August 2, 2014

Confession #52: It should be easy to make a Subaru Outback

2015 Subaru Outback (Photo: Subaru)
The Subaru Outback is an important vehicle, and a surprising one. It has succeeded where the AMC Eagle and Matra Rancho failed. It's a wagon masquerading as an SUV that people actually take seriously.

It didn't happen overnight, but in about 20 years the Outback has gone from a niche vehicle to being Subaru's second-best seller and catapulting the brand itself from a quirky bit player in the US to a less quirky, significant player in the US. Subaru keeps having its "best month ever" for US sales they could really find a new way to say that.

But it's partly due to the Outback, a reasonably simple concept. So why can't anyone else make a serious rival?



The Outback was created out of necessity during the SUV boom of the mid-'90s. Subaru had no rival to the best-selling Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee (and Honda Passport? Is this the only commercial not from Honda to mention the Passport?), but they knew a Legacy wagon was much more practical for what most people were using SUVs for in the mid-'90s.

2013 Toyota Venza (Photo: Toyota)
Toyota should've been able to do it with the Venza. After all, it's essentially a Camry wagon, and has one of the most mainstream and inoffensive cars as its base. Being conceived in the mid-2000s, though, designers felt the need to festoon it with 20-inch wheels, huge pillars and a stupid name. Misaligned panels and a lack of improvements haven't helped.

In New England, the Venza is being marketed directly at the Outback, which is arguably more common than even a Camry in these parts. Toyota would like to think the Venza is more stylish, but to my eyes that's not strictly true. The Outback doesn't exactly have style, but the Venza isn't a looker, either.

Although it's probably more attractive than the Honda Crosstour. Again, what happened to just making an Accord wagon?

Chances are you don't see a Crosstour too often, unless you live near a major Honda facility. Last year, fewer than 17,000 were sold. Compare that to the almost 36,000 Venzas Toyota moved. Oh, and the 11,768 Subaru Outbacks that were sold just in July 2014.

2013 Honda Crosstour (Photo: Honda)
The Crosstour is even more compromised than the Venza and it still looks like a super-puffy AMC Spirit. A fully optioned one is more than $37,000 and still doesn't offer the same features a new Accord does. No wonder it isn't being pitched awkwardly as an Outback fighter anymore.

There is hope Honda has seen the light. The latest news, from Automotive News in fact, is that the company is seeking an Audi Allroad-type to replace the Crosstour as soon as next year. Especially now that the Acura TSX Wagon is dead.

I do miss the days of the smaller, more wagon-y Outbacks that weren't nearly as bloated looking. But I can't argue with the success of the most recent versions and the fact it's a really appealing car for plenty of people who buy much larger crossovers.

Subaru's had it right all this time. We just didn't pay attention while Paul Hogan was selling them.

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