SEE ALSO: Subaru Buyer's Guide
Subaru turned its sales around several years ago by doing what it had historically done best - making all-wheel drive passenger cars. It has achieved a great deal of success with the Legacy Outback Wagon, billed as "the world's first sport-utility wagon". With the Outback, Subaru has added sport-utility-like style to its compact Legacy station to create an new automotive genre.
In concept, the Outback is really nothing new for Subaru. There are plenty of well-aged all-wheel drive Subaru wagons still in daily use in many parts of the country. Many of these were made with greater-than- standard ground clearance for better use on poorly-maintained roads, and in poor weather conditions. The Outback is basically the current version of one of those venerable old workhorses, with more aggressive styling, greater ground clearance, and a larger engine differentiating it from the standard Legacy wagon. The Outback Limited, new for 1997, adds upscale external trim and a luxurious leather interior.
All Subarus sold in this country feature all-wheel drive (AWD). All-wheel drive has advantages in all conditions, not just on wet, snowy, or loose surfaces. So, Subarus are true all-season cars. I had the opportunity to drive a 1997 Legacy Outback Limited at the press introduction in the mountains of southern Utah, near Zion National Park, and for a week at home. In all conditions from rain and snow to fall sunshine, it was quiet, comfortable, and sure-footed. It can easily do all of the tasks for which most sport-utilities are used, with superior fuel economy and road manners.
APPEARANCE: Functional hood scoops that bring cool air into the engine compartment are new at Subaru for 1997. Added to the heavy-duty looking front bumper with stoneguard-protected fog lights, the scoop gives the front of the Legacy Outback Limited an aggressive look. The bumpers and lower body side trim are a dark gray color, and small mudflaps behind the wheel wells add to the off-road appearance as well as protect the paint from road debris. Compared to the regular Legacy wagon, the Outback has a raised roofline topped by a luggage rack, larger wheels and tires, and increased ground clearance for sport-utility style. The Limited model has body-colored mirrors and door handles, and unique gold-trimmed alloy wheels.
COMFORT: The Legacy Outback Limited puts its occupants in the lap of luxury, Subaru style. It is at home carrying groceries around town or as a vehicle for outdoors adventure. The seats are leather-upholstered, and leather and woodgrain trim highlights a well-designed interior. Instrumentation is complete and informative. A pictorial diagram tells which door is ajar. The fully-reclining front bucket seats are supportive, very comfortable, and heated. Rear seat passengers have plenty of space, and the rear bench seat can be folded with a 60/40 split for extra cargo capacity. The cargo area has a shade to cover its contents, a handy tray for organization, and its own power outlet. The liftgate is heavy but well- balanced, with a low liftover height. Power windows, mirrors (heated), and doorlocks are standard, as is an AM/FM/weather band/cassette sound system. The Legacy Outback Limited is very well-equipped. Convenience options on my test car were limited to a CD changer mounted under the front passenger seat, a sound system upgrade, and remote keyless entry.
SAFETY: Standard safety equipment includes dual airbags, four-wheel antilock disc brakes, 5-mph bumpers, and side-impact protection door beams.
ROADABILITY: The Legacy Outback Limited, like all 1997 Subarus, features the Subaru All-Wheel Driving System. This is the company's term for its balanced chassis design with good weight distribution, a low center of gravity, a long-travel, fully-independent suspension, and an efficient all- wheel drive system. It has traction benefits in all road and weather conditions, not just winter driving. The Outback Limited is quiet inside, with good ride comfort. It is also nimble and fun to drive, and feels much more secure on the road than any truck-based sport-utility. It should handle inclement road conditions as well as most SUVs, and has 7.3 inches of ground clearance to deal with rutted dirt roads.
PERFORMANCE: Like every Subaru, the Legacy Outback Limited uses a liquid-cooled, horizontally-opposed engine. The dual overhead cam, 2.5- liter 4-cylinder motor in the Limited now has increased power and torque, and gets better gas mileage while running on unleaded regular instead of premium. A 5-speed manual transmission is standard; my test car had the optional 4-speed automatic. The engine has plenty of power for all speeds and conditions. The Limited has most sport-utilities beat in acceleration and fuel economy.
CONCLUSIONS: "The World's First Sport-Utility Wagon" now has a luxury Limited edition that combines comfort with Subaru's versatility and unique character. Who said that small wagons were boring?
SPECIFICATIONS 1997 Subaru Legacy Outback Limited Base Price $ 24,195 Price As Tested $ 26,504 Engine Type horizontally-opposed 4-cylinder, DOHC, 16 valves Engine Size 2.5 liters, 150 cu. in. Horsepower 165 @ 5600 Torque (lb-ft) 162 @ 4000 Transmission 4-speed electronically-controlled automatic Wheelbase / Length 103.5 in. / 185.8 in. Curb Weight 3230 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 19.6 Fuel Capacity 15.9 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular Tires 205/70 R15 Michelin XW4 m+s Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent MacPherson strut Ground Clearance 7.3 inches Drivetrain front engine, all-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 21/27/24 0 to 60 mph 9.6 sec 1/4 mile (E.T.) 17.2 sec Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.40