Although the Acura CL was a fun car to own and drive, I missed having a used car like the Taurus that I could use for taking stuff to the dump, lending to family members, and generally abusing, something I didn’t want to do with my newer cars. As a result I started looking at trading in the Acura for something more practical and inexpensive.
As someone whose childhood overlapped the wood-paneled wagon era, “practical” and “station wagon” were closely associated in my mind. Besides just general light hauling associated with owning an older house, my wife and I also wanted to begin some bicycling in areas outside of our neighborhood, so a wagon with enough capacity to haul bikes around inside the car would be ideal. Because this wasn’t going to be my main driver it was going to have to be cheap (relatively speaking), so I was already narrowing down my choices.
The first step was to take the Acura to the big-box used car superstore to see what price they would offer for that car. First step was encouraging – they offered me nearly as much as I had paid for the car when I bought it, so I’d had some fun with it for a minor depreciation hit and the cost of a few small repairs. With that encouragement I began to shop for a wagon in their inventory, something that was much harder to do than to type here.
Getting another Taurus with a wagon body was a possibility, but Taurus wagons weren’t that popular new and had only lasted through the 2003 model year, so finding one of them was next to impossible. There was the Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen in gasoline or diesel form, and that was certainly an option. My first choice, though, was the Audi A4 wagon, preferably the 2004-2008 version with a manual transmission. As with the Taurus, supply was a problem as was price. They certainly wouldn’t be cheap to repair, either, but I kept an eye on the dealer’s website for new models.
At last, I thought I hit the jackpot – an A4 wagon with a manual transmission showed up in their inventory at another location in the area at a price that was palatable (although a bit more than I probably wanted to pay, to be honest). It was also black, which is a color I don’t like for cars (they look great when clean but are difficult to maintain, in my opinion). The car had just showed up in the dealer’s inventory so there weren’t any photos and the other details were minimal, but I wanted to get a look at the car as they were so hard to find. After a discussion at home, I asked the dealer to transfer the car up to the location nearest us and I’d take a look.
Once I was notified that the car was there, I went to the dealer and was immediately disappointed. The car was indeed an Audi A4, it was black, and it was a manual. However, it had been mislabeled in the dealer’s database as a wagon – it was actually a sedan. I did drive the car, and it was in pretty good shape and fun to drive. I thought about buying it anyway even though it was a sedan, but one look at the trunk convinced me otherwise. There was no way to get bikes or anything else bulky in that trunk, even though it was a reasonable size. Back to the drawing board.
After that minor setback, I took a step back and began simply searching the dealer’s regional inventory for station wagons without pre-limiting to certain brands or models. When I did that a number of Subarus began to crop up. I hadn’t really considered these car, not out of any preconceived notions about them on my part (although plenty of those are broadly held by others), but simply because I had no experience with them. A bit of online research told me that they were pretty reliable, safe, and unexciting – perfect for my purposes. Besides, the Subaru offered all-wheel-drive, something that I never bothered with on my daily drivers because it seemed like a waste of money given how infrequently it snows here, but it could be useful on occasion.
The local dealer had a number of Subaru wagons including a 2006 Outback with a manual transmission and relatively low miles (25,000 for a 3-year old car, if I recall correctly). This specific car was a 2.5i Limited with a naturally-aspirated 2.5 liter 175 hp flat-four. Not exactly WRX material, but it was certainly adequate, especially with a 5-speed manual. Fuel economy was a bit low (23/28 with the manual) but certainly acceptable. The Limited package included leather seats, power drivers seat, automatic climate control, an in-dash CD changer, panoramic sunroof, remote keyless entry, and some low-gloss fake wood trim that actually looked pretty good. As this seemed to fit my overall requirements pretty well, we went ahead and sold the Acura to buy this Outback.
By this time I must have been getting a bit better at picking cars that I was going to be happy with, because aside from a few oddities associated with how Subaru does things the car served us well. The cargo area was very roomy and took our bikes, bags of mulch, and whatever else we wanted to feed it. This particular car came with a nice rubber mat that covered the entire cargo area behind the rear seat so any dirt could easily be hosed off. The 175 hp engine was adequately responsive for this size of car, especially with the manual transmission. The downside was that the gearing was pretty short, which was good for making the most of the engine’s power but meant that longer trips got pretty tedious as top gear still translated to engine speeds above 2500 rpm. A sixth gear would have worked wonders. The short gearing also translated to relatively lackluster highway fuel economy – we did take the car on a trip or two but quickly decided that our other cars were better for long trips.
The car was also very good in the snow because of the all-wheel-drive and manual transmission. There were several instances of moderate snowfall here where I was the only one to get to the office because of this car. (That, and the fact that I was probably the one living closest to the office at the time.) The Outback’s increased ground clearance was good for traversing snow covered roads but wasn’t so high as to make the car feel unstable. The only time I can recall not being able to navigate a snowy road was when a blizzard dropped something like 4 feet of snow and it took several days for the county to dig out our neighborhood – even an AWD Outback has trouble with snowdrifts taller than the hood of the car.
I kept this car for roughly two years or so, and only sold it so I could buy a collector vehicle that was a bit older than the Acura (and slightly more collectible to boot). Given some of the old cars I’ve bought since and the hassles I’ve had with them (which you’ll hear about soon), maybe I should have kept the Outback.