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Old 08-04-2007, 01:00 PM
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Arrow 2008 Subaru Outback Wagon

2008 Subaru Outback Wagon

The afternoon drive south toward Brookline is progressing smoothly. Traffic is flowing along at the usual elevated pace, with few left-lane bandits clogging the highway. Even on the Maine Turnpike, anyone driving the speed limit is soon eclipsed by every other vehicle.

This week??™s Subaru Outback is cruising nicely until we reach the morass of Route 128. Our pace grinds to a crawl as it seems like every driver in New England is parked in the south and northbound lanes of this eight-lane freeway. After traveling over 200 miles in less than three hours, the next 35 miles take over 90 minutes. How do these people put up with this day in and day out?

With dinner over, the obligatory conversations ended, and the new Ford Taurus debut complete, the Subie and I head north for the slog home. In winter, I can make the whole trip under the cover of darkness with few concerns about wandering creatures lurking to sacrifice themselves in the interest of crash research. In the warmer months, a stop in Portland for the night seems more plausible. Besides, the Subie needs a rest from all of this hyperactivity.

The latest Outback gets a new, cleaner face for 2008 along with a revised instrument cluster, a tilt and telescoping steering column and a few more horses from the base 2.5-liter boxer four. After spending 23 hours and 1,100 miles together, the newest Outback remains a stellar road companion still in search of some acceleration assistance.

Going on its 12th year, America??™s best-selling station wagon is almost the anti-SUV ??”it??™s smooth, comfortable, versatile and endowed with a great crash-test rating as well as Subaru??™s trademark Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive. Add a plethora of safety gear and an elevated stance that makes access extremely convenient and you can understand why the Outback??™s sales are ahead of its frequently more expensive rivals wearing the acclaimed namebadges of several European makers.

Subaru has been polishing and finessing the Outback for several years, with only modest running changes to the basic package. You can now choose from three different powertrains and a multitude of options that jump the base price from under $22,000 to over $35,000.

At this retail the Outback is up against some stiff wagon competitors. Cars such as the Audi A4 Avant and BMW 3-series wagon each come with all-wheel drive, more power and more refinement evident than in the Subaru. For some buyers, it??™s a stretch to envision the Outback in the same category as these premium cars, especially considering the Outback??™s ???woodsy??™ roots.

My test Outback??™s retail crested $30,000. With base 2.5-liter four-cylinder power, automatic transmission and L.L. Bean trim including navigation system, the Subaru lacks some of the luster, refinement and panache of its premium rivals. Opt for the 3.0-liter six-cylinder boxer engine or the 2.5-liter turbo motor and you at least get enough power to compete with these Euro-cars. Plus the Subie??™s ride and handling are competitive. But on some levels, the Outback is out of its league.

The two areas that stand out are the base engine??™s performance and the lack of certain amenities.

Driven with the sensible, law-abiding style that most users will operate with, the Outback is a reasonable performer that will rarely disappoint. But ask the Outback to hasten the pace, to quickly pass that lumbering dump truck, or to merge rapidly into that hole in traffic, and your speed request is greeted by a noticeable hesitation as the throttle, transmission, and the engine room exchange data on what to do next. Annoying at best, this throttle delay is worse than the turbo-lag that has plagued boosted cars for years; yet this Subaru model is not turbocharged.

With only me aboard, it was work to keep up with harried Massachusetts traffic. Long grades required more than one downshift and merging required some pre-planning. Add three *****s and a full cargo hold for a weekend getaway or the daily commute and acceleration will be further reduced.

Perhaps the five-speed manual transmission better manages the 2.5-liter??™s 170 hp and 170 pound/feet of torque. I??™d sooner think that 3,500 pounds of car, plus cargo and occupants, is more than the Outback is comfortable with when under the whip. Opting for the turbocharged version of this boxer four adds 30 percent more horsepower and torque ??” up to 243 pound/feet; more than the 3.0-liter six ??” which would alleviate any power complaints.

Conversely, the Subie returned a very respectable 26 miles per gallon after 1,100 rapid miles together. My best mileage actually exceeded 28 mpg, a reasonable tradeoff for the absence of exhilarating power.

The Outback??™s enhanced interior is a comfortable operating station. The seat is relaxing yet supportive while all controls fall readily to hand and work well. The new tilt/tele steering column helps each driver find a good driving position, yet a bit more up/down range would still be my preference. In Limited/L.L. Bean trim, you get a huge dual panel panoramic sunroof plus heated leather seats and a GPS-based navigation system.

The complaint is the missing expected features at this price point. Absent are one-touch up and down power windows for all four positions, retained accessory power to run windows, the stereo, and the sunroof after the ignition is off, plus steering wheel audio controls. Small item storage throughout the cabin could be improved as well.

Material finishes have been improved, too, and the packaging can??™t be faulted. The perception, though, is somehow that the parts are less than the sum total of the presentation made by the Subaru??™s rivals.

The cargo hold is conveniently sized and easy to expand with split folding second row seating, which is also ***** passenger friendly. The panoramic sunroof lets in a lot of daylight, giving the cabin an open, airy feel at the expense of some tall-person head room. With a manual sunshade (no screen) the Outback??™s glass roof flows a lot of air when open, yet the wind roar can be quite distracting.

As with the original Outback, the new model makes a lot of points for its fine over-the-road composure, communicative steering, and well-mannered ride. Brake pedal feel is improved from the past while the symmetrical AWD seamlessly does its job no matter what the surface is. The slow-speed turning radius is commendably tiny, too.

If you are a solo operator for most of your driving time, the base 2.5-liter boxer four should prove to be more than adequate. If your daily drive includes lots of hills, sustained highway travel, or heavy hauling then it might make sense to opt for the greater output from the XT turbo engine. This motor also gets you another cog in the gearbox, either a six-speed manual or five-speed automatic, so there would be a marginal fuel economy penalty over the base power pack.

No matter which Outback wagon you select, the line still offers a likeable wagon that runs hard under all conditions. A more than reasonable alternative to crossover designs and other wannabe wagons, the Outback just might be one of the most sensible vehicles for four-season Mainers. What else could you ask of your family wagon?

Next week: 2008 Infiniti G35 Sport

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Source: [url=http://ellsworthmaine.com/site/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=9389&Ite mid=93]Ellsworth American[/url]
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