Subaru Outback vs. Jeep Wrangler – Finding the better sand machine.

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The stamp read in gigantic red letters, “I agree not to drive this vehicle off-road, and I am liable for all damages attributed to any off-road driving.” I acted nonchalant and signed the paperwork with my right hand while my left hand was behind my back with fingers crossed.

The Setting

Cape Hatteras, North Carolina has a storied history filled with shipwrecks, one of the world’s tallest lighthouses, ferocious hurricanes and nearby home to the infamous pirate, Blackbeard. But for me, the historical significance of Cape Hatteras is that it was my childhood playground. It was a place where my family went every summer for nearly 20 years to vacation. We’d take the family Explorer out on the endless stretches of open beaches, find a spot out near Cape Point miles from anyone, and surf, fish and sleep to our heart’s content.

During these trips we always saw some incredible vehicles traversing the deep, soft and often treacherous sands. Everything from old, moth-eaten, wood-paneled Wagoneers with 300 fishing poles mounted on the front to rear-wheel drive Oldsmobile station wagons with snow tires and sandbags in the back. Beach carnage ranged from erroneously-parked 4x4s getting washed into the sea to trucks getting stuck chassis deep in sand.

And this year, when our family planned a 10 year reunion in Cape Hatteras, my brother informed me he would be driving down from Boston with his wife, son and dog in his new Subaru Outback 2.5 XT. He asked me if I thought it would make it on the beach. Without hesitation I said absolutely. Hell, if an Olds Vista Cruiser could make it, his Subaru would sleepwalk. But the big question was, could the Subaru keep up with a Jeep?

What’s the difference?

All-wheel-drive, four-wheel-drive, full-time, part-time, 4×4, Quattro, All-trac; the terms used to define power distribution to all four wheels seem endless, but a lot of these names all boil down to marketing hype. There are essentially four different types of four-wheel-drive systems, spelled out in much more detail at But for the purposes of this article, we wanted to see which would perform better in the sand – Jeep’s Command Trac 4×4 system or Subaru’s Symmetrical AWD system.

So what’s the difference between these two systems? The Jeep Command Trac system is categorized as a part time 4×4 system. With normal street driving, the vehicle is only powered by one (rear) axle. Once off-road, a lever is shifted to engage a transfer case, which activates the front axle and splits the power from the engine 50 percent to the front and 50 percent to the rear. This type of 4×4 system is the most traditional, as well as the most durable and reliable, but it does not work on dry pavement because it lacks a differential in the transfer case to dynamically distribute engine torque for on-road traction.

Subaru’s Symmetrical AWD system is full-time all wheel drive. Unlike Jeep’s system, the Subaru has a traditional differential inside the transfer case, which allows for dynamic slippage between all four wheels, enabling it to operate on and off pavement. What keeps it from being a true 4×4 system is that the Subaru lacks low-range gearing for times when extreme traction and low speed are required.

Although having low range in most off-road situations is beneficial, when driving in deep, soft sand, the only thing low range will get you is completely and utterly buried to the frame rails. Ask us how we know. Therefore, both the Jeep and Subaru only run in high range, leveling the playing field between them. And for an additional challenge, despite the recommended practice of airing the tires down to 20 psi for better traction, we kept the tires at street pressure.

(continued on page 3 – Which performed better?)

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  • David M. says:

    We took our 2006 Outback 2.5i out onto that very same beach and the one just before “S-turns”. It did just fine getting us where we wanted to go but it is definitely not designed to play in the sand much, at least not OBX sand which is notoriously deep. It’s a great car for all environments but it isn’t great at any in particular aside from snow and ice. We never let any air out of the tires and we had to avoid deep ruts but aside from that she was sure footed. The Outback fits the offroading a majority of vehicle owners will do and for the rest there are the alternatives that fair much better and they are almost all body on frame with a low range transfer case. No one gave us a beer for our efforts either….

  • Kurt G. says:

    Actually, it should read “Subie Pulled From Sand by Tundra”

    Kurt G.

  • Solid says:

    The section The Subie Earns Props should be renamed Subie Pulled From sand by Wrangler.

  • BOb says:

    Be careful about renting cars with E-Zpass, there is a company called E Tolls/HTA
    this is in bed with your state’s toll authority and out there to make an illegitimate profit.

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