Road & Travel Magazine

Auto Advice & Tips
Auto Buyer's Guides
Car Care Maintenance
Climate Change News
Auto Awards Archive
Insurance & Accidents
Legends & Leaders
New Car Reviews
Planet Driven
Road Humor
Road Trips
RV & Camping
Safety & Security
Teens & Tots Tips
Tire Buying Tips
Used Car Buying
Vehicle Model Guide

Travel Channel
Adventure Travel
Advice & Tips
Airline Rules
Bed & Breakfasts
Cruises & Tours
Destination Reviews
Earth Tones
Family Travel Tips
Health Trip
Hotels & Resorts
Luxury Travel
Pet Travel
RV & Camping
Safety & Security
Spa Reviews
Train Vacations
World Travel Directory

Bookmark and Share

Glamour and Grit Highlight
Subaru's 2003 Outback Wagon

by Martha Hindes

Sure, 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.

The 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.

First 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."

The 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.)

Outside, 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.

The 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.)

It 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.

That, 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.

The 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.

Part 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.

I 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.

And 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.

Subaru's 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.

One 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...