and Grit Highlight
Subaru's 2003 Outback Wagon
by Martha Hindes
the vehicle for our next long-term test wasn't your average station wagon, but
the sport-tuned, six-cylinder Subaru Legacy Outback, freshened for 2003 with some
serious road hugging talent built in. But, a station wagon? How would that fit
the image of a trendy, yet no-nonsense "I mean business" kind of woman
with little use for anything that didn't include a generous dollop of class.
Subaru arrived with a reputation for being capable and dependable. At the beginning
of our long-term test, it would be our task to find out if, among other things,
it lived up to our eye appeal demands as well.
impressions, we discovered, really do count. When the Outback arrived, all ready
for a year's worth of rugged duty, we found it surprisingly handsome, blending
a sense of sportiness and strength with an elegance not usually anticipated in
a station wagon. "When we first got it, I was pretty impressed," said
RTM Publisher Courtney Caldwell, when handing over the keys for my turn at the
wheel. "It looks very expensive compared to other station wagons."
interior tells only part of the story. There's smooth, supple leather bucket seating
in a luscious creamy beige that almost begs you to get inside. You're surrounded
by a band of color bordering on a deep shade of taupe that wraps around the interior
from the dash. Gauges are simple circles with white letters on black, outlined
with a thim rim of the same brushed metal that anchors the leather wrapped shifter.
Dark tones of burled mahogany trim add a sense of richness to the interior. I
found the McIntosh sound system with a six CD changer truly impressive. ("Phenomenal,"
was the term used by Caldwell.)
the roof rails, 16-inch alloy sport wheels and a deep border of gold-toned cladding
that wraps around the entire vehicle accent a muted "Seamist green pearl"
exterior. A double moonroof that opens wide at the rear and tilts to vent at the
front is just plain fun to play with. And a short, center-mounted rear antenna
lends a touch of European panache to the overall design.
driving expectation was something less surprising. I had tested a number of Subarus
in the past and found a constant no matter which model I drove. That was the sense
of sure-footed control from the All-Wheel Drive system now found on every Subaru
sold in America. During the past quarter-century, Subarus have carved out a specialty
niche among enthusiasts ranging from doctors, teachers and other on-the-go professionals
to skiers and kayakers needing a way to get into -- and back out of -- whatever
back-woods playground they found appealing. In short, anyone whose lifestyle demanded
the ability to get up and go. (Perhaps you recall former President Gerald Ford's
daughter, Susan, singing slightly out-of-tune praises of the vehicle in a TV commercial
around the time the U.S. ski team used Subarus.)
didn't take long for my faith to be rewarded. When a vehicle suddenly jutted into
the path of oncoming traffic and directly in front of the Subaru, I yanked the
steering wheel to the side in a heart-pounding, gut-instinct evasive maneuver.
It responded instantly, taking me out of harm's way then safely back into my lane
in one sweeping motion without any loss of control or sense of unsteadiness.
I learned from Subaru spokesman Rob Moran, is exactly what it was designed to
do. Our test vehicle is one of the models sporting Subaru's VDC system, short
for "Vehicle Dynamics Control." Translated, that means it combines all
of the stability and control systems including All-Wheel Drive, torque distribution
and all-speed traction control for the maximum in agility.
VDC system is available only with what Subaru calls its "horizontally opposed"
H6-3.0 liter engine, where the pistons move in a sidewise motion for steadiness
and smooth power. (Think of two boxers punching back and forth with their gloves.)
The engine churns out 212 horsepower and 210 lb. ft. of peak torque on premium
fuel, which is fine for passing at highway speeds but seems to lag a tad from
a full stop.
of any station wagon's credentials are won for the space available for hauling
things. Ours didn't disappoint. While not cavernous, it is ample for heavy duty
shopping (or hauling an adventurer's kayak), since the 60/40 rear seats go flat
to expand the room. The rear deck is low for easy access, with a plastic storage
liner to protect against messes. When open, the rear hatch should have clearance
even for a tall woman.
found a few minor shortcomings. One was the vehicle's single powerpoint, shared
with a cigarette lighter. An area needing tweaking: The close alignment when shifting.
It was somewhat disconcerting to hear engine whine develop when entering a freeway,
then realize the shifter had settled into third rather than drive. Another was
a constant warm bottom from the driver's seat heater that I inadvertently turned
on virtually every time I got in. It was cozy during cold weather, but proved
unexpectedly uncomfortable during early fall. Moran said the on-off switch was
moved there to make it more intuitive.
there were some noises I hadn't expected. One was wind, perceptible at highway
speeds (a growing complaint in many manufacturers' vehicles with improved dampening
of irritating engine and chassis noise.) Some perceptible tire thumping filtered
in to the cabin at times, although it lent a sense of sportiness compatible with
the Outback's purpose in life. And a slightly high pitched
whine from the axle was easily muted out by the radio. It's so subtle and barely
audible, it probably would take a long trip to gauge any irritability effect.
suggested retail price for this wagon rated 19 city and 26 highway miles per gallon,
is a little above median range. It totals $33,215 including $525 in destination
and delivery charges. While accessories include electrnoic window controls, remote
keyless entry, an eight position electronic driver's seat with height adjustments
and manual lumbar support, side impact airbags, four disk brakes and GM's satellite
On Star system, there was only one option. That's a $295 trailer hitch, requested
for a future test.
true disappointment came at the whim of the weather, not the vehicle designed
to handle it. I had begged back a turn at the wheel to do some testing in snow
-- where the Subaru really shines -- only to have bright sunshine and warmth melt
most traces of the season's first measurable snowfall. Some patches of slushy
ice gave a hint of the vehicle's ability to maneuver where few competitors would
fear to go. But that's a midwinter test that will have to wait for the next long-term
review. Stay tuned...