What you learn about America from its best-selling wagon
Chrome trim and a bland, unfocused face. Novocaine steering that feels only vaguely connected to a front end with a lane-wandering mind of its own. A curb weight of nearly two tons and a desperately tired engine that is utterly dependent on its transmission’s quick thinking just to keep that porky bulk rolling with the flow of traffic. The 2019 Subaru Outback Touring is the closest thing you can buy nowadays to my father’s 1981 Buick Century Estate Wagon. It’s even made in the American heartland—Lafayette, Indiana, to be exact.
Yet this $37,000 station wagon, which is currently taking a victory lap of showrooms while its all-new successor starts rolling off that Lafayette line, has the kind of upscale cachet that Buick hasn’t possessed since the porthole era. Maybe not even then. Your orthodontist might drive a Porsche 911, the tech-bros of San Jose might swear by Tesla, and the Real Housewives of Everywhere adore their Bentaygas, but the Subaru-on-stilts is the official car of people who lead the life of affluent athletic leisure so coveted by the rest of us. It’s beloved of trust-fundies who are “finding themselves” and managing directors who spend more time in athleisure clothing than they do in Brooks Brothers suits. You can find it omnipresent everywhere from Montauk to Montana, Jackson Hole and Vail, McKinley-now-Denali, Snowshoe and Angelfire.
In the case of that last-named mountain resort, however, one of the seemingly ubiquitous one-percenter Outbacks was driven by an impostor—namely, your ever-so-humble narrator and his 10-year-old son, there for the downhill mountain biking. We’d rented an Escalade, because I adore the Escalade, but Albuquerque’s Hertz location could only provide an Infiniti QX80 with a passenger-side mirror that flapped sorrowfully on the freeway like a baby bird’s damaged wing. Cue an annoyed return to the rental lot and the substitution of a glossy black Outback Touring.
My initial thoughts: My God, this thing makes my 2008 Milan Premier feel like a 458 Speciale. The Outback loves to wander—back and forth across the lane, and occasionally past the double-yellow, cueing the impressively exact lane-departure system. Think turn-of-the-century Explorer with the Eddie Bauer jumbo wheel/tire combo. There’s something genuinely hilarious about the idea that American automakers have made ride-and-handling precision a first principle for two decades now, but they are being slaughtered in the showrooms by something that appears to have no interest in the concept. This, mind you, is America’s best-selling station wagon.
It’s also slow, and I mean slow. New Mexico is hard on normally-aspirated cars thanks to high altitude and vicious heat, so allowances must be made, but I was mildly shocked at the number of times this car ratio-swapped its continuously variable transmission to a granny gear and sent the revs to the redline just to keep up with traffic on mild freeway grades. On the mountain road between Taos and Angelfire, the Outback would be occasionally find itself unable to maintain speed up a hill, even at full throttle. It’s not that the Subaru wouldn’t keep up with my twin-turbo Lincoln MKT; that would be a silly expectation. It’s more a case of it not being able to keep up with my old 3.5-liter Flex Limited.
Once again, I have to chuckle at the complete indifference of our Patagonia-vest-wearing investor class to oft-discussed virtues like “torque” and “horsepower” and “area under the curve.” And why not? Why should they care how fast a car is? If they were in a genuine hurry they’d use their NetJets account to get there.
The parking lot next to Angelfire’s “Chile Express” ski lift was packed with Outbacks carrying mountain bikes. I put our Touring between a nearly-new Limited and a 2005-era two-tone Outback that appeared to have been the subject of a recent 97-point restoration. Which is not as far-fetched as you might think; I’m aware of several high-net-worth folks who drive that era of Subaru and who regularly spend between five and 10 grand a year keeping their wagons looking perfect. It sends exactly the right stealth-wealth message and reassures your neighbors that you aren’t undergoing the sort of financial embarrassment that would reduce you to, say, the lease of a new Mercedes GLE.
By the time we’d made that three-hour drive from the ABQ airport to the base of the mountain, however, I have to confess that I’d come to rather admire the Outback. It does a lot of things right, from the supportive qualities of its almost Saab-ish seats to the placement of its volume knob. Visibility is outstanding, which cannot be said of many modern cars. The slight lift of the suspension is risible in concept but useful in practice, keeping you from being invisible to the Escalades and three-quarter-ton trucks while not sentencing you to a full CR-V’s worth of head-toss over every bump.
Much of northern New Mexico is graded and graveled but not paved as such. In these conditions, the Subaru shines. You can drive over a mild rut without worrying that you’ll lose something expensive from the undertray. The cargo area won’t keep Chrysler’s minivan designers up at night but it’s useful enough. I saw a few people sleeping peacefully in their Outbacks between runs down the mountain, rear seats folded and tailgate open.
When I felt the first drop of rain hit my face on our fourth trip up the ski lift Sunday afternoon, I figured we would have a muddy ride down, and I was right. By the time we got to the bottom of the mountain, my son looked like he had been spray-painted in red clay. I wasn’t much better. We left our bikes out to be washed by the deluge and sought shelter in the Outback’s basic black interior.
Had this been my Lincoln, or the Escalade I’d tried to rent for the trip, I would have been miserable at the prospect of the cleanup to come. Not so with the Subaru, which cleaned up with a dry towel afterwards. Had we been in possession of the 2020 model, which can be ordered with a “cruelty-free” vegan leatherette material known as StarTex, we’d have been even better off.
I never got used to the way the Outback drove, nor did I like the fuel economy, which was more Escalade-like than Accord-ish. I doubt that the real customers care; they’re not pinching pennies. By the end of the weekend, however, I frankly liked the thing. Like the Ferrari 488GTB and the Ford F-150, it’s an example of a car company putting in real effort to understand the ways its customers truly use their vehicles and the qualities which are truly important to those customers. As with live jazz recordings and bespoke clothing, the imperfections of the Outback are essential to its identity. They keep it from being everything to everyone, which really means nothing to anyone. (You can read that two different ways, both of which apply equally.)
Presumably, the 2020 model will be a better car. I hope it’s not that much better; this one is just good enough.