Is the Subaru Outback the Ultimate Ski Car?

We’ve been thinking about replacing our 2006 Honda CRV. While I have always been a “drive it into the ground” kind of guy, our last two mountain cars, both CRVs, have shown more rust than I’d like after six years. Both cars looked fine, but upon close inspection, it was evident that to get value on the trade-in, it was time to sell.

Subaru ski car
2012 Subaru Outback 2.5i

After owning six consecutive Hondas, we’ve been considering switching to a Subaru Outback. While I’m not a fan of the styling, the Outback would fit our need for a high-mileage highway car, with the traction to negotiate our steep driveway, and a state-of-the-art automatic transmission to make Sunday night traffic more tolerable.

I contacted a dealer to discuss pricing and equipment. I was told that the base model, the 2.5i, is hard to find without options that push the price to approach that of the Premium model. I’ve always been frustrated with the packaging of options, and this was no exception.

When we bought our 2006 Honda CRV EX, the only option we willingly paid for was backup sensors. For $500, we got a system that beeps more insistently as you get closer to an object behind you. While expensive, one fender bender would pay for it, and of course you can’t put a price on the safety of kids.

We asked about backup sensors for the Outback and the salesman was evasive. He pushed us towards the backup camera that is packaged with a sunroof for $1500.  I’m especially bothered by the packaging of safety features with luxury items: safety should be standard. Although from what I could tell, it’s the only safety feature offered in the Outback line that isn’t standard on every vehicle.

We drove a red Outback Premium one night after work. I’d read about issues with vibration in the steering wheel at speed, so I wanted to find a piece of highway where I could get up to 68mph – my standard highway cruising speed. Not an easy thing to do at 5:30 pm in our part of the flatlands.

When I got into the car, my initial impression was lukewarm. I faced a dizzying array of controls. Silver, chromelike surfaces surround the central panel for radio and climate control. I fiddled with various knobs and found them vague and unsatisfying.

I was excited to drive my first automatic transmission in more than 30 years.  On paper, the CVT is impressive, pulling a 22/29 EPA rating from a 170 hp engine mated to a 3600 lb car, beating the numbers for the six-speed stick. If ever there was a reason for me to forgo my lifelong commitment to manual transmissions, this was sure to be it. While it’s possible that my own inexperience was a factor, the transmission seemed lost at times, under-reving when I was accelerating.

I moved my way through traffic, heading towards a stretch of four-lane that would allow me to try the car at highway speed.  The car feels very substantial, heavy without being ponderous.  I changed lanes with good control, and stopped quickly, in a straight line and without drama.  I noticed no major shaking at highway speed, but wouldn’t say the front end was rock solid.  While this could be the function of cheap OEM tires, the front end should, in my opinion, feel perfect in a new car.

I brought the car back and handed the keys to Zelda.  While she was driving,  I spent time inspecting the interior and engine compartment of a vehicle on the showroom floor.  The workmanship of the engine compartment was just so-so. The cloth upholstery didn’t seem substantial and I also found the headrest to be uncomfortably angled.

As we headed home, I asked Zelda for the keys to the Honda so that I could make a comparison between the two vehicles while the Subaru was fresh in my mind. Getting back into the CRV, I was struck by the understated dashboard and the simplicity of purpose of the controls. Once I pulled out of the parking lot, I remembered why I love Honda’s so much — the quiet smooth revving engine and flawless manual transmission.  The Subaru just couldn’t match the dignity of a six-year-old Honda drivetrain.

I may still end up buying the Outback.  While I found it uninspiring and loaded with features I don’t want, it does make sense for our family. Still, it’s a bit of a let down to bring home a new car without a trace of excitement about it.  Or, I may decide to drive my rusting Honda for another year.

32 comments on “Is the Subaru Outback the Ultimate Ski Car?

  1. Harv- we have a 2009 Subi Outback that fits our ski vehicle needs quite well. It does have two drawbacks however; over-revving pulling out from Peaceful Valley Rd. going south on Rt. 28 to beat the Lumbering Schoolbus or Overloaded Log Truck pounding up the hill, and that darn slip-to-grip takes all the fun out of slaloming down the Friends Lake Rd. on a shiny morning.

    Gas mileage is, as with all vehicles, overstated and don’t believe for a long second the estimated fuel distance on the display. Must be in kilometers, yeah that’s the ticket. It gets the job done and if you become a member of NSP, AASI or PSIA you get a substantial (below Dealer Invoice) discount. How’s that for a closer? Ski you later.

  2. Harv, I had several subarus and i know the over reving issue well. They do drive great in the snow but I found that the engines and drive trains had issues when the mileage got high. The regular legacy got much better gas mileage then the outback. I then had a jeep liberty that i hated. We know have a dodge Journey which is modeled after an outback but is a little bigger and a ford escape. I feel both are better buys for the money then the outback plus you are supporting american companies in this economy. I highly recommend the Journey – go test drive one.

  3. Harv, I’m just going to repeat here what I posted in GearX, that there is a problem with the roof rack on the new Outback that doesn't allow the use of a base Thule or Yakima rack system, and there are difficulties in mounting some boxes up there. Seems that they wanted to make the rack a Subaru only proprietary system. A very poor decision that is losing customers for them that own various rack attachments bought over the years.

    I know that this may not so too important to some, but, it is to me. After using a Thule box for over ten years, I’ll never go back, and I need room for a box and bike up there, for the shoulder seasons. btw, I’ve owned two Outbacks and one Forester – love Subarus, especially with snow tires in a storm, but this is a major snafu on their part. Hope the marketing people are listening and fix this next year.

    As far as options, don’t sneer at the heated seats and windshield. Yes, windshield. Very smart and, I think, unique to Subaru option. They put a heating element in the windshield in the area the wiper comes to rest. I’m sure that all of you have been caught in a slushy storm and been forced to get out to clear that lump of wet snow right at that spot, right? And the heated seats make Benny’s old man&’s back happy after a day of skiing.

  4. Our 2000 Outback died in the middle of October after 215,000 trouble free miles. We were so sad, but the car owed us nothing. We purchased it new and it ran flawlessly for nearly 12 years. My husband is still kicking around the idea of putting a new engine in it. They simply are amazing in the snow. The heating elements that Benny speaks of are great. All we ever did on the car was basic maintenance. Are they the ultimate ski car? They certainly warrant consideration and we would buy another one in a heartbeat.

  5. I went in the other direction and a couple of years ago traded in my 2000 Outback for a CRV. I also looked at the Outback again. For me it had grown a little too large, and as noted it seemed impossible to get the base model. Comparing the two: Outback had better acceleration, the base model came with a few more features than the base CRV (power seats,headlights that turn off on their own, nicer radio and a few others). The CRV seems quieter, got better mileage than the EPA sticker and surprisingly has more cargo space due to the height of the back (each year we take a summer vacation and bring the same stuff but now i have room for more!

  6. This is one of the strangest ramblings I’ve read on this otherwise interesting blog. Subaru Outbacks are built in the USA and I would suggest the heated seat as the most important option on any ski car. What do you need back up sensors for? If you don’t know the size of your car you shouldn’t be driving it. Also if you do any reading about cvt transitions you’ll find not much good written about them other than slightly better fuel economy so I find it funny that you compare a manual transmission to a cvt. or a crv to outback, they are VERY different cars with very different purposes, not to mention the awd systems. Good luck in finding a ski car, or is it really a ski SUV you are looking for?

  7. To answer Harv’s question in one word: no. Are Subarus the trendiest ski car in VT, NY and the Adirondacks? Sure. But the best? I don’t think so. I think everyone buys a Subaru because all their friends in North Country drive a Subaru. Fess up. It’s like a Honda Odyssey in suburban DC and Atlanta soccer mom country. Everyone has one because everyone has one.

    Please forget everything you have heard about how great the pre 2009 Outback was. If you drive one, keep it, lucky you, but please stop recommending new Outbacks. Apples and oranges. The older Outbacks are not the same vehicle. They were car based, sat lower, and held the road much more like a car. Many drivers, and car magazines, say the new one is just not as good (sort of like how the new VW Jetta is not as good as the old Jetta).

    If you want a small, front drive, optional 4WD SUV, there are many good options, from the CR-V and RAV4 to the hot selling Hyundai Santa Fe and new Chevy Equinox. Have a few bucks? The Acura MDX is a great small SUV, as is the newly redesigned BMW X3 (not the bland and slow older one). Ford’s Escape is a great snow vehicle, but it is short, and it’s tough squeezing skis inside.

    I would drive a number of cars. If you are not in love with a car when it is showroom new, it’s like getting married to someone you are not crazy about. We know what happens then.

  8. “I think everyone buys a Subaru because all their friends in North Country drive a Subaru. Fess up.”

    No, people drive Subarus because they are a great value and have proven to be extremely reliable over the years and are a car, not a tall SUV. It’s not as though this company has been around for just a few years. They pioneered the market, and only a few have caught up.

  9. Harv, if you can’t find exactly what you want in dealer inventory order one. You’ll get exactly what you want and will only take 4 to 6 weeks. Just a thought for you if you don’t think the Prem Pkg Outback is the way to go.

  10. I have a 2005 and my Thule fits great. Heated windshield is a great feature as suggested above. I was not sold on heated seats until this year. I turn mine on for about 4 minutes…about the time my heat starts coming from the dash. My problem with heated seats before was I left it on and it was always uncomfortable. Turn it off.

    Cloth interior seems cheap, but it cleans up very well. I have never had shaking at any speed. I have drivin through 16 inches of unplowed snow–granted I had 7 people crammed in the car so traction may have been better. The way the traction control works is great…the best car, bar none, for driving over those humps between lanes when you are trying to pass. I have been in lots of VWs, a Honda, several SUVs…the Subaru blasts though them like a midfat does crud. Mama will surely like the automatic….that said, mine is stick.

  11. I’m on my 5th Subaru. Glitzy dash? Huh? You need to just order the model with the trim package you want. A few tricks for pricing – 1) Join the American Canoe Association for Subaru VIP pricing or look at and use their no dicker pricing to work with your local dealer.

    2011s and later achieve better mileage due to the use of the CVT. Rack system? A friend mounted his new Thule box on a new Outback with no issues at all; very simple. OEM tires are always soft, low mileage, tires to provide a great test ride. They’ll run fine for about 23K miles. I run snow tires because I want to go when I want to go. I like the lower center of gravity better than the small SUVs.

  12. I need to throw in my $.02. Previous “ski vehicles” 94 V8 Grand Cherokee w/rear locker. 99 Tahoe. 07 2dr wrangler, 08 4dr wrangler. Bought an 11 outback in aug of 10. I put a set of WS70 Blizzaks on it for Nov-March. I got the limited H3.6. This is the best vehicle I have ever had in less than 12″ of snow. I live in Central NJ but have a house by Belleayre and make the 175 mi trip most every weekend. I have 45K miles on it and have not had a single problem with it. Pluses: It will cruise comfortably at 85 all day long and still get 26mpg (24.5 with the Blizzaks) 20-22 around town. It has VERY good passing power, 40-75 is very quick. In the summer I air down to 17 psi and it drives great in the sand at Island Beach St park. (better than the wranglers)

    It is an extremely comfortable vehicle on long trips. The controls are well laid out and easy to access without taking your eyes off the road. It has a generous back seat. With the seats folded I can carry several 10' sections of pipe going through to the passenger floorboard (I’m a contractor). The fold-away roofrack gives you an xtra 1 MPG when stowed and does accept a standard Thule ski rack. So far very reliable. Built in Indiana. Good lighting. Cons: A lot of body roll during spirited driving. It DOES, however, stick like glue. Nav system sucks. Leather is extremely soft and have heard of it not holding up but in my vehicle so far so good and I am NOT gentle on it. So far no after-market performance parts. In all, I really love this vehicle and cannot say enough good things about it. I HIGHLY recommend the H3.6 though. The extra 3 mpg trade-off for the 4cyl with that vague CVT is not worth it.

  13. Wow, Harv. That is a super lukewarm test drive review! Of course, I need to mention that AWD need not be included in the ultimate ski car but rather the ultimate ski car is the one that fits your lifestyle and preferences the best. Obviously, you need the AWD for the driveway.

    Have you considered other AWD options? Suzuki Kizashi with a roof box, Suzuki Grand Vitara, Ford Edge, Ford Fusion, VW Tiguan, Toyota Matrix, another CR-V, or a premium brand? Why the focus on Sub? Some of the above have AWD with similar MPG as the Outback but you might need a roof rack on some of the smaller vehicles to get everything in there. I assume the Impreza Hatch is too small even with a rack?

    Benny Profane: The Outback is classified as a small SUV or a CUV. It is not a car platform anymore.

    I gotta disagree on rear view camera and alarms being standard. That is an expense I don’t need. But I do like heated seats. You don’t though. The answer is less packages and fewer standard features. But the industry is going the other way… fewer packages, fewer options. I can understand why they are moving in that direction.

    Harv… give a serious look at the VW Tiguan. It has tiptronic shifting so you can shift your gears when you want. I’ve been really impressed with my VW that I got last summer. A little less on the MPG vs the Outback. Don’t know about the backwards cam, though.

  14. I have a 2005 Outback 105,000 miles just needed new wheel bearings. Does great in snow, comfortable to drive, heated seats are great after a day in the cold. What sold me was my mailman had 600,000 miles on his old Subaru. No rust on my car yet, maybe that ride up 87 salts that CRV up. Traction wise its as good as the ford Explorers I had without putting on the snow tires. Subarus are made with pride in the USA.

  15. “Benny Profane: The Outback is classified as a small SUV or a CUV. It is not a car platform anymore.”

    Oh, c’mon. It’s a friggin’ station wagon with some clearance. Please. They just bent over backwards so that they could reduce the fleet MPG requirements. SUVs are looked at differently for cafe requirements. That’s the whole appeal of an Outback. It’s a car.

  16. Ok, my 2 cents. I’ve owned Subarus for the last 30 years. My first one was a 1981 1800. That was definitely the best on of 'm all. They don't make'm like they used to. Then they moved into the DL and GL series. I owned a DL sedan and also a GL wagon. Both were dogs, but I ran all of those cars to 180,000 and they cost me little to run and maintain.

    I’ve always pined for a Jeep Grand Cherokee, but the costs of fuel, insurance and maintenance were more than I wanted to handle after being so spoiled by the efficiency of the Subaru.

    The next one was a 1992 Legacy. I also drove it to 180K before selling it to a friend who drove it to 250k! I always regretted selling it. I knew it had a lot of life in it.

    The next one was a 1995 Legacy, bought for $5k with 95k miles. I drove it to 170k and sold it for 1800 needing brakes and a whole lotta other things.

    I then upgraded to a 1996 Legacy wagon, I also bought for $5k, with 100k on it. It is currently at 151,500 miles. I just replaced the front seals and the cam seal just started to leak. I just had it tuned up and it is still running quite well and is definitely worth putting the money into to keep it going. I’m giving it 2 years and then I will consider the next vehicle.

    On my list are the Honda Element, Subaru Outback (either the Forester or Legacy). I would like something that rides higher and has more clearance. The ole 96 rides quite low and on the highway disappears in the snow when I’m being passed by larger vehicles. I find highway driving unnerving in that car. Would like something taller. The Forester may fit the bill.

    But I don't want to spend more than 10k on a car. I haven’t spent that much on a car since I bought that 1992 Subaru (back in 1997)

    I don’t ever buy new cars because I don’t think they are a good value. I try to buy them with 100k and realize they will last about 4-5 years. $5000 for 4-5 years with annual maintenance averaging $500 a year is pretty economical. The Subarus get between 22-30. The one I’m driving now used to get 30 highway but now averages 22mpg, but it is getting old.

    So I’m considering the next one and am paying attention to all your comments on other vehicles to consider besides the Subaru.

  17. I bought a 2011 legacy sedan in july… i love the car, great ride and nice and quiet on the hwy. Around town i avg 22, Hwy 34 with cvt trany. Don’t believe in racks or boxes they kill the mpg. Car has enough room for all the skis and boots and luggage for 3 pp..

  18. See if the Audi dealer will give you a deal on a new allroad for a review on the blog. Vroom vroom:

    Engine: Turbo 2.0L I4
    Power: 208 HP / 258 LB-FT
    Transmission: 8-Speed Auto
    0-60 Time: 6.6 Seconds
    Top Speed: 130 MPH

    If you can’t get up near 130 MPH, you might find yourself late for first tracks from time to time.

  19. Harv, I’ve owned 2 subies, both outbacks. The ’96 made it to 170,000 before my daughter rolled it 3 times and all 4 of them walked away. We’ve got a 2009 Outback. The only option we got was the winter package, heated seats, windshield and floor mats (I think). They are rate very well in crash tests, so that is something to keep in mind. Like Benny said, the newer model (2010-present) is not conducive to using a Thule or Yakima rack. That is the only fault I have with it, but it could be big issue for some. We toss kayaks, multiple bikes, etc. on ours regularly. I’m not sure if you could fit all that stuff on the new ones.

  20. Oh to add my 2 cents to what might be a tale of woe. We call our new forester the Car That Stole Christmas. Our old Forester at 112k miles died in Va at my mom’s. We had no time to shop around and so bought a Forester (which we like better than the Outback in terms of visibility). But the litany of things we don’t like: mood lighting, no possibility to get a skid plate on this model (which if you live full-time in the sticks and drive off road on your land — well our land, you want). Then there’s the roof rack issue.

    So yeah, Subie has burned my heart. If this one doesn’t put in a good 200 k, I’m switching. In fact I still have a pissy letter in me to write Subaru about the 4k in work we did on the car this year.

  21. I know the salt in the North country can be a problem, but I think it’s very disappointing to think a car needs to be sold after just 6 years. Maybe those that live up north can provide some tips on keeping the rust away.

    I just replaced my previous ski car (a pontiac aztek, which was the worst POS I have ever owned) and ended up choosing the Toyota RAV4. The Forester and CRV were also on my short list, and I think you would do fine with any of them. I ruled out the CRV mostly because there was far less interior volume and I liked the ride of the RAV4 a little better.

  22. I agree with those who feel that the Outback has lost it's way, in terms of it’s mission. I also think to some extent that the CRV has too. As is often the case, I'm in the minority opinion as sales numbers for both vehicles are solid.

    I think the windshield heater is a key feature, and wasn’t aware the subie had it (again bad salesman). IMO heated seats are only needed it you’ve got leather upholstery – another expense I can’t justify. I also disagree with the idea that consumers aren’t comparing the CRV to the Outback. (Type “Outback vs” in Google and take a look at the suggested searches.) My use for our ski car never changes. Drive 250 highway miles, with three passengers and luggage, and then negotiate a very steep, slippery driveway at the end. And do it safely and at a low cost. I think the CRV and Outback fit the bill.

    As far as the backup sensor goes, there are plenty of “items” that can end up behind your vehicle that aren’t tall enough to be seen – garbage cans, bicycles and of course children. I want a backup sensor.

    One option I hadn’t considered would be to go smaller (Impreza or ?) and use the roof box, when the three of us are traveling. Even with the gas mileage penalty, I might beat the CRV’s mileage, and when I’m solo, I’d go without it and get over 30 mpg. Thanks for all the great input.

  23. You can get put an aftermarket backup sensor on anything. We’ve had them done and they work great.

  24. We spent a ridiculous amount of extra money on the “Sport Package” for our 2009 Impreza JUST to have heated seats and a sunroof (no leather seats). Now, I would never buy a car without heated seats. They help you keep warm on cold drives and are really nice on your old back.

  25. “One option I hadn’t considered would be to go smaller (Impreza or ?) and use the roof box, when the three of us are traveling. Even with the gas mileage penalty, I might beat the CRV’s mileage, and when I’m solo, I’d go without it and get over 30 mpg. Thanks for all the great input.”

    Harv, i just saw a new Impreza in all black sitting in a lot at a dealer. 23 grand on the window with every option except the heated seats and windshield. Bad ass looking vehicle, and pretty damn big inside. Easily fit a road bike with front wheel off. With a box on top, no problem in the winter. I may very well be driving one in the summer.

  26. Harve the new mazda cx-5 is coming out definitely take a look at this car. They might have a diesel soon in 2014 great fuel economy on the gas i hear.

  27. It is so sad that the new ford explorer that comes with a 4cl turbo only comes in 2 wl drive. This would be the perfect ski car for a family of 4 or 5.

  28. The Outback is perfect. The rack is made by Yakima so not issues concerning adaptation to any gear or ski racks. I’ve got 10,000 miles on mine, getting 32mpg average (highway) and it is fantastic in snow. Consider it!

  29. There’s a lot of things you guys are missing, so after 4 months of shopping and a recent Outback buy, I’ll throw some more information at you. 1. If you’re 6’2″ and have new kids with rear facing car seats, you can’t beat the Outback (compared to Forester). 2. Other AWD aren’t AWD 100% of the time. Many shut off that option when you’re over 30mph. Not a problem if your climbing a mountain or going through mud. It is a problem if you don’t want to hydroplane. 3. The premium package and all-weather package are nice additions. 4. The new Outbacks get better gas mileage because they don’t have a 50/50 torque split between the front and rear anymore. It’s 80/20 and then goes up to 50/50 if you need it. The exception is the manual transmission which is still set up like the old days. IF, I repeat “IF”, you want an AWD, 4-cyl. engine, with manual transmission, there is NO other option in the United States of America. Not the Mazda CX-5 or any other vehicle. Many of these have manual options, but they drop the manual once you move to AWD. 5. Yes, the new racks suck in every way imaginable. I just bought a 2013. Yakima has the only good option on the market (Landing Pad 12) which sets your bars further apart than factory and still allows longer bars for shuttling kayaks. The landing pad doesn’t fit the 2013 models, so we wait. …or we sell our new Outback. I think they are utter wankers for screwing the outdoor community in order to make a more soccor-mom-friendly roof rack.

  30. Simple solution; buy a Range Rover. Wife had an ’05 Outback L.L. Bean. Front seats were the most uncomfortable I’ve ever sat in and she even agreed with me after a four hour drive. Sold that and bought her a full size Range Rover which we’ve had for six years now and, believe it or not, VERY few problems. Granted, we maintain it rigorously, which it certainly requires, but the drive, winter/off road ability, safety and comfort are well worth it!

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