In a market flush with same-same midsize SUVs, Subaru forges its own path with the appealing Outback...

We last tested a Subaru Outback in January 2014 and heaped praise on the elevated wagon’s robust feel, spacious cabin and overall refinement. The fact that it could go off-road sealed the deal; we adored the big wagon.

That vehicle, of course, was equipped with the Japanese brand’s unique flat-four turbodiesel engine at a time when the local distributor tested South Africans’ acceptance of oil-burners in its vehicles. It was a short-lived experiment, though, and Subaru Southern Africa has since reverted to offering only boxer petrol engines, some with turbocharging and others without. It’s part of a wider strategy that’s paying dividends; while the South African market grew by only 1,8% in 2017, Subaru posted an increase in sales of 10%.

This facelifted Outback sits at the pinnacle of a recently revised range that has received visual tweaks inside and out, a wider scope of connectivity features, revisions to the suspension setup and the Subaru brand’s EyeSight driver-assistance suite.

Visually, there’s a new front bumper with subtler foglamp surrounds and additional cladding – the local representatives say Outback owners actually take their vehicles off-road – a tweaked grille boasting less brightwork, new 18-inch wheel designs and two fresh hues, including this quirky Wilderness Green Metallic.

The biggest design changes, however, have been rendered inside. Gone is the previous, button-festooned slabby facia of that 2014 test vehicle, here replaced with a seven-inch touchscreen infotainment system shared with our XV long-termer. Offering Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, a brace of new USB ports aft of the centre console and 11 speakers courtesy of audio brand Harman Kardon, it’s one of the better setups of its type, and our only slight criticism is that some of the virtual buttons are too small for quick use on the go.

Elsewhere, there’s an extra smattering of smear-prone piano-black trim, tasteful lashings of leather trim and new climate control functions that are pleasingly slick to operate.

Family vehicles need to offer loads of space and a configurable boot, of course, and the Outback succeeds on both counts. Rear legroom of 760 mm bests that of all but the largest SUVs, while there’s generous headroom all-round despite the standard fitment of a (small) sunroof. Open the electrically operated hatch and you have access to 376 litres of packing space, which can be increased to a useful 1 256 litres with the seats folded forward (via controls in the boot) in a 60:40 split.

Perhaps the most contentious element of the Outback is its 3,6-litre boxer-six. In a decade where most carmakers have shifted their focus to turbocharged engines, Subaru has doggedly stuck to older-tech powertrains. That’s not to say the 3,6-litre is outclassed – it maintains 90% of its 350 N.m of peak torque between 2 000 and 6 000 r/min – but it clearly isn’t designed for ultimate efficiency. Nevertheless, a fuel-route figure of 9,4 L/100 km is commendable (although some commuting stretches saw that climb to 12-13 L/100 km).

Performance is strong – 100 km/h in 7,99 seconds – and refinement is equally impressive thanks to the inherently balanced nature of the boxer powertrain. The engine also pairs particularly well with the continuously  variable transmission; the revs rarely rise above 2 500 r/min in cut-and-thrust motoring, avoiding that drone so common to vehicles equipped with a CVT.

A big focus with this facelift was improving noise, vibration and harshness levels. To that end, the 2018 Outback boasts new sound-insulating glass on the front side windows, revised lining on the rear wheel wells and a less obtrusive interior fan system. It’s certainly a quiet vehicle at highway speeds, but there’s a touch too much suspension noise during driving.

That’s alongside a ride quality that is slightly less cushioned than it could be. It’s generally absorbent, but some fidget is present over pockmarked roads and the body moves round more than with European rivals.

As is the case with most Subarus, however, take it on gravel, activate X-Mode on the drivetrain-management system and the vehicle feels assuredly planted, the symmetrical AWD and active torque-vectoring systems doing their part to ensure a loss of traction is a rare occurrence.

The Subaru wallops its Euro competitors on standard spec, too. In addition to the items mentioned earlier, heated electric seats, LED headlamps and keyless entry and start all feature on the spec sheet, as does EyeSight, which uses stereo cameras to scan the road ahead and warn the driver of potential collisions. This system functions alongside blind-spot detection, rear-cross-traffic alert and lane-departure warning.



TEST SUMMARY

First introduced in 1994, the Outback has established a strong following in markets such as North America and Australia. Locally, it sells in comparatively small, yet nonetheless consistent, numbers, and that loyal fan base will appreciate the latest round of tweaks. More engaging to pilot than most midsize SUVs, and certainly more versatile than any family sedan, the Outback continues to carve a distinctive niche.

 

A word of advice, however: also investigate the 2,5i-S ES. It's R70 000 cheaper, lighter on fuel, sacrifices few features (or much performance) and generally maintains its value better than this otherwise impressive flagship model.