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2005 Car Review: Subaru Outback 2.5 XT Limited Wagon

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2005 Subaru Outback 2.5 XT Limited Wagon

Subaru may have invented the car-meets-SUV crossover concept with its Outback, but neither the company nor its products are standing still. A decade ago, the original Outback leveraged Subaru's history of high-clearance all-wheel drive wagons and combined it with SUV-like styling to come up with one of the most widely-copied automotive ideas in recent memory. The Outback moved Subaru from the role of a minor niche player, known primarily to people in the Northeast and Northwest, to a position of nationwide prominence, with influence beyond its sales figures.

Meanwhile, in Asia and Europe, where SUVs are only a minor part of the automotive ecology, Subaru used its participation in the World Rally Championship as its major marketing tool. And the high-performance WRX was the fruit of that effort. When the WRX finally made it to American shores, it was successful beyond Subaru's expectations. Did Subaru have two completely different product streams, sport-compact and sport-utility?

Maybe, but they have joined in the completely-redesigned third-generation 2005 Outback, particularly in the 2.5 XT model. Overall, the new Outback is a bit larger, with crisper, better-defined styling, and has moved upscale in interior design and appointment. As previously, models are available with 2.5-liter four-cylinder and 3.0-liter six-cylinder engines, both, of course since these are Subarus, of horizontally-opposed ``boxer'' configuration. 2.5-liter models are offered in regular and upscale ``Limited'' grades; 3.0-liter models come as a sedan and two wagon trim levels.

So far, little sounds different from last year. Look more closely, and you will see the 2.5 XT and 2.5 XT Limited wagons. Nestled under their hoods is not the regular single overhead cam, naturally-aspirated engine found in other Legacys and Outbacks, but a detuned version of the dual overhead cam engine of the WRX STi. While the XT engine has the same 250 horsepower as the 3.0-liter six, it has more torque - 250 lb-ft to 219 - and hauls 80 to 100 lbs. less vehicle weight, depending on model. The entry-level 2.5i uses the familiar 2.5-liter 168-hp non-turbo four-cylinder engine.

My transportation for the past week has been an Outback 2.5XT Limited wagon. Much like the original Outback, this newest model slips between genres to forge new territory. It's a touch softer than the sport-oriented Legacy 2.5 GT, but far more capable when driven enthusiastically than any other crossover, let alone ``real'' SUV. Yet it has ample interior space and a degree of comfort and refinement not previously associated with Subaru. Mix sport with utility with the 2005 Subaru Outback XT.

APPEARANCE: As with its cousin, the Legacy wagon, the new Outback's shape is still identifiably Subaru, but leaner, crisper, and more toned. Despite more ground clearance than some large SUVs, it still looks low and sleek. While it is a little longer and wider, with an increased wheelbase, the new Outback has gained definition rather than mass thanks to angular shoulder lines on the sides, more sharply-defined fenders, and twin character lines in the hood. Complexly-shaped headlights add to its contemporary character. The Outback has a much more massive and SUV-like front bumper fascia than the Legacy, with inset foglamps. It still has side cladding, but that is toned-down considerably and body-colored, as are the wheel arch extensions. Subaru introduced hood scoops to its cars a few years back; their function then was strictly cosmetic. The XT's scoop, while smaller than the WRX STi's gaping orifice, is just as functional, and feeds cool air to the engine's intercooler.

COMFORT: Nowhere is the Outback's move upscale in style and refinement more apparent than inside. Its redesigned interior is competitive with European near-luxury sport marques in design, materials, and fit and finish. Even in its dark color, it feels spacious and airy. Metal-colored plastic trim adds brightness without being distracting or cheap-looking. XT models feature electroluminescent gauges that are easily visible in any light. The Limited comes with perforated leather seating. Power-adjustable front buckets provide very good support and comfort, and are heated, with four-level adjustment. The standard equipment level is very high, with a 6-CD changer audio system, dual-zone climate control, a dual-panel moonroof, heated outside mirrors, windshield wiper de-icers and plenty of interior storage spaces. The rear seat comfortably holds two adults, and a third could fit in the center in a pinch. Cargo space is good with it up. Fold it down, completely or partially, and the Outback can hold its own with more SUV-like crossovers and more expensive European wagons for cargo capacity and versatility.

SAFETY: Subaru feels that there is more to safety than merely occupant protection. Its ``Active Driving/Active Safety'' concept encompasses passive aspects, such as the ``Ring-Shaped Reinforcement Frame'' consisting of a strong central passenger section and front and rear crush zones, dual-stage front , side, and side-curtain air bags, and active safety aspects including all-wheel drive traction, predictable handling, and good brakes with design elements such as the best possible visibility and reduced distraction.

ROADABILITY: The Outback shares the Legacy platform, so it, like the Legacy, has a stronger, more rigid, and lighter structure in its third generation. Greater use of aluminum and high-strength steel, and advanced construction techniques including hydroforming and tailored-blank welding make that possible. A longer wheelbase and wider track enhance stability, and a revised MacPherson front, multilink rear suspension provides nimble, sports-sedan handling even with 8.7 inches of clearance. The secret is the low center of gravity of Subaru's boxer engine, which is mounted lower this year to further reduce the car's center of gravity. On the road, the Outback can be driven like a sports sedan, not a sport-utility. Because of its tires and milder suspension spec, it doesn't quite have the responsiveness of the Legacy GT, but it's still far ahead of your average SUV.

PERFORMANCE: Hmmm, those buttons on the steering wheel aren't the radio controls.... No, they're for manually shifting the optional ``SPORTSHIFT'' five-speed automatic transmission - which tells you all you need to know about the Outback 2.5XT. The 2.5-liter twincam engine is, as mentioned, a less-highly-tuned variant of the STi powerhouse, but ``less'' is misleading here. 13.5 lbs of intercooled turbo boost, versus the STi's 14.5, and other internal changes give it 250 hp and 250 lb-ft or torque, versus the STi's 300 and 300. This is not exactly anemic, and it's quieter than previous Subaru engines. There is a little hesitation off the line as the turbo spools up, but keep the revs up and acceleration is ferocious. And torque is so strong that the keeping the automatic in ``D'' is perfectly acceptable most of the time. It's more fun to shift it with the buttons, or the shift lever, but it's necessary only for the absolute quickest acceleration, and the standard five-speed manual gearbox is the choice for anyone concerned with that. All that power gets to the ground efficiently through full-time all-wheel drive. Manual models have a static 50/50 front/rear torque distribution and use a viscous-coupling locking center differential; automatics use the ``Variable Torque Distribution'' (VTD) system, in which a center planetary differential works with an electronically-controlled hydraulic transfer clutch to manage torque distribution. In normal operation there is little difference between the systems, and all-wheel drive ensures maximum traction in all conditions - dry, warm, and sunny as well as in rain and snow.

CONCLUSIONS: Crossover SUV meets rally car meets upscale sports-luxury wagon in the new Subaru Outback 2.5 XT.

2005 Subaru Outback 2.5 XT Limited Wagon

Base Price			$ 30,695
Price As Tested			$ 32,470
Engine Type			dual overhead cam, 16-valve 
				 4-cylinder with variable valve timing.
Engine Size			2.5 liters / 150 cu. in.
Horsepower			250 @ 6000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			250 @ 3600 rpm
Transmission			5-speed electronically-controlled
				 automatic with 
				 SPORTSHIFT manual mode
Wheelbase / Length		105.1 in. / 188.7 in.
Curb Weight			3,565 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		14.3
Fuel Capacity			16.9 gal.
Fuel Requirement		91 octane unleaded premium gasoline
Tires				P225/55 VR17 Bridgestone Potenza RE92A
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc,
				 antilock standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut /
				  independent multilink
Drivetrain			Front engine, all-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		19 / 24 / 20
0 to 60 mph				est. 7.0  sec

5-speed automatic transmission 
  with SPORTSHIFT			$ 1,200
Destination charge			$   575