Subaru's Outback PZEV cleaner than the rest

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      Subaru is a bit of an anomaly in the automotive industry. For one thing, the company is owned by a Japanese conglomerate, Fuji Heavy Industries, that also manufactures aircraft, wind turbines, weed whackers, industrial engines, and ATV components, among other things. U.S. motorcycle, snowmobile, and ATV giant Polaris uses engines made by Fuji in some of its recreational vehicles, and commercial-jet manufacturer Boeing is supplied by Fuji in the construction of its 777 and 787 jumbo jets, mainly with wing and fuselage bits and pieces.

      As for Subaru products, no one else—other than Porsche—uses a horizontally opposed engine-layout arrangement in its cars and, with the exception of Audi, Subaru is the only company that fits all-wheel drive to each of its models. Over the years, Subaru has exported its AWD technology to companies such as Nissan and Saab, and it's a cornerstone of the company's corporate identity.

      Subaru also has a habit of quietly utilizing engineering that is both unconventional and useful. It has fully embraced turbocharger technology, and its forays into rally motorsport have been enormously successful. Other manufacturers use turbochargers too, of course, but few have committed themselves to the technology to the extent that Subaru has. For example, the stunningly quick '06 Impreza WRX STi had a feature that allowed the driver to spray water directly onto the intercooler to increase performance.

      And how about Subaru's unique “hill-holder” technology? Found in the manual-transmission Forester and Impreza models, this is an excellent feature for drivers who have trouble getting under way while stopped on a hill. True, the hill-holder idea was patented by Studebaker way back in the 1930s and variations of it have been adopted by companies such as Saab, Alfa Romeo, and Volkswagen, but it's still an unusual feature and Subaru has consistently used it for decades. Interestingly, not everyone likes it, as it can apparently hinder off-road driving and parallel parking. Some Subaru owners who otherwise love their cars disable this feature, but it's never bothered me, and I've driven Subaru products in just about every conceivable situation.

      The latest engineering goody to be brought forward by Subaru is its Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle system. Found in Legacy and Outback models, PZEV basically reduces tailpipe fumes through the use of a super-efficient charcoal air-filtration system, redesigned fuel injectors, a reprogrammed Electronic Control Model, and a beefed-up catalytic converter. Slightly advanced ignition also heats up the catalytic converter more promptly than usual, further reducing the amount of unburned gases escaping through the system during cold starts.

      You could probably argue that all of this is as much a case of fine-tuning as it is new technology. But either way, the results, says Subaru, give PZEV models almost 90-percent cleaner exhaust than most new gasoline-fuelled vehicles and are just a whisker away from a zero-emissions rating. And this is without sacrificing performance or fuel economy. The company claims that competitors such as the Acura RDX, the Mazda CX-7, the Mitsubishi Outlander, and the Volvo XC70 emit at least three times as much “smog-forming pollution” per year.

      Quite a feat. And, in the case of the Outback, it comes with a starting price of just over $34,000.

      Power for the Outback PZEV is provided by Subaru's tried-and-true boxer engine, which displaces 2.5 litres and develops 170 horsepower. This power plant is used throughout the company's model range; with the PZEV package, it can be mated to a four-speed automatic ($1,200) or five-speed manual transmission. (My tester had the manual transmission.) Other Outback trim levels offer a five-speed automatic and/or a larger 3.0-litre engine, but not with the PZEV package.

      Equipment level is typically high. Along with all the usual mod cons such as one-touch-down power windows, keyless entry, tilt steering, a power sunroof, and a 60/40 folding rear seat, you get heated front seats, roof rails, 16-inch wheels and tires, and exterior badging that lets everyone know you're doing the right thing. Not to mention a full roster of driver and front passenger front- and side-impact airbags, as well as side-curtain airbags; four-wheel disc brakes with ABS; and a traction-control system. When it comes to getting bang for your buck, Subaru is in the thick of it.

      When I picked up my test car, I was cautioned that there might be a bit of a lag during cold starts while the system warms itself up. It was actually snowing at the time, but I noticed no such lag. In fact, in every way, the Outback PZEV driving experience was indistinguishable from those of its garden-variety stablemates—solid, stable, unexciting, and unremarkable, in other words. That said, I did notice a few squeaks and rattles that seemed out of place, and the driver's side power window was unusually slow, both going up and going down. That could have been due to the cold weather, but it was there nonetheless.

      It's not unreasonable to expect that Subaru will apply PZEV technology to more of its models in the future, given the way things are going. While some manufacturers are busying themselves with things like four peripheral exterior cameras, back-up warning chimes, convoluted navigation systems, and ventilated front seats, Subaru focuses on sure-footed, competently designed wagons and sedans that run cleaner than just about everything else.

      Sounds like a plan to me.