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2011 Subaru Outback 3.6R Limited Review

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SEE ALSO: Subaru Buyers Guide


2011 Subaru Outback 3.6R Limited

Looking for an entry-luxury crossover? One that's quiet, comfortable, smooth, and powerful, with proven all-weather ability and space for four or five adults?

Think Subaru.Yes, Subaru. As in Outback 3.6R. Unless you absolutely have to have a luxury brand in your driveway… because the Outback 3.6R is as comfortable, well-equipped, and capable as any name-brand entry luxury crossover.

The 3.6R is the premium Outback, and it gets its name from the latest iteration of Subaru's six-cylinder engine, now with 256 horsepower. It is, of course, horizontally-opposed ("boxer") for a low center of gravity even with a useful 8.7 inches of ground clearance, so handling is closer to WRC than SUV. A six-cylinder engine is inherently smooth, making it perfect for an upscale car. And, like all Subarus in recent times, the Outback 3.6R has full-time all-wheel drive for optimum traction in all conditions from loose mud and gravel through snow to dry pavement.

If Subaru didn't actually invent the wagon-with-SUV abilities crossover (that honor goes to the AMC Eagle, perhaps), it has the right vehicle for the right time when it debuted the first Outback in 1995. The concept was quickly copied, but not necessarily improved. As the fourth generation of "The World's First Sport-Utility Wagon"® in 2010, the newest Outback is the largest ever inside, with a 2.8-increase in wheelbase and a two-inch increase in width, plus four more inches of rear legroom. But it's slightly shorter than its predecessor, with reduced overhangs and improved ground clearance for even better bad road and bad weather abilities.

Underneath the modestly-restyled skin is a new chassis platform with new powertrains. Besides the 3.6R, there is the 2.5i, with a namesake 170-hp 2.5-liter four-cylinder boxer engine. Both models have three trim levels, base, Premium, and Limited.

In the manner of press fleet vehicles, the 2011 Outback 3.6R that was my test car for the past week was a well-equipped Limited. Which means leather seating, with power for both fronts, dual-zone climate control, and the harmon/kardan audio system that would be an option in the Premium. Add in the Power Moonroof and Navigation System Package and it has all of the comforts and conveniences available in "real" luxury crossovers. With the smooth, efficient power of Subaru's six-cylinder engine, the Outback 3.6R matches them in refinement as well -- and features a better all-wheel drive system than most.

APPEARANCE:It's instantly recognizable as a Subaru Outback even though all body panels, and the grille and lights, have changed. The fourth generation is bolder and more well-defined than ever, with strong character lines on the hood and shoulders and prominent wheel arches. At the front, a larger grille with horizontal chrome crossbars, and large, bright headlights give it more presence. Oversized triangular taillight do the same at the rear. There is less lower cladding than in some previous editions, but it is still functional, offering protection against minor scrapes off-road or versus urban obstacles.

COMFORT: Get in, aided at night by courtesy lights at the bottoms of the front doors, and the new Outback feels more spacious. Only because it is. Two inches extra width doesn't sound like much, on paper. But, allied with the restyled instrument panel and doors, there is more elbow room. And headroom. And legroom - especially for rear-seat passengers, with a healthy four-inch increase. At 3.6 Limited level, seats are leather, with perforated center sections. Both fronts are power-adjustable, and moderately firm for good long-term comfort. Two-level seat heaters, along with a windshield wiper de-icer and heated side mirrors, are standard Limited fare and warm quickly, as does the interior heater. The leather-wrapped steering wheel is adjustable, manually, for both tilt and reach, and has cruise and auxiliary audio controls plus shift paddles mounted behind. Brightly back-lit instruments are easy to see. The electronic parking brake is an unusual feature in this class. The audio system sounds great, with AM/FM/XM/single CD/auxiliary jack and USB input (with a power point inside of the console box) allowing plenty of choice. The nav system uses a modified touch-screen interface, and is simple to use. Useful storage abounds, with both open and covered spaces in the stack, a locking glove box, the console box, and door pockets with bottle holders in all doors. A cargo shade protects luggage from prying eyes, and a removable rubberized pad protects the carpeted cargo area. The rear seat folds 60/40 if extra length is needed. The space-saver spare lives under the load floor, as does a little hidden storage space.

SAFETY: It's a Subaru, so the 2010 Outback uses "Ring-Shaped Frame Reinforcement" architecture to protect occupants. A full complement of airbags, with impact force sensors, front passenger weight sensor, and even sensors to measure the driver's distance to the steering wheel to control inflation strength offer further protection. As do anti-whiplash front seats, standard four-wheel antilock disc brakes, Vehicle Dynamics Control (VDC) with traction control, and of course all-wheel drive traction and handling.

RIDE AND HANDLING: The newest Outback's longer wheelbase and stiffer unibody structure improve interior space and comfort and also help to improve both ride and handling qualities. The front MacPherson strut system has been redesigned, while at the rear a double wishbone system replaces the previous multilink. Both are mounted to subframes to help reduce noise, vibration, and harshness. Successfully, as the ride is comfortable and quiet. The design of the unibody shell and the low, horizontally-opposed engine keep the center of gravity low, minimizing side-to-side weight transfer when cornering. Springs and shocks are correctly matched, and tuned moderately for good control with minimal body roll when cornering, despite the considerable 8.7 inches of ground clearance. Which allows easy and safe dirt-road driving, or protection from road debris in the allegedly civilized world.

PERFORMANCE: With equivalent power to the turbocharged 2.5-liter four cylinder engine in the WRX -- 256 bhp @ 6000 rpm and 247 lb-ft of torque @ 4400 (6) vs. 265 bhp @ 6000 and 244 lb-ft @ 4000 (4) -- why bother with the larger, naturally-aspirated six? Smoothness and refinement. Subaru's turbo four has a distinctive exhaust note and character that go perfectly with the sport-oriented WRX, but less so with the upscale end of the Outback range. Also, with the debut of the new Outback (and Legacy upon which it is based) last year, the six got major revisions, including enlargement from 3.0 liters (and 245 hp) to 3.6, and now runs on regular unleaded with no loss of fuel economy -- the 23 mpg I got during the week is not bad at all for a 3600-pound all-wheel drive crossover. The engine's strong low-end and midrange torque (225 lb-ft from 2000 to 6000 rpm) works well with the five-speed automatic, and D is fine most of the time. A touch on the paddles behind the steering wheel spokes will down- or up-shift on demand, reverting to automatic in a few moments in D. Full manual mode is there for manual shifting. The transmission logic ensures that that will be for driver entertainment and involvement, not a necessity. The Variable Torque Distribution (VTD) all-wheel drive system is set up for a static 45:55 front/rear torque split to eliminate torque steer and give a sportier feel. The torque split varies as needed, and operation is transparent. Except maybe if you drive a non-AWD car in the same poor conditions immediately afterwards…

CONCLUSIONS: A luxury Subaru? Absolutely, if it's an Outback 3.6R Limited.

2011 Subaru Outback 3.6R Limited

Base Price			$ 31,495
Price As Tested			$ 35,248
Engine Type			dohc horizontally-opposed aluminum alloy 
				 6-cylinder with variable camshaft
Engine Size			3.6 liters / 222 cu. in.
Horsepower			256 @ 6000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)			247 @ 4400 rpm
Transmission			5-speed automatic with manual-shift mode
Wheelbase / Length		107.9 in. / 188.2 in.
Curb Weight			3658 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower		14.3
Fuel Capacity			18.5 gal.
Fuel Requirement		87 octane regular unleaded gasoline
Tires				P225/60 R17 98T Continental Conti Pro Contact
Brakes, front/rear		vented disc / solid disc,
				 ABS, EBD, BA standard
Suspension, front/rear		independent MacPherson strut /
				  independent double wishbone
Ground clearance		8.7 inches
Drivetrain			longitudinal front engine,
				  full-time all-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed		18 / 25 / 23
0 to 60 mph				7.5  sec (est)

Power Moonroof and Navigation System Package - includes:
  power moonroof, rear vision camera, navigation system
  with 8" display, upgraded audio system, with AM/FM/XM/single
  CD, USB and aux input, iPod compatibility, Bluetooth®
  connectivity					 	$ 2995
Rear cargo net						$   33
Destination charge					$  725