A commercial from Honda last year featured two slack-jawed guys driving
around Hawaii engaged in an inane conversation. The tag line: "What will you think about when you don't have to think about driving?" But many drivers like to think about driving. It's an activity that shares more than a bit of soul with skiing: being aware of what's around you, picking a forward line, finessing the balance between acceleration and control. If Honda promotes itself as the nondriver's car, Subaru has long held itself up as the carmaker of active, outdoorsy types. Spokesman Lance Armstrong is, after all, a pretty active guy. And while this year Subaru has redesigned its best-selling models, the Outback and the Legacy, we're happy to report that both are still intended for people who enjoy the act of driving.
The Outback was the first "crossover" vehicle. Introduced in 1995, it was-and is-basically a low-slung, miniature SUV. The Legacy is its sedan/wagon sibling. Both are aimed squarely at the types of folks who ski. Subaru built its fame on all-wheel drive-now standard equipment on all models-and not surprisingly, these are ideal bad-weather vehicles. Unlike top-heavy SUVs, which perform evasive maneuvers poorly, these guys stay glued to the road, rain or shine. And they're designed with gear-stowage capacity in mind, including either 60/40 split fold-down rear seats or trunk pass-through features-tailor-made for skis.
The real 2005 news is the variety of engines offered. Both the Outback and Legacy come with base four-cylinder, 2.5-liter engines with 168 horsepower. But it's the new four-cylinder turbos, with 250 hp, that rock-incorporating Subaru's performance rally car technology. The four-cylinder turbo on the Outback actually has the same power and more torque than the available 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine-which makes you wonder why anybody would buy the more expensive 3.0. (Don't.)
I spent several days testing both the Outback and the Legacy. I drove the Outback GT (the one with the turbo engine) from New York to Pittsburgh for a college buddy's wedding. It hadn't snowed yet, but I was in heaven when it poured rain the whole weekend (though the wedding couple wasn't). In more than 1,000 miles over three days, while shuttling friends and careering down wet-slicked country roads, I put the Outback through its paces. The turbo kicked in quickly with no noticeable lag, and the suspension is uncommonly forgiving, even on rutted asphalt. It rides on aluminum-alloy 17-inch wheels with all-season tires and, when taken off-road, has almost eight inches of ground clearance-more than many so-called SUVs. My major complaint? Excessive body-roll. The plucky engine makes you want to push the Outback hard into corners, but it wallows like a water buffalo. Understandable, I guess: At 3,500 pounds, it's hard to deliver a ride that's both forgiving and sporty.
As for its looks, the new design is cleaner, with less Tonka-toy body molding. But it's still a Subaru, quirky and distinctive: pinched hood (with an air scoop on the GT) and those funny angles that Subaru aficionados adore. Kind of Pekingese: so ugly it's cute.
I took the Legacy wagon out for a long day on back roads and was, frankly, surprised. Though less expensive, it's a better car than the Outback. (The Outback ranges from $24,000 to almost $34,000; the Legacy $21,000 to almost $31,000.) In some ways it's the more sensible, grown-up choice. It weighs less, and its clearance is lower (still plenty high for snow mounds in the parking lot). Yet it has funky angles, it's available with the turbo engine, and my version's massive double-pane moonroof let in loads of light. In the Legacy, I felt both mature and rebellious-like Saab drivers of yore.
The test model also came with a hybrid automatic transmission. When you choose to drive more aggressively, the gears can be controlled manually by up-and-down buttons on the steering wheel. It's called SPORTSHIFT, and the upshifts are so crisp that I've decided to forgive Subaru for insisting on all capitals when naming it. The manual transmission on my Outback was great, but the automatic is infinitely more practical for routine driving situations.
Sometimes it's hard to separate image from reality. Subaru has long cultivated the idea that its vehicles are a skier's best friend: independent, willful, yet in control. Fortunately, it has hewed to the model. The slopes await.