COAL: 2014 Subaru Outback 3.6R Limited – Oh, We Hardly Knew Ye…

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I pulled up behind a new Mini Cooper at the red light and came to a full stop. Then I looked in the rearview mirror, saw the front of an F-150 and came to the quick realization that he was approaching awfully fast and not going to stop…

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Before I could say anything to warn my wife there was the loudest “Bang!” I’d ever heard and then immediately another one as our car was catapulted into the Mini and all of the airbags went off.

The next thing I recall is that my wife was screaming at me to get out, there was smoke everywhere from the airbags and we could not see how to get out with all of the white fabric enveloping us. Eventually we both got out and I just dropped to the street and rested there with my ears ringing while seeing people come running from all directions.

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Back in the spring of this year, shortly after finishing my COAL series, my wife and I replaced our VW Touareg with a larger vehicle (COAL on that one to follow at the one-year mark) and then I decided to trade in our Honda Odyssey on this, one of the last 2014 Subaru Outbacks made with the 3.6 liter flat-six engine and a conventional 5-speed automatic transmission.

I had deliberated for a long time and looked at several cars but kept coming back to the Subaru. Not because I was a fan of the styling (In fact I’ve long thought this generation to be by far the least attractive of all Subarus since the 70’s and on top of that find the 6-spoke wheel design from 2013-on to be borderline offensive) but because it is quite roomy inside, seemed well put together, had permanent all-wheel-drive, and would serve as a great combination work and play vehicle while having phenomenal resale value as well as hopefully better than average reliability and durability.

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Eventually I took my wife with me to drive an Outback. We started with the 4-cylinder and CVT version, a quick drive revealed that it was quite a bit underpowered at our altitude (for me anyway) and made noises that were not particularly refined. Then we tried the 6-cylinder and found it to be a significant improvement. Smooth, quiet, fairly refined. OK, this would do.

After some more research I was aware than the 2015’s were restyled and due to be released soon and that the 2014’s were ending production any day now. So I spoke with several dealers and in the end was able to do a deal with the dealer in Boulder (about an hour away) for a car that was in the pipeline to be built and about four to eight weeks away, depending on transit. We agreed on a trade-in value for the van and they let me drive it until my new car was ready at the end of April.

There had been no published pictures of the new model yet and the entire time I was waiting I was kind of secretly hoping that it would not be a stunner from a styling standpoint. When it was finally released I noted that the new model looks a bit smoother but basically very similar so I was happy.

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Subaru builds these in their factory in Lafayette, Indiana with 45% US/Canadian parts content and 45% Japanese (including engine and transmission); the unpredictable part of the order process was the rail shipment, with so many trains apparently being diverted to oil production, there was a three week window within which the car would arrive at the Denver rail yard. Once it arrived there, it was unloaded and delivered to the dealer quite quickly.

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Taking delivery in same month as build month, April 2014

As the regular readers of my COAL series know, I’ve bought plenty of cars in my lifetime but not that many brand-new ones. Picking up a new car at a dealer is always a treat. In this case I took my son with me and the dealer had us in and out within half an hour, totally painless and even the finance person was pleasant to deal with and accepted “no, thank you” as an answer the first time…

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The color of this car is Venetian Red Pearl with a Black leather interior. The 3.6R Limited’s are pretty well loaded up with most imaginable options, since it was the end of this model series, the dealers were offering fairly significant discounts (Not quite up to large pickup standards but certainly notable) along with 0% financing for up to five years.  I’ll always take the free use of someone else’s money but still gave them the old van as a trade-in and covered the taxes out of my pocket as I tend to do.

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The car drove very well; plenty powerful enough, quiet, smooth, and somewhat economical. Only regular gas is required and while the sticker reads 17 City / 25 Highway with 20 Combined I averaged around 22-23 mpg with a mix of mostly city driving which in fairness around here generally does not consist of any stop-and- go. Weirdly enough, I realized my garage now contained two different water-cooled 3.6liter flat-six engines, the other being in my 911, which gets pretty much the same mileage but sounds surprisingly different doing so. (and is a little quicker…)

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The Outback in the North American market differs a bit from the rest of the world, most noticeably in the cladding and roof rack areas. We have more cladding at the bottom edge of the car and our roof rack is a much bulkier affair than the sleek unit sold elsewhere.

What our rack does have that is not obvious at first glance though is integrated crossbars – they swing out and lock into the opposing side, the newer models (since 2013) also let them be locked in a couple of different positions front to back. A very nice touch, out of the way when not needed, and right at hand when needed.

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The interiors of these are a comfortable place to spend time with generally hard wearing and durable materials. The dashboard is not soft, which I don’t care about as I have never found myself caressing the dashboard in any car anyway.

The door panels, while decently contoured, come across as a bit flimsy, when pushed there is a lot of “give”. In addition, Subaru is a bit behind the curve in regard to modern amenities and general ambiance.

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The fake “wood” in the upper trim levels is quite unconvincing, even in the matte finish of ours. And the stereo, even with the Harman-Kardon branded system in ours, is merely adequate with a somewhat sub-par display.

At least the Bluetooth integration worked easily and seamlessly. I suppose all of that is par for the course when you buy the upper level of a vehicle line that at its most basic level currently retails for just over $20,000. In any case, it was easy to clean and seemed like it would hold up over the long haul.

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The HVAC system worked great, the heated seats were wonderful, and the space in the back helped me to haul stuff to renovate a house over the summer. For reference I was easily able to fit a standard size washing machine in the back with the rear seats folded with room to spare, and when in the up position three kids fit across the rear bench for at least shorter trips around town with one still in a booster seat. In front there is enough space so elbows are not fighting for center console space either.

As a bonus the kids could all fasten their own seatbelts and even the smallest could open the door from the outside, neither of which I can say for the mid-size SUV loaner I am currently driving. Oh, the joys of what is basically a car…

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As time went on I just came to appreciate the basic goodness of the car more and more. It just did its job, unobtrusively, non-flashy, and always willingly. Kind of like a good dog, I guess. Which reminds me, this is also the car I used to take our dog of 16 years to the vet this summer when it was time for her to enter the great rabbit field in the sky…

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Here in Colorado, Subaru Outbacks are pretty much the “Official Car”, they are simply everywhere. I started to play a game where if I was stopped at a red light I would see if the light would change to green before I saw another Subaru, since I bought the car in April, I have not once lost!

At least one other Subaru was always there and more often than not it was another Outback. The 4-cylinders seem to outnumber the 6-cylinders about ten to one in my opinion, and now I am starting to see significant numbers of the newer version as well.  I also belong to a Subaru Outback forum and posted there about this wreck, one of the respondents was another local Outback owner that happened to pass our accident right after it occurred…

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I was just starting to look around to see if I could find another set of wheels for snow tires. We had our first snow a few weeks back and while the car was very sure-footed, snow tires are always helpful for cornering or stopping in the white stuff no matter how many driven wheels you have.

We’d even named the car “Mary” (something I’ve never done before) after my youngest’s preschool teacher at the time, a feisty older woman who we weren’t sure about at first but grew to really appreciate; she had bought a virtually identical car in the same color a couple of years earlier, so we thought it would be fitting.

I sort of let the kids decide which of several colors we should get (of the few that were available) and was happy when they chose the red. Subaru is one of few makers that still makes cars in actual colors, although some trim levels are severely limited in that regard.

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That’s me, Your Humble Servant, sitting on the grass while very dazed and out of it…

Which brings me back towards the end (or the beginning) of this story. Subarus have been known as safe cars for some time now and they definitely use it to their advantage in their advertising – Have you seen the “They Lived” campaign? YouTube it if you haven’t. Wow.

Anyway, I didn’t really know or have time to think about it when that F-150 was barreling at us and while I have no doubt that my 911 is a strong car as well, I am glad that we were not in that and I am sure the lady in the Mini that was in front of us is glad we were her buffer. As long as Subaru spends money on crash safety they can keep on having hard dashboards as far as I am concerned.

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The car, at first glance, does not look that bad. However it did sacrifice itself for us. The truck hit us at an estimated speed of 40-45mph, and we were then pushed into the Mini. The truck ended up slightly ahead of where the Mini was originally and we were both thrown all the way across the intersection so that the wrecked cars didn’t even block the cross traffic when all was said and done.

The truck hit us pretty much square on the back, smooshing all of the back end in and crumpling the right rear fender a bit as well as reducing all of the panel gaps to Lexus-like tiny gaps. Then we hit the Mini with our front right, causing a lot of damage there and the cars “locked” together, the tow truck drivers had to work for a while to separate them.

However, all of the doors still opened. The roof was bent a bit (the sunroof glass is flush at three corners and sticks up about an inch in the other corner.) Both front airbags as well as the side curtain airbags went off.

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The damage to the truck was just astounding as well. There are a lot of trucks around here and when they get in wrecks usually the truck looks pretty good and if a car is involved, the car usually looks significantly worse. This truck was just destroyed as far as the front is concerned at any rate.

Most of the people at the scene were quite impressed with the Subaru although I completely understand that the whole point is for the vehicle to absorb the impact energy so the soft squishy people inside don’t have to.

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The body shop adjuster said the damage amounted to well over $25,000 before he stopped calculating and recommended totaling the car. Apparently the engine and transmission still worked but at least a part of the engine cracked and broke (camshaft cover?). The car really did sacrifice itself for us which I suppose is the whole point of the engineering that goes into it.

As much as I like the cars we call curbside classics, I would not want to have been in most of the cars that we all love to read about on these pages in this situation. My wife and I both pretty much walked away, we are sore and a bit bruised and both have a few lingering things that should hopefully improve over time but all in all are basically happy that it wasn’t worse.

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The driver of the truck admitted fault to the police (said he felt light-headed and passed out), and since it was his girlfriend’s truck, her insurance stepped up and agreed to pay the entire claim (the insurance in this state goes with the car, not the driver, remind me not to let others drive my cars!). I don’t want to divulge details, however as regards the insurance company’s payout for the loss of the car itself, we were quite satisfied with it.

As for me, I now get to do that thing that my wife says I like the most, that being looking for and purchasing another car. I really thought this would be it for a while, but it was not to be. I’m not quite sure what to replace it with, the new Outbacks with a 6-cylinder are so rare I would have to order one which would take several months (which I may still do, I took a look at one and they are quite a big improvement, especially inside) or there are several other ideas I have been playing around with…Stay tuned!