SAN FRANCISCO--I was sitting in a Costco here Wednesday night, waiting to have four new tires put on my 2001 Subaru Outback--after literally having just spent $900 on a tune-up and several other items. Paradoxically, I was thinking that Subaru makes a pretty good car.
It was this very Subaru that I spent 16 days in two summers ago on Road Trip 2006, when I drove 3,279 miles around the Pacific Northwest. That year, CNET News let me try a driving trip in search of stories, but I had to take my own car and pay all my own expenses.
The trip was successful, though, and after my return, CNET suggested I should do it again the next summer--and that they'd pay my way the next time. Even better, we decided I should seek out a car company interested in providing a loaner vehicle to use on the trip.
Well, having taken my beloved Subaru with me in 2006, I thought the company might like to get involved for Road Trip 2007. I wrote Subaru, explained that I had taken my own 2001 Outback on Road Trip 2006, and asked if they were interested in giving me a loaner. The answer was an enthusiastic yes--particularly, it seemed, because they appreciated that I had done this project the first time in my own Subaru.
Without going into detail, we ended up going a different direction last year, with Infiniti as a sponsor. For Road Trip 2007, I took one of that company's SUVs as I drove for 25 days around the Southwest.
But when I was planning Road Trip 2008, we decided I should reach out to Subaru again. To my surprise, and pleasure, they said they were interested in getting involved this year, despite our having gone with Infiniti in the end last year.
So on June 8, just after I touched down at Orlando International Airport, I went to a nearby parking lot. There, waiting for me, was a brand new Subaru Outback 2.5 XT, just waiting to be taken off on a grand adventure.
And if you've been following Road Trip 2008, you'll know that's just what happened. For the next several weeks, I drove that Subaru all over the South, covering 8 states, 4,593 miles and at least 25 different destinations.
My wife worried that after driving this brand new version of our own car, I would come home and demand that we trade it in. It's an understandable fear, given that the new Subaru was a pleasure to drive and a very nice piece of automotive design.
In many ways, the car was extremely familiar to me, given my own Outback. Many things, such as switches for moving the seats and opening the gas cap, as well as the general layout of the interior, were just like in my car.
But other things, such as the stereo, the cruise control system, and of course, the navigation system--there is none on my 2001 Outback--were quite different.
All in all, I really enjoyed the 2008 Outback. It is a very strong car that has an extremely smooth engine that is capable of quick acceleration at highway speeds or a nimble zig-zag around stopped traffic or a bottleneck in the road.
I'm no professional car reviewer, so my approach to sharing thoughts on the vehicle is likely very unlike that of someone who does this regularly would write. But having spent nearly a month in the car, and driven far enough to cross the United States and come halfway back, I certainly formed some impressions about it.
On the whole, I would heartily recommend this car, and it's only because my own Subaru is still in fine shape that I'm not about to run out and try to get a new one.
I always felt safe driving this car. It felt solid and in control, even at high speeds, and a couple of times when I needed to slam the brakes, it came quickly to a stop.
Being a Subaru, of course, it handled extremely well even in wet conditions and on rough roads. Occasionally, it did seem a little sluggish, but that was definitely the exception. For the most part, I always expected, and mostly got, a strong boost of acceleration when I needed it.
If I had any complaints, it would have to do with the car's navigation system. I hadn't planned on using this very much, since I brought another one with me. But in the interest of simplicity and because I was so busy I never was able to get around to using the other one, I relied strictly on the Subaru's onboard system.
This turned out to be a mixed bag.
Now, I know that any car navigation system is going to have some hiccups. But the Subaru's system seemed a little bit more hit and miss than I would have liked.
It was actually quite odd. Sometimes, it would go for days and take me everywhere I needed to go with perfect precision. Other days, it would seem to really struggle.
On one leg of the journey, from Memphis, Tenn., to Clarksdale, Miss., the navigator took me on a route that turned out to be fairly well out of the way, and a longer drive. I had been in a real hurry to get out of town, so I hadn't checked the route on a map and so I didn't even realize.
Another time, when driving into Pensacola, Fla., instead of having me get off the freeway at the exit where my hotel was, it had me do a seven-mile circuit on back roads to arrive at the hotel. I couldn't even begin to explain that one.
Of course, you're always supposed to reality-check any route a car navigator gets you, so part of the blame is mine for not making sure it was sending me to the right place.
Still, after a rough beginning with the navigator--I was one more false route from "firing" it after a day or two--I came to expect it to steer me wrong, but still trusted it enough to use it. A contradiction, I know, but there you have it.
And to be sure, it got me where I needed to go much more often than it didn't.
I think, in the end, that built-in car navigators are simply not as good as the ones you can buy on the aftermarket. I haven't used them enough to prove that theory, but that's my sense. So it might have nothing at all to do with this particular model.
I also had a couple of other small quibbles with the car, particularly in comparison to my own Subaru.
When I first picked the vehicle up, I noticed the automatic gear shift didn't have a label for a first gear. So for the first day I had the car, I was running it in what I thought was drive, but it was revving extremely high. Only on the second day did I realize that I had been driving in first gear. If I hadn't figured that out, it could have been a very short trip. On my car, the first gear is shown on the gear shift, and so this was a little confusing to me.
Similarly, on my car, using cruise control, there is a button that allows you to decelerate. This car didn't allow that. Perhaps there's a practical reason for that, but I'm not sure what it would be.
But these are little things. As I mentioned above, this was a great car, and I really loved it. It was hard to lock it up for the last time and leave it in the parking lot at Tampa International Airport, where I flew home from.
I hope that when I do Road Trip 2009, Subaru will consider its involvement with Road Trip 2008 worth it and lend me another car for my next long journey.