A Cult Leader With All Wheel Drive

Subaru perennially enjoys one of the highest rates of owner loyalty, right up there with Ferrari. That is so sad! But anyway, Subaru, owned by Fuji Heavy Industries, is on fire. The company’s U.S. month-to-month sales have increased for seven years, practically the entire Obama administration. Year-over sales have were in double digits for four years ending in 2015 (582,625 units).

Subaru has nearly doubled capacity at its Lafayette, Ind., campus, but it’s like trying to catch a runaway kite.

The Outback, a midsize, all-wheel-drive crossover, is the company’s granola-y icon, of course. Or maybe its heroin. At one point this year the national supply of Outbacks dwindled to nearly nothing, a seven-day supply. “I’ve only got one Outback on the lot, and it’s sold,” a Colorado Subaru dealer pleaded with managers at a recent car show. “You’ve got to get me more cars!”


What is the laughing gas in Subaru owners’ balloon? How has this audience, this pecuniary relationship between buyer and bought, morphed into a tribe? Subaru does have a big-tent message, including a long-term commitment to the LGBT community. OK, that accounts for a certain percentage of buyers. But who are all these other people?

Subaru’s sales neatly track the rise of crossovers and the Outback gets credit for being the ur-crossover.

I go round and round on this. One year, I feel nearly smothered by the sameness, the adequacy of mass-market cars. I find my gall rising at every marketing message that says this car or that rises above commodity status. See past the code. Take the blue pill, Neo. They’re all the same!

Then after being thoroughly convinced it’s all finely curated horse manure, I start to think: No, it really is about product. It’s the marketing that’s all the same. The machinery begs to be appreciated on its own terms, its unique courtesies and capacities, and by its own value.

I have spent long minutes contemplating these mysteries from inside the 2017 Subaru Outback 2.5i Premium ($32,160, as tested). The Outback comes in six trim levels: four with the 2.5-liter flat four engine; and two with the 3.6-liter flat-six.

As a refreshing change for me, our tester was not pride of the fleet, but the 2.5i Premium, with the smaller engine (175 hp, 174 lb-ft of torque). That allowed me to more fully appreciate what you might call the Outback’s background level of accommodation.