Every year, three and a half hours north of Toronto, an intrepid band of rallyists challenge the slippery backroads of late November Bancroft, Ontario. The event is the Rally of the Tall Pines, and this year’s winner and national champion Tom McGeer drives a Subaru. Also driving a Subaru, although not in competition, was the team from SSGM’s sister publication Tire & Wheel Canada, allowing testing in packed snow and icy conditions, as well as dry pavement driving. The SSGM/Tire & Wheel Canada test vehicle was a Subaru Outback VDC with the automaker’s flagship engine, a 212 horsepower horizontally-opposed three-litre DOHC six. The powerplant is compact and rigid, with the forged steel crankshaft running in seven main bearings inside a three-piece aluminum block with iron cylinder liners. Connecting rods are also forged steel, while dual overhead cams are fabricated for lightness and higher lift, and are chain driven. All engine accessories are mounted above the crank, recessed over the engine and are driven by a serpentine belt. A coil-on-plug ignition system ignites the mixture whose air passes through a variable runner intake manifold. Downstream, exhaust passes through a two-stage muffler, although it’s imperceptible inside the cabin. Part of the imperceptibility may have been due to the excellent McIntosh audio system which includes, appropriately, a weather band function.
Make no mistake, this is no truck. The structure is unibody and there’s neither a selectable transfer case nor locking hubs. In fact, Subaru bills the Outback as a “sport utility wagon”, which sounded reasonable to the Tire & Wheel Canada team, camera equipment and assorted baggage which was hauled into the bush for the Tall Pines. Driving on the stage routes (although not in the competition) the Outback was smooth and fast (for the conditions), with a surprising amount of grip for snow-packed and icy conditions. The foul weather capability is especially impressive given the compromise of all season 225/60 R16 Firestones. It’s probable that high performance radials for the summer and true snow tires in the winter would let the vehicles systems perform even better. The VDC (Vehicle Dynamics Control) system works in concert with the Subaru’s traction control, ABS, and all wheel drive systems to act like an invisible hand that keeps enthusiasm (or stupidity) from turning low friction-coefficient turns into the teacup ride at Disneyland. The system works so well that inducing a little rally-style oversteer was almost impossible at reasonable speeds. SSGM tried a flat-out, full-lock circle from a standing start on a snow-covered parking lot, and the Outback VDC simply circulated quietly, as if the accelerator pedal wasn’t connected to the throttle. In a sense, it wasn’t, making this the kind of car you want your teenagers and significant others driving in slippery weather. The downside? The biggest is price. The Outback VDC as tested with the six-cylinder engine stickered at $44,000, which is competitive in this class, but will keep this capable vehicle out of a lot of driveways, mine included. Maybe the engine could have been a little racier, or the cup holders a little larger, or the interior fan control a little easier to use. And two power moon roofs seem a little decadent. Minor quibbles. And besides, if your skills exceed this Subaru’s capability, Tom McGeer has your ride. SSGM
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