Although cosmetic and powertrain enhancements lie ahead for 2013, the 2012 Subaru Outback continues to be a formidable force in the mid-size crossover realm. Comfortable, refined and exceptionally capable on road or off, this self-proclaimed "world's first sport utility wagon" offers the choice of 4- and 6-cylinder horizontally opposed engines, each backed by the automaker's symmetrical all-wheel drive system.
You'll Like The 2012 Subaru Outback If...
If you value the capability of an SUV to handle cargo and rough roads, but appreciate high ratings for safety, fuel-efficiency and driving enjoyment, the Outback wagon is likely the best mix of these virtues on the market. Subaru's flat "boxer" engine and all-wheel drive lower the car's center of gravity, for more stable handling.
You May Not Like The 2012 Subaru Outback If...
If you need a third-row seat or tow heavy loads, a traditional SUV might be a better fit. If you prefer more carlike styling, consider a Volvo XC70 or Toyota Venza. Not everyone likes the Lineartronic continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) that is offered with the 4-cylinder, but it is among the best of its kind.
The 2012 Subaru Outback offers a wide range of equipment among its six trim levels. The popular mid-level Premium wagon models add an improved 6-speaker audio system with Bluetooth phone and wireless audio streaming plus an iPod connection. The clever standard roof rack with foldaway crossbars is mildly revised.
The roomy, versatile 2012 Subaru Outback cabin is stylishly functional. Responding to owners' desires for more rear-seat room, Subaru added four inches of legroom and nearly three inches of headroom with the 2010 redesign. During our test drive, we comfortably fit three 6-foot adults in the back seat without their knees touching the front seatbacks. Wide front seats and a reclining rear seat further improve comfort, while upscale models offer power driver's-side lumbar support and leather seating. A dash-mounted electronic parking brake frees up console space for water bottles and latte cups. Automatic-transmission models also feature steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters.
While previous Subaru Outback generations seemed more like a jacked-up, fender-flared Legacy, the newest models - including the 2012 Outback wagon – take on more personality of their own, with a 3-inch-higher roofline and a better-integrated look of ruggedness. Thick plastic cladding, a raised ride height and 8.7 inches of ground clearance reveal its off-road capability, while beefy black roof rails conceal fold-out crossbars that stow away to reduce drag when not in use. Frameless windows, a former Subaru styling cue that led to some complaints of wind noise, are replaced by fully framed glass, a design that also helps improve body rigidity.
If fuel economy takes precedent over quick acceleration, the 2012 Subaru Outback's 2.5-liter four with the CVT is your best bet. The 170-horsepower engine has to work a bit, but once up to speed the CVT finds and holds the engine's peak torque, providing a good balance of response and efficiency. The CVT does take some getting used to, as there are no discernable gearshifts like a traditional automatic. The standard steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles, however, allow the driver to simulate manual gearshifts, for quicker passing and merging. With an estimated 29 mpg highway and an 18-gallon fuel tank, the Outback wagon can cruise over 500 miles before refueling. On the road, the Outback demonstrates an impressive sedan-like feel, in part because the low center of gravity of its powertrain more than offsets its tall bodywork. Steering is precise and predictable, and only some slight wind noise around the roof racks intrudes on the quiet ride.
The 2012 Subaru Outback Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) starts just over $23,000 for the base 2.5i wagon, jumping to around $25,000 for the 2.5i Premium and edging just over $29,000 for the Limited trim. Six-cylinder models range from around $28,000 for the base 3.6R to nearly $36,000 for a fully optioned 3.6 Limited. To make your best deal, be sure to check the Kelley Blue Book Fair Purchase Price to see what others in your area might be paying for their Outbacks. When looking at the Outback's competitors, you can see it easily undercuts the Volvo XC70 and a comparably equipped Toyota Venza, is on par with the Honda CR-V, but is a bit more expensive than its own kin, the Subaru Forester. As for resale, we expect the Outback wagon to hold high 5-year values, leading the wagon segment in residuals.
The base Subaru Outback 2.5i features all-wheel drive, a 6-speed manual transmission, 16-inch wheels, 4-wheel ABS disc brakes, AM/FM/CD audio with auxiliary jack, manual air conditioning, power windows/locks, height-adjustable driver's seat, front side and side-curtain airbags, keyless entry and stability control. A 6-cylinder 3.6R version is similar, though with a 5-speed automatic, 17-inch alloy wheels, and a cargo cover. The 2.5i Premium adds an automatic transmission and 17-inch wheels, while both 2.5i and 3.6R Premium models include a 10-way power driver's seat, leather-wrapped steering wheel, and 6-speaker audio with Bluetooth, USB and iPod connectivity. The 2.5i and 3.6R Limited trims add a front underguard, an All-Weather Package (heated front seats, mirrors and windshield wiper de-icers), plus leather, a power passenger seat, dual-zone climate control and 9-speaker Harman/Kardon sound system.
Most options are offered according to trim. The base 2012 Subaru Outback 2.5i offers the CVT automatic, All-Weather Package (heated seats, mirrors and wiper de-icers) and an alloy wheels/foglight package. The 3.6R base trim offers almost no options, not even heated seats (all 3.6R models include a 5-speed conventional automatic). The 2.5i and 3.6R Premium trims offer the harman/kardon audio, All-Weather Package and a moonroof /rearview camera package. Limiteds offer voice-activated navigation with rearview camera and auto-dimming mirrors. Subaru dealers also have a generous selection of accessories, from cargo carriers to a rear-seat entertainment system.
Subaru's take on this fuel-saving transmission uses a metal band instead of a rubber belt, which it claims to improve durability. A paddle-shifted manual mode mimics the shift points of a manual transmission without needing a clutch pedal. Best of all, the CVT's estimated 22 city/29 highway mpg is better than with the 6-speed manual.
Electronic Parking Brake with Hill-Holder Function
The traditional parking brake handle is replaced by a soft-touch push/pull switch on the dash. The electronic brake system includes a feature that holds the brakes for a moment on inclines greater than 5 degrees, for easier takeoffs without unwanted rollback.
Under the Hood
Subaru offers two boxer engines in the 2012 Outback wagon, a low-profile and naturally balanced design in which the pistons lay flat in a horizontally opposed configuration. The 2.5-liter four delivers 170 horsepower, not best-in-class but enough muscle for satisfactory performance. Equipping this engine with the CVT automatic will produce the best fuel economy, but the 6-speed manual offers sportier performance. The most refined choice for the Outback is the 6-cylinder and 5-speed conventional automatic, whose strong acceleration and passing power come at the expense of fuel efficiency: an estimated 18/25 mpg city/highway (versus the 4-cylinder CVT's 22/29).
170 horsepower @ 5,600 rpm
170 lb-ft of torque @ 4,000 rpm
EPA city/highway fuel economy: 19/27 (manual), 22/29 (CVT automatic)
256 horsepower @ 6,600 rpm
247 lb-ft of torque @ 4,400 rpm
EPA city/highway fuel economy: 18/25
The 2012 Subaru Outback wagon is the perfect anti-SUV and one of the best-selling wagons in America. It's as agile and efficient as most mid-size sedans, but offers much of the off-road and cargo capability of a larger vehicle. It also offers a raised seating position that some consider a just-right balance between that of a car and an SUV. New from the ground up in 2010, the fifth-generation Outback remains true to its original concept yet enjoys major improvements in refinement, cabin room, fuel economy and flexibility. As with every Subaru, the Outback comes standard with Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive, a proven system that allows this rugged wagon to conquer tough terrain and deep snow as confidently as any SUV, while taking to the open road with sport-sedan manners.