Reader Question: Outback Replacement?

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Heres’ the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Edna asks: I live in southern Oregon, listen to you when on Bill Meyer’s show. I bought a Subaru outback when I had to turn in my 2011 VW Diesel wagon. Since I live in rural Oregon where we have fires I think I should have purchased a Honda Ridgeline or small truck. This would make being ready to evacuate with husband and large dog easier should the need arise. The salesman at Subaru calls with offers of various trucks but I’m kind of spoiled with the comforts of my Outback. What do you think?  I’m 77 years old now and may need the assistance I get with the beeping of my lane assist and the back trunk is easy for shopping; and now with winter here I like the 4 wheel drive getting up the snowy drive way. Any comments welcome.

My reply: I think you might find a “small truck” difficult to find as they’re not made anymore! The smallest new trucks available – such as the current Nissan Frontier, Chevy Colorado and Ford Ranger – are mid-sized trucks and all are nearly as long overall as a full-size truck from the ’90s and before. They might be a handful for you – if you’re used to something like an Outback.

The Ridgeline is a little different as it’s not really a truck at all – as trucks have historically been defined, at any rate. It is based on a lighter-duty front-wheel-drive layout (with all-wheel-drive optional). Trucks are traditionally built around a rear-drive layout (with four-wheel-drive optional).

There’s been a lot of confusion about AWD vs. 4WD because several car companies use them interchangeably now. But historically, 4WD meant a system that sent all the engine’s power to the rear wheels until the 4WD was engaged, at which point the power was divided 50-50, front to rear. AWD systems usually send most (but not all) of the engine’s power to the front wheels and feed more power – automatically – to the rear wheels as the front wheels begin to slip, in order to maintain traction. As much as 90 percent of the engine’s power can be sent to the rear wheels, temporarily.

Another difference between the two is that – usually – a truck-type 4WD system will have a transfer case and Low range gearing. A few AWD systems (e.g., the Trailhawk version of the AWD system in the Jeep Compass) have a gear reduction feature that mimics the function of the transfer case in a 4WD system, but it’s not common.

But which is better?

It’s better phrased – which is better for you?

Unless you need a vehicle capable of fording through very deep unplowed snow, very muddy/rocky/unmaintained trails – and so on – I suspect an AWD-equipped vehicle will suit you best. Because AWD systems are designed to provide additional grip on dry (as well as wet) paved roads, in addition to giving you more grip when it snows. Most 4WD systems usually operate in 2WD (rear-drive) mode unless the 4WD is engaged – and the 4WD should (generally) be engaged only when you are driving in snow on-road (and off-road).

But not when the (paved) road is dry – or just wet.

Put simply, AWD is a traction and handling advantage on-road; 4WD is about off-road (and snow-day) traction on road. Most of the time, you’re lugging around al lot of weight you don’t need for the sake of capability you probably use only occasionally.

AWD is an on-road advantage all the time. And still gives you probably 75 percent of the off-road capability of a 4WD system, if you ever need it.

I think for your purposes an AWD-equipped vehicle like the Ridgeline could be an excellent choice. The AWD system is very capable; the vehicle has generous ground clearance – so it is very good in snow and on unpaved/muddy roads. But it’s much easier to drive than a traditional truck. The one caveat is the size of the thing – which may be an issue for you. A test drive is in order!

PS: Very sorry about your VW. That whole debacle may prove to have been the beginning of the end of the car industry as we know it.

. . .

Got a question about cars, Libertarian politics – or anything else? Click on the “ask Eric” link and send ’em in!

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  1. eric, there’s one thing, and only one thing I like about my Z71 and that’s the “Auto” mode on the 4WD. In really slick stuff it works better than straight 4WD.


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