I have long considered the Subaru Outback to be a very functional vehicle, one short on style but long on substance.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. It’s much better than being long on style and short on substance.
But it’s far from a good thing in a market where many competitors have both substance and style.
Standard all-wheel drive can take you only so far, especially in climes where snow is rare.
With its fourth generation in the 2010 model year, however, the Japanese automaker gave the Outback a complete makeover. It grew into the roomiest Outback ever, and a new available 3.6-liter horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine added punch under the hood.
Distinctive styling touches inside and out as well as use of upgraded materials improved its overall appearance. No longer is Outback a borderline Plain Jane.
I recently had the opportunity to drive the top-of-the-line 2011 3.6R Limited version. It is one of six trim levels offered in the Outback lineup, three with 2.5-liter four-cylinder power plants and three with six-cylinder engines.
Subaru made only a few changes for 2011 from the 2010 makeover that moved it into its fourth generation with the addition of factory-installed XM Satellite radio on wagons equipped with the harmon/kardon audio package and a ninth color (Ruby Red Pearl) being two of the tweaks.
The thing that first hit me behind the wheel of the 3.6R was the response I got when pushing the accelerator. It was immediate and impressive.
Subaru no longer offers a turbocharged version of its 2.5-liter four-banger, but with the increase to 3.6 liters from the 3.0 of the previous generation, the normally aspirated six-cylinder now provides plenty of power to move the Limited’s 3,654 pounds in a lively manner. I didn’t dally at intersections.
My test model came with a five-speed automatic transmission with manual mode and steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. It’s the only tranny offered on the 3.6R models, but a six-speed manual or CVT (continuously variable transmission) is available on 2.5 versions.
The total package delivered 256 horsepower, 247 pound-feet of torque, and fuel mileage numbers of 18 mpg city, 25 highway, not bad for a vehicle with just over 71 cubic feet of available cargo space. All the numbers, including the cargo space, are up over the previous generation.
In addition to the bigger changes, Subaru took the time to simplify the operation of some of the controls for the radio and A/C.
It took me a moment -- several moments, actually -- before I managed to get the audio settings switched from the map on the navigation screen to show my preferred radio presets, but once learned, it really is a simple operation. (You push the knob on the right. Duh.)
As for pricing, the 3.6R Limited starts at $31,495 plus another $725 for destination and delivery. That’s a little over $8,000 more than the base 2.5i version with the other four trims falling in between.
The difference between the 2.5R Limited and my 3.6R Limited is $3,000. You get slightly better fuel mileage, of course, with the four-cylinder (22/29), but if you’re looking for a little fun in your driving experience, I’d recommend splurging for the 3.6R.
Life’s too short not to live it up a little.