2002 Subaru Outback L.L. Bean EditionIs it a wagon or an SUV?
Subarus have come a long, long way in recent years. Once known chiefly for across-the-board all-wheel-drive systems (when few others offered it) and a thrashy, agricultural-sounding flat 4-cylinder engine, Subaru vehicles have evolved into versatile, high-quality competitors. Always a touch quirky thanks in part to the Brat mystique, many "car guys" have come to think of Subarus as Japanese Saabs in terms of individuality.
Our test vehicle was a green-and-platinum Outback H6-3.0 L.L. Bean Edition Wagon. This is the company's top-of-the-line wagon (although Subaru likes to market the Outback as a car-like SUV). Other Outback models are an H6-3.0 sedan, a VDC sedan and a VDC wagon. All Outbacks have full-time all-wheel drive (AWD) and are powered by either a 3.0-liter, 212-hp flat 6-cylinder engine with 4-speed electronically controlled automatic transmission or a 2.5-liter, 165-hp flat 4-cylinder with a choice of 5-speed manual or the 4-speed automatic.
VDC (Vehicle Dynamics Control) models use a planetary center differential with an electronically managed continuously variable transfer clutch and VTD (Variable Torque Distribution) to achieve full-time, on-demand AWD. The H6-3.0 sedan and L.L. Bean wagon use an electronically managed, continuously variable transfer clutch and limited-slip differential.
The "Active" AWD system used on Subaru's automatic transmission vehicles (except the Outback VDC) delivers most power to the front wheels under steady-state conditions, while some is being directed to the rear axle. The VTD system has a 45/55 split during steady-state driving, rising as high as 50/50 depending on traction conditions. Five-speed manual models use a viscous center differential with a 50/50 split steady-state, then re-apportions power to the axle with the most traction. All Outbacks have limited-slip rear axles, except the VDC, which has 4-wheel traction control instead.
A few words on Subaru engines: Inspired by the old VW Beetle flat four, Subaru's 4-bangers are shaped like an "H": two cylinders on each side, horizontally opposed. Where the Beetle's was mounted in back, driving the rear wheels, Subaru chose a conventional front location and front-wheel drive for better fore-aft weight distribution and dynamic stability. Seeking a unique advantage in an increasingly competitive market, Subaru years ago began developing and offering AWD as a product differentiator, either standard or optional in virtually all of its models. More recently, Subaru added two cylinders and begat its H6. The current version features 24 valves with dual overhead cams, sequential port fuel injection, aluminum heads and block, and a "smart" engine-control module with learning, self-diagnosis, anti-knock and "limp-home" capability (which keeps it running-slowly-even in case of major problems).
So, how does it drive? Very nicely, thank you. The engine launches well in low gear, fades momentarily mid-range, then charges enthusiastically to a 0-60 time of roughly nine seconds-not great, but respectable for a 3,700-pound wagon with an automatic transmission. This powertrain is suitably smooth and quiet in going about its business, with little trace of the rough and ready throb of the engine's early 4-cylinder ancestors. One complaint: The gearbox is sometimes slow in kicking down a gear for a hurried two-lane pass.
The Subaru's ride is smooth, its steering precise and its handling about as expected from a tallish compact wagon with off-road aspirations. It feels nimble enough in normal and semi-brisk cornering but leans a bit and eventually loses grip in front when pushed to the limit of tire adhesion. Brakes are about average for the class, effective enough in hard, sudden stops, with good pedal feel and little fade after three successive tries.
Styling is subjective, but we think the Outback looks the proper part of a rugged yet civilized compact passenger wagon, though not much like an SUV. Exterior details are tasteful, even the (mostly decorative) plastic guards over the large, round fog lamps and the protective, contrasting body cladding that extends halfway up the doors and into the bumpers.
This Subaru's interior is a study in quality fits, tasty materials and easy ergonomics. Nothing quirky or unusual, just a well-designed layout of easy to read, reach and operate gauges, switches and buttons. The leather-covered front buckets are comfortable and multi-adjustable via simple, intuitive power controls. The 60/40 split rear bench folds forward (though not entirely flat) to enhance cargo room. Small-item storage space is abundant in door pockets, a covered console bin, two more bins in the forward console and dash and twin deep console cupholders. The removable plastic cargo tray lets your stuff slide around in back unless retained via the four handy tie-down loops. Hidden storage bins reside under the cargo floor.
A few complaints: Cruise control is managed through a handy column stalk, but a dash-mounted switch must be pushed to re-activate the system each time you re-start the car. The Outback has only one dash-area 12-volt socket (the lighter plug), so you can't charge your phone and run another accessory (say, a radar detector) at the same time. Worse, that plug is de-powered with ignition off, so your accessory must be re-booted each time you drive. However, the Outback has an additional cargo-area 12-volt outlet. Also, the horn beeps to announce "doors locked" and "unlocked" by key-fob remote were personally annoying.
The Outback was introduced in 1995 as a cosmetic package on the Legacy L model. The current rugged-look raised suspension, beefed-up bumper version arrived for 1996, and the L.L. Bean and H6-3.0 VDC editions debuted in 2001. Marketed as a "crossover" (car-based SUV) intended to compete with the likes of the Lexus RX 300, Volvo V70 Cross Country and Audi's Allroad models, Outback is now Subaru's bestseller with 68% of the company's North American sales. Out test-drive confirms why. (www.subaru.com)
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