When you work for long enough as an “automotive journalist,” you inevitably begin to expect certain things. Frequent flier miles. Regular flattery from people you don’t know. Access to the latest hotness in a consequence-free environment. No matter how conscious you are of your creeping sense of entitlement, or how guilty it makes you feel, it happens. Hell, when the new MINI Countryman came out, I expected to be invited to its launch simply because I thought it would sell well and had said as much. That’s how you start seeing things after only a few years of semi-regular junkets.
As it turned out, I wasn’t invited to drive the Countryman. So, when I saw it “in the metal” for the first time, it was parked in a nondescript North East Portland neighborhood instead of next to some mountain chalet or beachside resort. And though I didn’t get to drive it, the fact that I bumped into it on my own terms gave me the opportunity to experience something that auto journalists have entirely stop expecting: context. In this case, a comparison with the first-generation Subaru Outback I happened to be driving.
It had been a several years since I’d driven a first-gen Outback, a car that was the quintessential family car of my childhood. Though my family never had an Outback, it was to growing up in Eugene what Roadmasters or Vista Cruisers might have been to earlier generations, or what the Bentley Continental would have been if we’d stayed in Los Gatos: familiar, homey, beloved. So, when my partner’s sister went out of town and asked if I would take her to the airport and hang onto her Outback for a few days, I jumped at the chance.
After years of driving a 2008 Impreza, getting behind the wheel of “the original SUV alternative” was a revelation. In fact, compared to the porky little compact I was used to driving, the Outback felt nothing like an SUV. Though larger, it felt incredibly light, low to the ground, responsive, and almost delicately airy. Next to the Impreza’s poor visibility, chintzy interior, and soggy suspension, the Outback felt nimble, alive, honest, and direct. Sure it was crude, but it had more of the low-inertia fun that made compact cars great than its decade-younger “compact” cousin.
I was pondering this contrast, reflecting on the changes that cars have gone through in recent decades, when the first Countryman I’d ever seen caught my eye. So I pulled pulled the Outback up behind it, and took a few photos. I’ve still never driven a Countryman, but purely based on the specs I’m guessing it’s not terribly different from the Impreza, with its giant wheels, its tiny greenhouse, and its portly curb weight. It wouldn’t even surprise me to find that the old Outback offers more small car-style fun. But then, you’ll never find that out on a press junket… because nobody wants that kind of context. Which, in its own way, explains how we got here.