WHEN Subaru’s original Outback hit our ’burbs (and bush) in 1996, it was a welcome alternative to an agricultural ‘4WD’, which almost all SUVs were at the time.
Two decades on, SUVs have become more polished, more desirable and more popular. And Subaru’s fifth-generation Outback wants a bigger slice of the action.
While compact soft-roaders broaden their buyer base with front-drive entry models, this genre-defining wagon is hunting at the other end of the scale, with a raised seating position, premium equipment, richer cabin and off-road tech.
The Outback’s seat height makes it spot-on for loading the kids, while its trademark ground clearance (compared with a donor Liberty) means the new X-Mode off-road system is there for more than just showroom cred.
Sumptuous leather and softtouch plastics headline a broad, cleanly designed, roomy cabin in the flagship 3.6R that, like most of the range, comes at a significantly more attractive price of $47,990, down $10K compared with the outgoing model.
High-tech proliferates, including new and upgraded systems including Subaru’s ‘Eye-sight’, which brings precollision steering assist and brake-light detection functions as well as braking assist, adaptive cruise and lane-departure warning. Much of the technology is focused on safety, which the seven airbag count and five-star safety rating build on.
There’s also a powered tailgate (with programmable height setting), a big, clear colour touchscreen, voice recognition and a 160-degree rear camera.
Like Outback’s 10 percent slipperier styling, the oily bits tell the story of an evolutionary redesign. Subaru’s EZ flat-six is now backed by a continuously variable transmission rather than a five-speed auto, but its 191kW and 350Nm outputs are unchanged. At an official 9.9L/100km, the new 3.6R is a bit thriftier than the old one, but its misses out on the idle-stop system introduced on 2.5-litre flat-four variants.
The Outback gets the Liberty sedan’s quicker 14.0:1 steering ratio, and its sculpted leather wheel feels good. The electromechanical steering is smooth, but it keeps the driver at arm’s length with its ultimate lack of feel and accuracy. For the latter, the squeal-prone Bridgestone Dueler H/P Sport tyres must be partly to blame.
Riding on chunky 225/60R18s, the Outback should be more comfortable than the Liberty, but low-speed ride remains a bit niggly and the damping of bigger hits isn’t completely resolved.
At least the cabin is quiet.
Outback takes to twisty tarmac with a slightly understeery attitude, tempering the driver with its lack of front-end feel and letting mid-corner lumps upset its poise. The X-Mode and hill descent control buttons, and the compass in the info display, suggest that on-road manners may have been compromised for heightened off-road ability.
The 3.6-litre boxer is potent, but some of its punch is lost in the torque converter. And while the CVT is a good one, it doesn’t work as decisively as a decent conventional auto, despite Subaru’s successful efforts to eliminate rev flare using six artificial ratio steps.
In today’s fierce market, the original anti-SUV is no longer an automatic choice. But, despite some flaws, the Outback has the breadth of ability to tempt buyers with both its suave refinement and genuine off-road ability.
Lacks involvement; ride-quality niggles; below-average economy Spacious; classily trimmed; impressively appointed; smooth; durable
X-Mode system keeps busy in the rough stuff, moderating throttle inputs, increasing the AWD’s clutch-locking power, keeping the CVT in a low ‘gear’ and quickening brake application/delaying brake release when wheel rotation differences occur.
Outback’s AWD set-up is mechanical, with a bevel-gear centre diff and viscous LSD.
Drive is split 50:50, but if the front and rear wheels spin at different speeds, the viscous LSD controls the difference between front and rear drive outputs.
Flagship Outback brings threemode SI-Drive system, which adds S# (sport sharp) to the ‘I’ (intelligent) and ‘S’ modes in lesser variants. But it’s a gimmick.
‘Intelligent’ should be renamed ‘retarded’, because that’s what it does to drivetrain response.
THE top-shelf variant of Mazda’s great-looking 6 wagon sidesteps off-road ability for on-road dynamics with similar ride niggles (on 19in wheels). Turbo-diesel provides grunt to rival Subie six and in terms of quality, kit and space, it’s a close race.
IT WAS 100 bucks cheaper than the old Outback, but now Volvo’s ageing XC70 is 10 grand more expensive. Sweden’s high-rise wagon is not as capable off-road (or on-road) as the Subaru, but it’s far less common and has Scandinavian appeal.
NEW Outback is 25mm longer, 20mm wider and 25mm taller, liberating cabin and cargo space, which is up 22 litres to an impressive 512 litres.
The 3.6R gets full marks for interior functionality, with a push-button (or key-operated) powered tailgate, rear door-jamb steps for roof-rail access, cargo bay levers for the 40/60 folding rear backrests, a full-size spare, powered seats spare, powered seats with driver’s memory, shift paddles, an electric park brake and intuitive touchscreen display.
Newfound sense of class carries into its comfy, well-appointed rear compartment with matching leather door-trim inserts.