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2009 Subaru Outback 3.0R Limited Review

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2009 Subaru Outback

2009 Subaru Outback 3.0R Limited

For many automakers, crossovers are the new thing. For Subaru, well, Subaru invented the "car with SUV characteristics" crossover concept back in 1995 with the first Outback, and has successfully been selling a variety of Outbacks ever since.

Which is not to say that a 2009 Outback is little-changed from its 1995 ancestor, although a glance may make that seem the case. In the intervening years there have been Outback sedans and smaller Impreza-based Outback Sports. But as of the most recent major changes to the line, in model year 2008, "Outback" now refers to a Legacy-based wagon with the Outback-standard additional ground clearance and a bit of cladding. Gone are the sedans, although the Outback Sport continues. And speaking of sedans, the Legacy line is now sedan-only. All Subarus continue to feature full-time all-wheel drive, for optimum traction in all conditions, not just winter slipperiness.

With last year's revisions, further changes to the Outback lineup for 2009 are minimal. There are three models by engine choice, all horizontally-opposed "boxer" motors - the 2.5i with a naturally-aspirated 170-horsepower 2.5-liter four, the 2.5XT with a 2.5-liter, 243-hp turbo four, and the 3.0R, which features a 245-horse, 3.0-liter naturally-aspirated six under its hood. The 2.5i is offered in base, Special Edition, and Limited trim, while the 2.5XT and 3.0R are Limited only. Looking for LL Bean? That trim level has been replaced by the Limited, and what used to be the Premium is now the Special Edition. The VDC electronic stability assistance system is now found in all 2009 Outbacks.

Even a quick glance at the lineup will show two apparently similar Outbacks, the 2.5XT with 243 hp and 241 lb-ft of torque and the 3.0R with 245 hp and 215 lb-ft of torque. The similarity is on paper only, as the torquier turbo four, related closely to the WRX powerplant, is punchier and more performance-oriented while the six in the R is smoother, for a more luxury-oriented driving experience. Multiple personalities in the Outback lineup? Absolutely.

And the Outback 3.0R Limited that has been my transportation for the past week has been as smooth and quiet as any other entry-luxury car in its mid-$30s price class. Add in the now-traditional Outback virtues of all-weather, all-"road" (and that includes dirt and gravel, at least up to the limits of its 8.4 inches of clearance) driving ability and its roomy interior, and the 3.0R has no direct competition. It can go anywhere any other crossover (or many "real" SUVs) can, with all the quiet and comfort of an upscale car. And with an EPA rating of 17 mpg city / 24 highway, it bests any similarly-sized SUV and most crossovers. Those figures are not fantasy, either, as the trip computer showed 24 to 25 mpg on the highway, and over 22 overall. Towing? Its 3000-lb. rating should suffice for motorcycles, personal watercraft, small boats, camping trailers, and other toys.

APPEARANCE: Even with its new grille, a Subaru Outback will immediately be recognized as a Subaru Outback. The formula is by now familiar - take one medium-sized wagon, increase ground clearance, add lower cladding - more subdued now, with dark, textured plastic surrounding the bottom of the car and body-colored material for the wheel arches and doors - and top with a roof rack. If the basic shape and proportions haven't changed, the details have, and sharply-defined, angular character lines in the hood and a noticeable shoulder line complement the larger, chrome-trimmed grille and new angular taillights.

COMFORT: With a $34,000 price point, the Outback 3.0R Limited is playing in a tough league. But it is capable, and features all of the expected accoutrements. Its interior design and materials are equal to its competition, with a two-tone dark-over-light color scheme. Comfortable, power-adjustable leather seats (fronts heated, with four-level rheostat control), power accessories and (extra-long) sunroof, a Harman-KardonĘ premium AM/FM/satellite/CD/MP3 & WMA CD audio system with an auxiliary jack and power point in the console box, and a navigation system with a simple touch-screen interface are all standard. The only options in my test car were a set of cargo nets.

Front seat comfort is very good, with a manually-adjustable tilt-and-telescope steering wheel allowing a good driving position for all drivers. Its leather-trimmed rim and cruise, auxiliary audio, and SI-Drive controls add comfort and convenience. Bright electroluminescent gauges are easily visible at all times. The navigation and vehicle information systems are accessed via the touch screen mounted at the top of the center stack, and are self-explanatory to use. The audio and climate-control systems are not accessed through the screen, but by simple old-school buttons in the stack.

The rear seat offers plenty of space and comfort for two passengers, but a low central tunnel leaves space for a third, smaller, center passenger at least for a while. With the usual 60/40 split and a rubberized tray over the rear cargo area, plus a cargo shade and all those optional nets, and a little hidden space between the floor and space-saver spare underneath, the Outback has no shortage of cargo ability or versatility.

SAFETY: The Subaru Outback has received five-star ratings by the NHTSA for driver and front passenger frontal and side crash protection, and a four-star rating for rollover protection. It has also gotten the highest possible marks in tests by the IIHS.

RIDE AND HANDLING: Good ground clearance - in this case 8.4 inches at the exhaust pipe - is usually thought of as antithetical to good handling, as it means that the vehicle's mass is placed high. Subaru's horizontally-opposed engine doesn't have as much vertical height as an inline or vee design, and that helps keep a Subaru's center of gravity low, for good handling. A sturdy unibody and moderately-tuned fully-independent suspension by means of MacPherson struts in front and multilink system in the rear further help the Outback's ride and handling characteristics. The 3.0R Limited is, unsurprisingly considering its mission as the luxury flagship of the line, oriented more for comfort than speed, but it combines that comfort with very good road manners and excellent all-wheel drive traction - which has advantages on dry pavement as well as in rain, snow, or mud.

PERFORMANCE: Want a little WRX attitude with your Outback? Go for the 2.5XT. The 3.0R is about refinement, with a smooth 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine providing that and 245 horsepower (at 6600 rpm) and 215 lb-ft of torque (at 4200 rpm) and a commendable lack of thirst for premium unleaded. Like all Subaru engines, it's a liquid-cooled, horizontally-opposed "boxer" design, and it features both the Active Valve Control System (AVCS) and the Active Valve Lift System (AVLS) for optimum control of valve timing and lift, to better control power, emissions, and fuel consumption. Power is developed in a linear manner, but there is one interesting detail - the SI-Drive system. Controlled by a rotary knob on the console, SI-Drive remaps the engine and transmission control computers and the electronic throttle to change power and throttle response characteristics. In the default "I" (Intelligent) mode, throttle response is relaxed - more pedal movement is necessary - and engine torque is reduced. Fuel economy rises, and the lower torque and slower response can also be useful in slippery conditions. "S" - Sport - improves throttle response and acceleration. "S#" - Sport Sharp - further develops that, and also holds gears in the five-speed automatic transmission longer under acceleration and provides quicker, more assertive downshifts.

CONCLUSIONS: The Subaru Outback 3.0R Limited combines Subaru core values of good all-wheel drive traction and handling with smooth power and luxury.

Specifications: 2009 Subaru Outback 3.0 R Limited
Base Price			$ 34,095
Price As Tested			$ 34,927
Engine Type			aluminum alloy horizontally-opposed
				 dual overhead cam 24-valve six-cylinder
				 with variable valve timing and lift
Engine Size			3.0 liters / 183 cu. in.
Horsepower			245 @ 6600 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			215 @ 4200 rpm
Transmission			5-speed automatic
Wheelbase / Length		105.1 in. / 189.0 in.
Curb Weight			3,625 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		14.8
Fuel Capacity			16.9 gal.
Fuel Requirement		91 octane premium gasoline recommended
Tires				P225/50R17 97V m+s Bridgestone Potenza
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc,
				 ABS and EBD standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut /
				  independent multilink
Ground clearance		8.4 inches
Drivetrain			longitudinal front engine,
				 full-time all-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		17 / 24 / 22
0 to 60 mph				est 7.2  sec
Towing capacity			3000 pounds

Rear cargo net				$  51
Seatback cargo net			$  48
Side cargo nets (set of 2)		$  68
Destination charge			$ 665