Last year, the infamous Danger Girl and I rode an Indian Chieftain “bagger” all the way from Portland, OR to Sturgis, SD for the annual motorcycle get-together there. As fate would have it, my wife’s best friend from prep school lives in Jackson, WY, so we decided to save a night’s worth of hotel expenses by detouring that way during the ride East. If you’ve ever been to Jackson, you know that there’s a lot of money there; in fact, the county in which Jackson is located has the highest average income in the United States, nearly $300,000 per household according to the IRS.
Here’s what did surprise me: the car in their driveway, the vehicle they’d chosen to complement their stress-free life of perpetual luxury and obsessive fitness devotion, wasn’t a Range Rover or a Mercedes G-wagen. It wasn’t even an Escalade or Suburban. It was–get this–a rusty, sixteen-year-old Subaru Outback. With a stick shift. You can get a car like that for two or three grand pretty much anywhere. Maybe four thousand bucks for a really nice one.
“Do you have a maid?” I asked the wife, pointing to the Outback.
“THAT’S NOT THE MAID’S CAR,” SHE RESPONDED. “IT’S MINE. I LOVE IT!”
“That’s not the maid’s car,” she responded. “It’s mine. I love it! Although I think the maid has an Outback, too. In fact, I think everybody has one.” That night at dinner, I realized that somewhere between one-third and one-half of the cars in the parking lot were Subarus of some sort. Virtually all of them were either “Outback” spec Legacy wagons, with the raised ride height and semi-aggressive tires, or some variant on the Forester pseudo-SUV. Most of them were at least a decade old.
“Will you ever get a new Subaru?” I asked Danger Girl’s friend, as we bounced back home later that evening.
“There’s nothing wrong with this one,” she chirped in response. “But I don’t know about the new ones… they’re different, aren’t they?” She’s right, of course. The original Subaru Outback was a quick-bake attempt on the manufacturer’s part to catch the SUV wave of the Nineties without actually building an SUV. It was funny-looking. It didn’t handle particularly well. And somehow it managed to combine relatively poor fuel economy with sundial acceleration, particularly if you bought one with an automatic transmission. The Forester that eventually joined it in the showroom was sort of a raised-roof Impreza. These were not “real” SUVs. They weren’t even crossovers. They were cars on stilts. They were ad hoc at best.
Today’s Subaru lineup has nothing of the ad-hoc about it. The Forester is an effective and competent crossover competitor, not very different from the CR-AV4-Santa-Fequinox. The Outback is a handsome monochrome wagon that comes in several highly desirable variants. Yet I didn’t see very many of either current model in Jackson. The only brand-new Subaru with much of a fan base in Wyoming was the egg-shaped, deliberately funky Crosstrek XV.
I resolved to write about this when I got home, but by the time I left Sturgis a few days later I’d seen so many outrageous things that the oddly humble flat-four fleet of Jackson Hole had sort of vanished from my mind. This past week, however, two things happened to make me think about old Subarus again. The first was that I happened across a blog entry on this very topic from a writer I know. “I think the denizens of Jackson Hole rock Subaru wagons because they’re the perfect intersection of right tool for the job,” he says.
The second thing that happened was that I spent half a week in and around Gunnison, CO, visiting various historical sites on a writing assignment. I looked at a lot of very tall mountains and I saw very clear streams. Those streams had quite a few campsites next to them. Most of these campsites had at least one Subaru Outback in the parking lot.
The Colorado crowd is not quite as Outback-obsessed as their wealthier counterparts in Wyoming; the Toyota Tacoma easily matches it for popularity. But while most of the Tacomas I saw were new or at least new-ish, the Subarus were just plain old, just like they were in Jackson. You know, if this planet ever gets visited by aliens who are just here for the skiing and camping, I cannot see how they wouldn’t assume that the two-tone jacked-up Subie wagon was, and is, the best-selling car of all time.
It’s easy to understand why the Outback is popular with outdoorsy types. It has enough ground clearance to get down a graded trail to a campsite or up a snowy hill to a ski lodge. In all other respects it’s just a plain station wagon, which means it’s the most useful vehicle most people will ever own. I just don’t quite understand why everybody seems obsessed with keeping their old ones. To my mind, the only advantage that a 2002 Outback has over a 2017 Outback is the availability of a manual transmission. (If you want a stick-shift 2017 Outback, you’ll have to go to Canada to get it.) In all other respects, the new car is just plain better.
The beautiful people of the Middle West don’t agree with me. They don’t want to hear the new album; they want the greatest hits. Which is all well and good as long as there are parts to keep the old Outbacks on the road. My conversations with my wife’s friend revealed that she’s not at all tight-fisted when it comes to keeping her vintage wagon running. I suspect she could drive a new one for less money. She doesn’t care.
SOMETHING WILL HAVE TO REPLACE THESE WORN-OUT SUBARUS.
Mind you, this is a state of affairs that cannot continue forever. Something will have to replace these worn-out Subarus. There’s probably room to open a boutique business restoring them to like-new condition, the way that people do with Grand Wagoneers and first-generation Broncos. That will satisfy the really picky Outback loyalists, but everybody else will just have to move on.
If I ran Subaru, I’d come up with a special edition of the current Outback. I’d bring back the goofy two-tone cladding and lowbrow interior. I’d pay for a list of all the people in wealthy counties who own fifteen-year-old examples of my product. I’d offer each one of them a killer trade deal on my new Outback Vintage or whatever it’s called.
I would work very hard to obtain the business of these Eloi, these people who have been #blessed by wealth and success in an era where those blessings seem harder and harder to get. I would jump through hoops to make sure that the farm-to-table restaurants out there continue to look like Subaru showrooms. I wouldn’t try to push the sleek monochrome current generation; I’d just give the people what they want, no matter how awkward-looking and two-tone and cloth-seated it might be.
Back in the real world, though, I’ve decided to think long and hard about adding an old Outback to my fleet. I’ll put my mountain bikes on it, maybe run it up a few trails. And when my wife’s friend comes to visit, I’ll have my rust-pitted, four-thousand-dollar, hundred-thousand-mile, two-tone wagon front and center in the driveway. We are going to keep up with the Joneses, you see. I’ve found the cheapest way possible to pretend that I’m rich.