Review 2002 Subaru Outback H6-3.0 VDC
SEE ALSO: Subaru Buyer's Guide
2002 Subaru Outback H6-3.0 VDC Base price: $31,895 Price as tested: $32,420 EPA mileage: 20 city/ 26 highway By Des Toups A six-cylinder engine makes the Subaru Outback feel like a different machine, more adult and more serene than its four-banger siblings. It also makes the rest of the Outback, by all standards a thoroughly competent vehicle, feel a little chintzy. Not for lack of trying on Subaru's part. The $32,420 H6-3.0 VDC is its top of the line, awash in leather and wood trim and high-end stereo. Dual sunroofs above, a reassuring stability-control system underneath. But strip away the alphanumeric soup and it's the same Outback as the $24,220 base model -- not a bad thing, merely a far less inexpensive thing. By now, anyone with a television is reasonably familiar with the virtues Crocodile Dundee extols: all-wheel-drive, a little more cargo space and a little extra ground clearance. The Outback is a tastes-great, less-filling alternative to the Toyota 4Runner and Ford Explorer, cheaper because it's built as a car, not a truck, and more agile for the same reason. In its second generation, unveiled for 2000, the Outback grew a bit larger, a bit cushier and a bit heavier. With weight closing in on two tons, even Subaru's torquey 165-horsepower four felt somewhat strained, especially with an automatic transmission. For 2002, Subaru brought in a 212-horsepower six-cylinder, like the four configured with the carmaker's trademark horizontally opposed cylinders (they face each other rather than sit upright). The additional 47 ponies -- and more important, a similar boost in torque, the muscle that actually moves the car -- nudges the Outback over that invisible line between sluggish and adequate. It should do even more. The four-speed automatic transmission is geared too tall to take real advantage of the newfound power, and like automatics in other Subarus, it shifts annoyingly between third and fourth on slight inclines (The lever can be shifted manually to third, but there's no overdrive lockout button.). What's worse is the tranny's hesitant downshifting in situations where power is needed instantly -- an extra heartbeat as you try to avoid a collision or pass quickly. If you're not in a hurry, the automatic shifts unobtrusively, and you can enjoy the silence and smoothness of the flat six. It's a lovely, relaxed engine, with none of the familiar Subaru lumpiness in its idle or exhaust note, and it makes the Outback feel bigger and more expensive (which, of course, it is). The transmission and steering convey zero friction from the all-wheel-drive, allowing the Outback to coast silkily, unlike many of its all-weather rivals. In almost all other respects the VDC is like any other Outback, which is to say it's tidily sized, not especially roomy and very easy to maneuver. The seats are heated and grippy even in leather, though taller drivers may find themselves feeling pinched. There are two sunroofs, a small one over the front seats that tilts only, and a bigger one over the rear seats that retracts. The giant sunroof in the smaller Forester, so big it extends over both seats, exposes Outback's dual units for what they are: gimmickry. Other little things help lend an impression that there's less here than meets the eye. The doors don't have frames for the windows, for example, giving an impression of flimsiness. There's no retained power for the electric windows after the key is removed. Plastic is hard where it should be soft-touch; the simulated wood trim isn't especially attractive (though the real wood-and-leather steering wheel is top notch), and there's far too much of it. An H6-3.0 VDC exclusive is an 11-speaker McIntosh stereo with remarkably rich sound, though it has but a single CD slot and is tuned with rather retro-looking knobs (and still retains a cassette player -- how '90s is that?). There are no steering-wheel radio controls; at this price, there should be. It's also mounted below the ventilation controls, rather than above, where it would be easier to reach. Also unique to the H6-3.0 VDC is its Vehicle Dynamics Control system (that's the VDC) that steps in when the road turns hairy, first by sending power to the appropriate corners, then by using the antilock system to brake slipping wheels and finally by cutting engine power until the car regains stability. Seattle summers are a dry as the winters are wet, so we were able to provoke a reaction from the VDC only in the snowy corners of a high mountain dirt road. With the VDC turned off, we could break the back end loose on icy spots. Switched on, the VDC shut down the fun early and decisively. Sheer idiocy could probably defeat the system -- and it does nothing to stop the car more quickly, only keeping it on its intended path -- but it could be a decisive factor for those who encounter black ice regularly. On pavement, steering is nicely precise, sending back a nice picture of road conditions, and the turning circle is a tidy 36.7 feet. All corners of the car are easily visible from the driver's seat, and front valance is high enough not to scrape parking-lot logs and steep driveways. At 63 inches tall, the Outback is easily a foot shorter than most sport-utilities, which makes lifting bicycles or kayaks to its roof an easy chore rather than a trial. The flip side of the Outback's reasonable dimensions, of course, is that it lacks the room and commanding presence now available in such car-based machines as the Honda Pilot, let alone truck-based rivals such as the Ford Explorer. Towing, for example, is limited to 2,000 pounds, enough a small pop-up camper but not enough to tow many boats and trailers. The seating position is low, rather than the king-of-the-highway view a taller machine offers. Perhaps fuel economy in the low 20s rather than the low teens offsets that. Once the Outback was the only game in town for anybody wanting all-weather traction, carlike handling and decent cargo capacity. Now it's hemmed in on every side: The similarly sized and priced Volkswagen Passat 4Motion is every bit as smooth, with world-class fit and finish and a high-style interior that belongs in a $32,000 car. Tall wagons such as the Pilot and Toyota Highlander offer car-based ride and competent handling, far more room and that mile-high view. At this elevated price level, the Outback H6-3.0 VDC is an unconvincing luxury car and no one's idea of a people hauler. But at $25,000, it's would be a class of one. Let's hope Subaru makes this sweet six available across the line. Des Toups is a Seattle free-lance writer whose work has appeared in AutoWorld magazine, The Seattle Times and newspapers nationwide.