Special Coverage

Auto Interiors Conference

Ask average consumers to define key attributes of the Subaru brand, and all-wheel drive is sure to top the list. A few might know Subaru’s legacy in off-road rally racing.

If Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd. continues to launch interiors as user-friendly and well-appointed as that in the all-new Subaru Outback, then “great interiors” soon will top the list.

In the highly contentious popular-priced car category of this year’s Interior of the Year competition, the Outback stared down seven rivals from the world’s three major automotive markets and proved No.1 among new entries.

The interior strikes the proper balance of brushed aluminum, high-grade plastics, supple leather and burled wood trim in proving that quality materials need not be the exclusive province of luxury cars.

Instead, our Outback test vehicle stickered at $28,295. Sure, there are less-expensive vehicles, but few offer the interior flexibility, spaciousness and near-luxury leanings of the Outback.

“If one must use hard plastic, take a lesson from Subaru or its suppliers,” Associate Editor Christie Schweinsberg writes on her scoresheet. “Gloss levels are very low.”

In some respects, the Outback had an unfair advantage because it’s so spacious. Compared with the ’09 Outback, the new model has more room for hips and shoulders, more interior volume and a whopping 4 ins. (10 cm) of additional rear legroom.

It helps that the exterior dimensions have grown significantly in height, width and wheelbase. Because of the upsize footprint of the new Outback, Ward’s is considering moving the vehicle from its Upper Middle Car segment (where its sales were tracked within Legacy sedan numbers) to the Middle Cross/Utility Vehicle segment.

Both the Legacy and Outback share the same platform and were all-new for ’10.

By association, the Legacy interior is quite nice, too, judging by our positive impressions during last fall’s 10 Best Engines test drives.

But it’s the Outback that delivers desirable car-like handling characteristics, as well as SUV functionality, much like other new CUVs such as the Toyota Venza and Honda Accord Crosstour.

The Outback’s air-sprung liftgate provides easy access to a cavernous cargo hold thoughtfully lined with a durable rubber mat that easily lifts out so it can be hosed down after hauling bags of top soil.

For big loads, the rear seats fold nearly flat in a 60/40 split configuration.

A delightful and clever feature places the release lever on the lower part of the seatback, right near the hip. It’s easily reached from inside the vehicle and while standing at the open door. No more wrestling with buttons that often are difficult to reach atop the seat, tucked between the head restraint and C-pillar.

The Outback interior still has room for improvement. For instance, accessing radio presets requires too much fiddling, and a few editors found the faux wood trim a bit out of place.

But a keen sense of style makes the Outback unforgettable. The center stack protrudes boldly from the instrument panel, making buttons easier to reach and providing a decidedly regal, upright countenance, like the bolt-straight guards posted at the Buckingham Palace gate.

To complete that artistic statement, designers wrapped the center stack with brushed aluminum, which appears to be pulled tightly around it, anchored by two points near the windshield.

Fifteen years after it first arrived in the U.S., the Outback is primed to help Subaru keep up its recent sales advances.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com