Driven: 2011 Subaru Outback 3.6R

By Tom Martin

August 25, 2010

Coming right on the heels of our drive of the Legacy GT, we found it fascinating to experience the transformation of the Legacy’s driving dynamics through seemingly modest changes. In short, by raising the car about 3.5 inches, retuning the suspension and switching from a manual/turbo four to an automatic/normally aspirated six, this feels like a completely different car. Those of you with a penchant for saying “because car X uses the same platform as car Y, we know Z” should drive these cars back to back. If you were honest, you’d drop the platform bigotry in a flash.

But you’re probably not cross shopping the Legacy GT and the Outback. So, what’s to like about the Outback qua Outback? Well, a lot as a matter of fact. Let’s start with ride quality. On highways and fast-moving suburban pavement, the Outback is impressively smooth and quiet. When bumps come along, the Outback handles them with aplomb, though there are times when swales trigger a vertical motion that could be better damped. As the road gets even choppier, we’d say the Outback gets four stars out of five—it is good, but certainly not the best, for a magic carpet ride sensation on broken pavement.

The very comfortable seats enhance the ride quality. They are well shaped, with good adjustable lumbar support (German OEMs: study this lumbar design, please) and firm but compliant surfaces. Rear seat room is impressive, too.

The high ride height that comes from 8.7 inches of ground clearance is also something that several people on our panel liked. Combine this with good sightlines and you have a car that works well in busy urban areas.

Going out onto a winding road, the Legacy is a mixed bag. The suspension feels only moderately firm, with middle-of-the-road roll control. The steering provides some feel, but gives the sensation that there is more than average friction in the mechanism, so the communications are muted. Balance is actually pretty good, with understeer kept in check below the limit, though the lower relative rear roll stiffness makes you think otherwise. We found the Outback enjoyable to drive around town, but couldn’t shake the feeling that if it were 1-2 inches lower and had a stiffer rear bar it would be better. And it’s hard to understand why the Legacy’s steering isn’t carried over to the Outback.

The powertrain works well and fits in with the general vibe of the Outback. There is more than ample power and torque is good. The sound is muted, which fits the luxury brief on offer. Subaru has provided a nice set of paddle shifters, and we found them good enough to use on a regular basis. Paddle-shifted automatics seem to always have a few inconsistencies in their shifting behavior, but this one is pretty good as they go, if not up to Jaguar standards. One problem we can see here is that most people won’t put the transmission in manual mode, they’ll just occasionally use the paddles to override “D”. That’s fine, but the transmission does its best to override your override rather quickly, getting back to “D” before you may want to.

But don’t misunderstand or read too much into these quibbles. Compared with many crossovers, the Outback is a pleasure. It feels lighter and more luxurious, and doesn’t seem to give up much if anything in space. Cross-shop a Range Rover Sport and an Outback and I think you’ll be surprised which is bigger inside. And when you sense complaints from reviewers, just know that some of us want Subaru to bring back a Legacy wagon—a Legacy GT wagon to be exact, with a Spec C option. The Outback isn’t intended to be that car, but you can’t blame some people for wanting it.

2011 Subaru Outback 3.6R
Engine: Flat-six, 3.6 liters, 24v
Output: 256 hp/247 lb-ft
Weight: 3544 lbs
Cargo Capacity: 34.3 cu ft
Towing Capacity: 3000 lbs
Base Price: $28,195
On Sale: Now