Starting this article is tough. There is no way to properly set my reader up for the surprise I experienced lately without sounding contrived or hucksterish. This experience came behind the wheel of Subaru’s Outback wagon, specifically the 243-hp 2.5 XT variant with the 2.5-liter turbocharged ‘boxer’ four and all-wheel-drive.
When I heard that my assignment for the coming week would be to evaluate the car, I wasn’t expecting much. Subarus are terrifically competent cars with a reputation for safety and durability. Think a Japanese (i.e. cheaper) Volvo. And if I can be frank, I wasn’t exactly thrilled by my last experience with a Subaru – the bastion of left-leaning outdoorsy types, the Forester L.L. Bean Edition. That car had a four-speed automatic that proved frustrating to my enthusiast sensibilities, as well as some perplexing interior features.
However, after driving our Outback for literally five seconds, I forgot all about the Forester. The 2.5 XT in particular is, for lack of a better term, the ultimate sleeper. Fortunately, Subaru sent us a test car with a five-speed manual transmission so we could properly explore its cloak-and-dagger character. Despite putting out 243 horsepower and 241 lb-ft of torque, this is a quiet car. It makes hardly a peep even under full-throttle acceleration, due to the relaxed characteristics of its engine. Boxer motors operate more smoothly than the inline fours produced by most companies, and can therefore be made in larger displacements. This means gobs of torque, even in non-turbocharged cars.
The Outback 2.5 XT is still tuned for the needs of the general automotive populace, so it’s not a high-revving, peaky car. It pulls strongly from 2000 rpm upwards, while giving the impression that it’s not even breathing hard. If you let off the throttle at engine speeds less than 3000 rpm, you can hear the blow-off valve whispering ever so slightly, barely hinting at the potential of this motor.
It is, after all, the same engine (albeit in a lighter stage of tune) found in Subaru’s factory rally racer, the 300-hp WRX STI. The 2.5 XT lacks the STI’s sixth gear and extra fifty-odd horsepower, but the DNA is definitely there. Pitch the 2.5XT into a corner and lift the throttle, and the nose will tuck to meet the line – there is very little understeer. It’s all very progressive and manageable, yet not hair-raising. The XT is shod with all-season rubber, so something a little more performance-oriented would surely heighten its absolute cornering capabilities to match its excellent responses.
You can also watch the 2008 Subaru Outback 2.5 XT Limited Video on YouTube.
However, people probably won’t buy this car for its sporting nature, and I’m sure there are legions of 2.5 XT owners that have no idea what they are driving. The XT isn’t even the most expensive model in the Outback range. That honor goes to the automatic-only Limited model, which uses a non-turbo boxer six. But the XT outdoes the Limited’s bigger engine by twenty-six lb-ft of torque. We didn’t do any official testing, but if the manual 2.5 XT takes longer than seven seconds to reach sixty, and more than fifteen to complete a standing quarter-mile run, that would come as a great surprise.
It’s tempting to gush about the XT’s gearhead appeal, because it’s hardly advertised at all. And that alone is worth the asking price. But, in addition to all of that, you get a hell of a trusty, boring wagon if that’s what you want.
With normal throttle application, the turbo motor will return mileage of 18 city and 24 highway, as estimated by the EPA. The interior of our test car was simple black, with sporty red-glowing needles on the gauges. It also featured what I consider to be one of the best executions of a sunroof on the market right now.
It’s enormous, for one thing – double the size of a normal-sized conventional sunroof. Second, in order to allow the driver to enjoy just a little bit more of the roof’s considerable illuminative effects, there is an extra section fore of the sliding panel. This little visor doubles as a blocker for wind noise, and I think it does that job better than the little pop-up bits of cloth and plastic that other automakers use. In any car, a sunroof is pretty much a must-have. But as far as the Outback is concerned, it’s one of the defining reasons to buy the car.
That sunroof is one of many features that make the Outback an ideal vehicle in which to make a comfortable, trouble-free journey into the nether-reaches of New England in January. Its all-weather package included heated front seats, heated mirrors, and a windshield wiper de-icer. And it features an all-wheel-drive system, called “Symmetrical AWD,” that is right up there with Audi’s notorious Quattro as the best in the industry.
Unless you’re doing serious off-roading or heavy towing, this tall wagon is superior to an SUV in every way, even in bad weather. It’s lighter and more sure-footed than something like a Ford Explorer, and in troublesome conditions I would feel safer and more in control behind the wheel of a 2.5 XT than most anything else.
I say that in part because in addition to being deft and nimble, the Outback will perform well if disaster does strike. The new Outback line scored perfect five-star ratings for front and side impacts in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s test, and a four-star rating in the rollover test. Considering all the fun stuff you can do in this car both on and off the pavement, that peace of mind is pretty important.
If being an automotive journalist paid just a bit better, I’d strongly consider buying a 2.5XT as my personal car. It is truly a do-anything car, one of the few that deserves that label. It will haul people or equipment through rain, sleet, and snow, and you’ll have fun to boot. It’s efficient, unassuming, and has the potential to be wickedly fast. Come to think of it, it’s likely that Subaru themselves didn’t even know just how good this car would end up being. Why else would they only ask $30,995 for it? For that kind of money, nothing touches this triathlete of a car.
*Price as tested: $32,447