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2012 Subaru Outback 3.6R Limited Review by Carey Russ

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2012 Subaru Outback


SEE ALSO: Subaru Buyers Guide

Do you live where winter means snow and ice? Or travel to such places for recreation? Maybe you like outdoors activities in better weather, and need a vehicle that can deal with dirt or gravel forest roads that might not be as "improved" as the map says. If the answer to any of these questions is "yes", you'll need good ground clearance and four-wheel drive.

Which used to mean "truck", which meant a thirst for fuel and a, well, truck-like ride quality with noise to match. Back in the mid-Nineties, Subaru had a better idea -- take an all-wheel drive wagon, already the company's specialty, and raise the ground clearance and give it a more rugged look. The result was the Outback, and it proved both popular and influential. The Outback was the first successful "crossover" (car crossed with truck/SUV). Timing is everything -- the SUV fad was booming and the Outback provided the perfect alternative for people who wanted something that was more capable in inclement conditions than a regular car, but was not a thirsty, uncomfortable truck.

Fast-forward fifteen-plus years. Truck-based SUVs are out of fashion, crossovers are everywhere in seemingly every size, and the Outback, now in its fourth generation, is still alive and thriving. It still combines four-wheel drive ability with passenger car comfort, and that comfort level can be anywhere from middle-class to entry luxury.

The current Outback is the biggest yet, but it's no behemoth. It's actually shorter than its immediate ancestor, but a longer wheelbase, greater width, and redesigned interior mean more space inside, especially for rear passengers. Engines, both horizontally-opposed "boxer" type of course, are a 2.5-liter four-cylinder with 170 horsepower matched to a six-speed manual or CVT transmission for 2.5i models and a 3.6-liter six with 256 horsepower and a five-speed automatic for the 3.6R. There are three trim levels for each, base, Premium, and Limited, and 3.6R models are more highly-equipped than their 2.5i equivalents. Don't think of the base model as under-equipped, as it has everything you really need and more. At the top of the line, an Outback is a fine alternative to a luxury-name crossover and likely has a better AWD system. Changes for 2012 are few, no surprise as the current generation is only two model years old. New audio systems are found in some models, different wheels on others.

Unsurprisingly for a press fleet vehicle, the 2012 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: The fourth generation is bolder and more well-defined than ever, and instantly recognizable even though all body panels, lights, and the grille have changed. Strong character lines on the hood and shoulders and prominent wheel arches give it character. At the front, a large 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 beneath all doors, and the Outback feels 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 over the previous generation. 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) and Bluetooth® audio streaming and phone connectivity 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 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: A longer wheelbase and stiffer unibody structure that improve interior space and comfort and also help to improve ride and handling qualities. Shorter overhangs increase approach and departure angles, as useful when confronted with a steep driveway as on the trail. Suspension is by MacPherson struts at the front, with a double-wishbone system at the rear, both 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 and potholes 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 latest Outback (and Legacy upon which it is based) for 2010, 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 24 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: The Subaru Outback can fill any crossover desire, even luxury.


2012 Subaru Outback 3.6R Limited

Base Price $ 31,695

Price As Tested $ 35,610

Engine Type DOHC aluminum alloy horizontally-opposed 6-cylinder with AVCS variable cam phasing

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 unleaded regular gasoline

Tires P225/60 R17 98T Continental Conti Pro Contact

Brakes, front/rear vented disc all around, 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 / 24

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

Puddle Lamps $ 145

Destination and Delivery $ 775