint praise, I know! But when so many ’18 and ’19 models suffer from TSS (Tortured Sheetmetal Syndrome), that is a good thing, ha ha!
I do like wagons, and owned a Volvo V50, so I liked the Outback for that reason alone. Still, it impressed me more than I thought it was going to.
I took it on an extended loop through the Quad Cities, going on Interstate 80 for a while, stopping in LeClaire, then heading back via city streets instead of the expressway. As this was a Limited, it was well equipped, with power seats, windows, you-name-it, sunroof, backup camera, and blind spot monitoring.
I was surprised at how quiet it was on the highway. And while the engine makes itself known in traffic, at a consistent highway speed it’s silent. Even tire noise wasn’t noticeable, and a lot of new cars have cheap OEM shoes on them.
One thing I didn’t notice until I was loading the photos for this article was how tall and awkward the roof rack is. I’m guessing it’s bulky to look ‘outdoorsy’ or something. Like all the lower-body plastic cladding, it would look much better if it was just gone.
One funny thing happened. While I was taking pictures at the John Deere World Headquarters, as I got in the car to leave, I noticed a tiny toad on my side window. I stopped to get him off, then he hopped into the windshield wiper recess. Dammit! So there I was, trying to use a Subaru brochure to goose him off the car so he wouldn’t get squished. Then he hopped under the car. Great. Several minutes later, I finally shooed him into the grass and was able to leave. Stuff like this only happens to me. Or my dad!
One final word. What I really appreciated about the Outback is that it has a rare commodity in this day and age: Glass area. Yes, glorious, common-sense glass area. Unlike the rental Fusion I drove last autumn, the A-pillars do not block a significant portion of the real estate between the side windows and windshield. The Fusion A-pillars were horrible. You could smuggle crockey in those things! I’ve always felt that increased glass area is far superior to the false feeling of security small windows sometimes give, and then ‘fixing’ things by adding cameras and sensors everywhere. Just seems like a belt-and-suspenders deal, but apparently I’m in the minority on that.
So there you have it. A genuine wagon available in the U.S., built in Indiana, and unlike some other imported wagons, readily available at the dealership. If that floats your boat, the Outback is worth a look.