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Executive wheels: The little guys fight back

Jeff Rundles //July 23, 2012//

Executive wheels: The little guys fight back

Jeff Rundles //July 23, 2012//

I heard a report on National Public Radio recently about “The Little Three” automakers selling in the U.S. market and in jeopardy of going the way of Isuzu – out of the American car business. Oddly enough, “The Little Three” are all Japanese: Suzuki, Mitsubishi and Mazda.

If you’re going to come from behind in the car business, you have to offer something distinctive.

Take Subaru, for instance. Not too many years ago Subaru was a member of the lower tier, and while it isn’t yet out of the market share woods – 2.3 percent U.S. market share year-to-date – it is on the rise. I recently drove a Subaru, and I humbly offer my perspective.


The Outback is the Subaru small wagon and it pretty much got the name by default. The Outback was never intended to be a model per se, but rather a trim package offered on the line’s Legacy and Impreza models. After a while, however, everyone just started calling the Legacy Wagon the Outback, and Subaru decided to go with the flow.

I have always liked Subarus – they are durable, long-lasting, relatively rugged, dependable and, with all-wheel-drive, among the safest cars on the road. The problem with them over the years is that they were ugly and had very poor styling.

Since the 2009 redesign and the final decision to go with the Outback name for this wagon, this car is handsome, has gotten larger and even more comfortable and durable than before. I find the Outback to be among the finest cars on the market today. My biases, of course, include AWD, and I hate paying premiums for so-called luxury brand names that bring little else to the table than the name.

The new larger model no longer qualifies as a small car really, and even the government EPA just refers to the Outback as a SUV. It’s large, roomy, comfortable, has plenty of cargo space and a surprising amount of space in the second row seating for passengers. The outback comes in 6 trims, and at the lower end, the 2.5i (a 2.5 liter H4 engine with 170 hp), it carries a base price of just $23,295. I drove pretty much the top-of-the-line, the 3.6 R (3.6 liter H6 with 256 hp), and it was stuffed with luxuries that would rival any of the so-called “names.”

I liked nearly everything about it; in the Limited package, it has leather-trimmed seats, power everything, 17” wheels, Bluetooth hands-free phone and audio, 440-wat Harmon/Kardon audio, XM satellite radio – the works. It drives beautifully, corners wells, and with this engine it has more than enough power to spare even in the mountains.

I drove it in the heat of summer so I didn’t get the full effect of AWD, but I have driven on before in the snow and was more than impressed. I can attest to the air conditioning, which is excellent, and I should point out that this isn’t always the case these days.

So I’m driving around, trying all the stuff and putting the Outback through its paces, and I was very impressed. Very quiet, great drive, everything – until I got on the highway. I took the car up to Boulder and on into the mountains, and we all noticed how noisy it was once the speeds got up over 60. I don’t remember this from before, and my experience is that cars are getting more quiet not less, but this road noise was a real problem for me.

On my test-drive model the Outback 3.6R carried a base price of $31,695, and they added on a great power moonroof (quite large), an auto-dimming rear view mirror and Homelink (programmable garage door openers built into the upper console), and an upgraded audio system with navigation, rear backup camera, and a USB/iPod port. With a couple of other small things and the destination charge, the bottom line was $35,886.

Until the road noise, that didn’t strike me as expensive for this car. This is, overall, a wonderful car. I felt safe driving it, I enjoyed driving it, and I could easily see myself as an owner of this very model. But I must admit to disappointment on the noise front.

RATING: 3.5 WHEELS (out of 4)