The Subaru Outback Is Just a Station Wagon Marketing SchemeS

It’s been an exciting week for me here on Jalopnik. On Tuesday, that piece on BMW losing its way prompted readers to passionately argue about the brand’s direction. Yesterday’s Miata piece prompted a flurry of reader responses, ranging from praise to curse words. And now, here I am, talking about the Subaru Outback, which will undoubtedly prompt readers to think: I wonder what’s on Autoblog today.

But I strongly suggest you stick around, because today’s story is a tale of deceit and trickery from Subaru, noted manufacturer of replacement head gaskets and, occasionally, automobiles.

This all started recently when a friend asked me, an obvious expert, for advice on a new car. Any regular readers out there (a group that largely consists of my former colleagues, who huddle around their computers and laugh about how I turned down a 911 company car for this) know I hate getting asked for car advice, largely because you’re only an expert if you agree with peoples’ pre-conceived notions. As a result, most car advice conversations I have tend to go like this:

Other Person: I’m interested in a reliable sedan with good gas mileage.
Me: What about a Mazda3?
Other Person: I was thinking more along the lines of this 2003 Saab with no title I found on Craigslist.
Me: I don’t think that’s a good idea.
Other Person: Well, I found Car & Driver comparison test from 2002 where it beat the Cadillac Catera. So I’m going with that.

In this particular case, however, I felt obligated to give my advice to the person asking, in part because she’s a friend, but mostly because she’s currently driving a hybrid. I’m always willing to give advice to hybrid drivers, though this advice usually comes in traffic, accompanied by a raised middle finger.

Anyway: she mentioned that she wanted something a little bigger than her hybrid; possibly a station wagon like the Subaru Outback. This, dear readers, sent me off on an angry tangent that I will now share with you.

Now, before we go any further, I want to say that I was born and bred in the great state of Colorado. (Motto: “Only YOU can prevent forest fires by fully extinguishing your blunts.”) I remember, as a child, when the Subaru Outback debuted. First, a babysitter had it. Then an aunt. Then my teachers. Then my friends. Pretty soon, there was no way you weren’t driving an Outback, unless of course you were driving an Impreza service loaner while the dealer replaced your head gaskets. (Prediction: there will be at least one comment thread about how Subaru head gaskets aren’t that bad.)

The point of mentioning my Colorado heritage is that it means I’m allowed to insult the Subaru Outback, much in the same way that racial minorities are allowed to use racial slurs, but anyone else who uses them will be angrily called out in a Facebook status. (Prediction: there will be at least one comment thread about how this is an annoying double standard.)

So, the Subaru Outback. Some of you know it as a raised Legacy. Others know it as that Japanese car with the enormous fenders. But me? I know it as a midsize SUV.

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen: I’m telling you that the Subaru Outback, the station wagon that gives us all hope that maybe station wagons aren’t dead, the station wagon that outsells every other station wagon on the market combined, isn’t actually a station wagon. It’s all just a marketing scheme concocted by the same people who once took a long look at their lineup and said: Why don’t we offer our midsize sedan as a pickup truck?

For proof of the Outback’s SUVness, I turn to the usualcompact SUV crowd. This includes the Ford Escape, the Honda CR-V, the Toyota RAV4, and, when people remember it, the Mazda CX-5. This is a listing of those SUVs, the Outback, and their heights:

Ford Escape: 66.3 inches
Honda CR-V: 64.7 inches
Mazda CX-5: 65.7 inches
Toyota RAV4: 65.4 inches
Subaru Outback: 65.8 inches

That’s right: the Outback “station wagon” stands just as tall as today’s compact SUVs. Now, let’s look at length:

Ford Escape 178.1 inches
Honda CR-V: 178.3 inches
Mazda CX-5: 179.3 inches
Toyota RAV4: 179.9 inches
Subaru Outback: 189.0 inches

So the Outback isn’t only as tall as a compact SUV – it’s also nearly a foot longer. It’s even a little longer than a Toyota Highlander, which I think we would all agree is a midsize SUV, or – if we were thinking like a German luxury brand – a midsize grand sports activity tourer.

With these numbers in mind, how does the Outback get away with its station wagon image?

It isn’t gas mileage. The six-cylinder Outback has the same combined fuel economy as the all-wheel drive Honda Pilot and Toyota Highlander, roughly defined by suburban mothers as: I thought it would be better than this. It’s not pricing, either: the Outback won’t save you any money over most SUV rivals.

So if it’s not a wagon in size, and if it won’t save you money over an SUV, the wagon image must come from Subaru’s own marketing. But why would Subaru market the Outback as a station wagon? Why would they try to convince Americans, who are known for hating wagons just as much as they hate neighbors with unkempt shrubbery, that they’re selling a station wagon?

The answer is simple: if the Outback were an SUV, it would be just another SUV; yet another boring model that competes with the Highlander, or the Honda Pilot, or the Ford Explorer. But as a wagon, it presents an alternative. Your friends all have SUVs. Your neighbors all have SUVs. But you? You decided to buck the trend of buying a big vehicle we can’t see over in traffic. You decided to buy something practical, not fashionable. You decided to buy a car, not a big SUV. You decided to buy… into a huge marketing scheme.

Good luck with your head gaskets.

@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars. He operates PlaysWithCars.com. He owned an E63 AMG wagon and once tried to evade police at the Tail of the Dragon using a pontoon boat. (It didn't work.) He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer, largely because it meant he no longer had to wear pants. Also, he wrote this entire bio himself in the third person.