Automotive Industries

Subaru Moves Outback

Subaru Moves Outback

Tom Lankard

The popular antidote to truck-based SUVs becomes its own model range for 2000, as Subaru springs a new Legacy platform.

Subaru is no longer struggling to survive in the world’s most competitive new vehicle market. In 1998, a year when total new car sales in the U.S. came in almost flat, the American subsidiary of Fuji Heavy Industries’ (FHI) carmaking unit saw sales climb by 10% over 1997. And through April, sales were up 15% over the same period in ’98 — this, the company is quick to point out, “without incentives.”

For 2000, the company is offering two, all-new vehicles. One is the third generation of the Legacy, Subaru’s top-of-the-line model, in both sedan and wagon forms. The other is the Outback, which the company is spinning off as a separate model line for the first time, again with sedan and wagon versions.

Program development time for all four models, from clay approval to Job One (May 17), totaled 21 months, says Hideki Ishido, vice president of product planning at Subaru of America. Ishido projects annual sales for the range will total a minimum of 90,000 to 95,000 units in the U.S., 240,000 worldwide.

Both the Legacy and Outback are built on the same, new-for-2000 platform and share powertrains, suspension design and interior features, like dashboard and seats. The sedans and wagons also wear the same sheetmetal from the A-pillars forward.

Subaru is basically a single-platform automaker in the product lines above its minicars. The new cars’ basic platform is shared with both the current Impreza and Forester, with flexibility to vary wheelbase and track depending on model.

This is due to two factors. First, the three vehicles are built on different assembly lines. North American versions of the 2000 Legacy/Outback come from Subaru-Isuzu Automotive in Lafayette, Ind. The Forester, Impreza and the new Legacy sold elsewhere are built at FHI’s complex in Gunma, Japan.

The second factor is the body architecture the basic platform supports, on to which each vehicle’s body panels, suspension and powertrain attach. Besides the obvious benefits vis-a-vis different overall dimensions, this also gives Subaru the opportunity to take the new Legacy/Outback (and other nameplates in years to come) into new territory, in safety and ride and handling.

Subaru dubs its body-in-white a “ring-shaped safety structure” and claims it absorbs and channels crash energy around and away from the passenger compartment, regardless of the direction of the crash impact. Making the side rails and roof rails more than two times thicker than the previous Legacy’s (2.0 mm versus 0.8 mm) gives the new Legacy/Outback more than twice the bending stiffness and 20% more torsional rigidity than the previous Legacy, claims Subaru.

Subaru also wanted the new Legacy/ Outback wagon to handle the same when fully loaded as when doing the daily commute. Testing in Europe exposed a tendency of the rear suspension to squat on the outside tire on high-speed curves. Countering this meant raising the rear roll center.

Because lowering the rear differential was out of the question — keeping the Outback’s 7.3-inch ground clearance was a primary design bogey. The previous model’s MacPherson strut system gave way to a new, multi-link design. Mounted to a rubber-isolated subframe, the new suspension further minimizes transmission of road noise into the passenger compartment, and allows a wider tuning range of the suspension’s geometries.

This also benefited the wagon by eliminating the strut towers that intruded into the previous model’s cargo area. The gain in cargo area is significant. Both the Legacy wagon and the Outback wagon now measure 42.3 inches between the wheelhouses, an increase of 5.2 inches on the Legacy and 4.3 inches on the Outback.

The new Legacy/Outback’s engine, now called a “Phase II 2.5,” remains basically the same horizontally opposed 4-cylinder from the cylinders down. Claimed output is still 165 hp at 5,600 rpm, with four more pound-feet of torque (now 166 lb.-ft, at 4,000 rpm). But while it’s still a 16-valver, those valves are no longer actuated by double overhead cams. New cylinder heads are now an sohc design, which allows the torque curve to be significantly altered to better fit the North American driving environment. The design change also reduces weight, friction, complexity and cost.

Included valve angles are revised to 43 degrees, from 30 degrees on the old head. Combined with a new port configuration, larger valves and a camshaft with increased lift, the heads create a tumble effect to the intake charge. It helps the engine meet 50-state low emission vehicle emission regs, but drivers will notice the boosted low-speed torque.

For example, at 20% throttle opening at 3,000 rpm, torque in the new Legacy/Outback is double that of the ’99 engine’s, claim Subaru engineers. At 30% throttle opening at 4,500 rpm, torque is up 50%. And for highway passing, say at 50% throttle at 5,000 rpm, there’s 20% more torque on tap.

As for sticking with the “boxer” engine configuration, Subaru touts the unit’s compactness, being only marginally longer than a twin-cylinder engine of smaller displacement. This facilitates mounting it longitudinally, which yields a straight, virtually horizontal drive to the rear differential and equal-length half-shafts to the front wheels. The flat design lets it sit lower in the engine bay than an upright inline or V layout, lowering the car’s center of gravity and polar moments of inertia.

An all-new 6-cylinder boxer is in the pipeline for the Legacy and a rally car-inspired, turbocharged Impreza. (See “Subaru’s Future” feature, p. 63.)

Transmissions are carried over from ’99. The 5-speed manual still drives through a viscous-coupled awd unit. The 4-speed automatic features electronically-controlled all-wheel-drive. As before, the two systems differ in how they work and distribute the power. The viscous system starts with a 50/50 power split, reapportioning the power front-to-rear as it senses slippage. The electronic system defaults to 90/10 front-to-rear, re-distributing power not only when slippage is sensed, but also by whether the car is accelerating (biasing the rear) or decelerating (biasing the front).

The one change for 2000 is that the Legacy GT and Outback Limited models (and the Outback wagon, when the all-weather package is ordered) get a limited-slip rear differential to better manage power distribution during cornering.

With an improved, multi-capable platform and the ability to spin distinctive models from it (a la VW-Audi), Subaru charges into the new millenium with an attractive product portfolio. And that, as the following story (see p. 60) notes, is attracting more than just eager customers to Fuji’s newly invigorated star.

Model WB (in.) Length (ins.) Rear Track (ins.)


Outback 104.3 184.4/187.4(*) 57.5

Forester 99.4 175.2 57.1

Impreza 99.2 172.2 57.1

(*) Sedan/wagon

COPYRIGHT 1999 Cahners Publishing Company

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group