Image credits: © Subaru.

1996 Subaru Outback

Subaru, the automobile manufacturing division of Japanese transportation conglomerate Fuji Heavy Industries Co., Ltd, is best known for their use of boxer engines in their vehicles along with standard AWD. Over the years, Subaru has built up its reputation for high quality, reliable vehicles that don't sacrifice performance for daily practicality.

Introduced in the United States in 1996, the first Subaru Legacy Outback was marketed as ‘The World's First Sport Utility Wagon'. The Legacy station wagon featured all wheel drive, body-cladding, off-road tires and slightly higher ground clearance. A crossover sport-utility vehicle, the Subaru Outback was based on the Legacy/Liberty station wagon. The Outback was created in response to the truck-based SUV craze that had begun to reach fevered pitch with customers. Subaru station wagons, even those equipped with all wheel drive, where being forsaken in lieu of the popular new SUV's.

The popularity of the Outback was helped in part by ads featuring Australian ‘Crocodile Dundee' star Paul Hogan using the Outback in scenes were it competed again leading SUV's, most notably the Ford Explorer.

Largely visual changes were made to the existing Legacy extended roof Touring Wagon platform to suggest a more adventurous, rugged persona. In Japan the Outback was named the Legacy Grand Wagon before being renamed the Lancaster in 1997, and then again in 2005 as the Outback. An all-wheel-drive Outback was introduced to the US market in 1995 by Subaru as a 1996 model. In Australia, the model has been known simply as ‘the Outback'. Alongside the Subaru Legacy and Subaru Tribeca models, the US Outback is manufactured at the Subaru of Indiana Automotive plant in Lafayette, Indiana. In 1998, the Outback Sport, which was based on the Subaru Impreza 5-door hatchback was introduced.

Olivier Boulay was hired by Subaru on a short-term basis to design the exterior of the Subaru Outback. In 1996, it became a separately-marketed line in the United States. It was at this time that the vehicle received Outback-specific changes that included unique bumpers, taller tires with more pronounced treat, slightly higher ground clearance, and tweed-like seats and door panel inserts. Only available with the DOHC 2.5 liter engine, the JDM Grand Wagon and Lancaster received a 10 hp improvement in 1998. On a select few Outback sedans and wagons, non-functional hood scoops were found, non-functional because Subaru did not install the turbo into any Outback vehicles.

To simplify the powertrain implementation of all wheel drive, and because of the natural smoothness of the engine design, Subaru chose to use the boxer engine in the Outback. Due to the fact that the engine sits inline, or longitudinal, with the transmission, instead of being transverse, the body roll of the Outback is minimized. Instead of being offset, the weight of the engine and transmission are balanced, which causes the weight of the engine and transmission to be unbalanced in the engine bay in other vehicles. Because the engine sits low in the engine bay and close to the ground, the Boxer engine affords a low center of gravity, in comparison to other vehicles. This also makes the vehicles more stable in moderate to high speed maneuvers.
While other manufacturers attempt to balance the offset weight by making their powertrains weight evenly distributed, this only results in making the powertrain heavier than the Subaru layout. The Subaru's power train is manufactured from lightweight aluminum. Providing perfect vibration mitigation due to the fact that the movement of each piston is exactly countered by the corresponding piston in the opposing cylinder bank, the boxer design eliminated the need for a harmonic balancer attached to the front of the engine at the crankshaft. With this type of powertrain layout, torque steer is also reduced. Having the front driveshafts being of equal weight and length and extending from the transmission to the front wheels at almost perpendicular from the transmission achieves this feat.

All past and current USA Subaru's can be easily recognized by their trim levels and the color of the outside door panels. While base trim levels can always be identified by their black plastic door handles, uplevel models have painted door handles directly matching the exterior color.

Sold in New England in 1999, the Outback Sport Utility Sedan was featured with a limited production test run. The SUS was introduced nationwide for the following year due to its success. The Outback became its own model in 2000, and along with receiving a 4-door sedan into its lineup, the Outback also received an available horizontal six-cylinder engine. Titled the 'Lancaster' in Japan for the second generation, the six-cylinder was also renamed the 'Lancaster 6'.

The second generation six-cylinder was featured with Subaru's VDC (Vehicle Dynamics Control) system, which integrated stability control with traction control. The VDC system was joined to an all new AWD system which split the power 45/55 front-to-rear in normal conditions. The system cuts power to the spinning wheel when a spin is detected, and reroutes power to those that aren't.

Depending on transmission choice, other models retained the typical AWD layouts that have been seen in previous generation Outback models. Relying on limited slip differentials to redirect power front to rear, rear to front and from one rear wheel to the other, manual models came with the mechanical ‘Continuous AWD' system, which was normally 50/50 front/rear. Automatic models featured an electronically-controlled AWD system that was 90/10 front/rear, that redirected differing amount of power to the rear wheels continuously depending on hard the accelerator pedal was pressed.

Differing front the previous 4-cylinder model in that it became an SOHC design, the Outback came standard with a 165 horsepower 4-cylinder boxer engine. Maximum torque was available at a lower rpm.

The only vehicles ever factory-equipped with McIntosh stereo equipment, the highest trim level of the Outback received a 200 W McIntosh stereo system as standard equipment from 2001 to 2003. Available options also included an in-dash 6-disc CD changer and dual moonroofs.

Rather than resembling U.S. models, Australian Outback models were designed closer to the Japanese models. The evidence lies primarily in the placement of the headlights, rear taillights, front and rear bumpers, the side indicators on front quarter panels, and higher placing of the ‘Outback badging' on the front door bodywork, rather than being placed on the plastic cladding.

Australian models were released in an early style with all-in-one headlights, gold colored cladding, a light gray cloth internally, light brown wood textured dashboard, and a plain instrument cluster. Available as an aftermarket option was a nudge bar, which was a smaller style of bulbar or roobar. From 2002 through 2004 the style was updated to feature silver cladding, a new updated range of paint color options, a dark gray/black cloth internally, multi-unit headlights, dark gray plastics, and a very dark brown faint wood texture, along with metal trims on the dials of the instrument cluster.

Available models included the base ‘Outback', the ‘Outback H6' which now included the 6 cylinder engine with VDC, and the ‘Outback Limited' which featured a new sunroof along with cloth/leather seats. The Outback H6 was now available in a single metallic pearl off-white color, rather than the usual color either gold or silver cladding, and also featured slightly different 16' wheels. Available only in automatic, the size of the 6- cylinder engine was most likely the reason, due to not enough space to fit the manual box and associated dual range mechanicals.

Introducing the fourth-generation Legacy at the 60th Frankfurt Auto Show in 2003, the Outback name was now being used worldwide with the launch of the second-generation Outback wagon. Introduced at the 2004 Chicago Auto Show were models equipped with a 3.0 L H6.

Based on the most recent Impreza, the Impreza-based Outback Sport is marketed on Subaru's U.S. website as a trim of the Impreza. For the 2008 model year, the Outback received an enlarged, chrome-ringed grille. In this same year, the Legacy wagon and Outback sedan were discontinued in the U.S., leaving only the Legacy sedan and Outback wagon.

By Jessica Donaldson

Concepts by Subaru

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Performance and Specification Comparison

Price Comparison

1996 Outback
1996 Subaru Outback Price Range: $17,600 - $22,000

$13,500 - $18,000

Model Year Production

2001Jeep (455,417)Ferrari (792)
2000Ford (965,029)Pontiac (573,805)Chevrolet (547,294)172,216
1999Ford (918,040)Honda (733,878)Chevrolet (609,100)156,806
1998Ford (878,405)Honda (751,032)Chevrolet (561,218)147,833
1997Ford (913,440)Honda (722,431)Chevrolet (650,820)133,783
1996Ford (1,036,048)Honda (680,711)Pontiac (541,844)120,748
1995Ford (1,012,818)Chevrolet (665,955)Honda (643,336)100,372
1994Ford (1,220,512)Chevrolet (651,647)Honda (650,105)100,543
1993Ford (1,026,338)Chevrolet (692,116)Honda (608,149)104,179
1992Ford (922,488)Honda (648,745)Chevrolet (647,227)104,803
1991Chevrolet (895,569)Honda (659,659)Buick (544,325)105,052

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