manufacturers who didn’t have a pukka off-roader to start off with have
approached the problem by taking a wagon and injecting it with SUV steroids.
Recent much-hyped examples of these latter passenger-car-based crossover models
include Volvo’s V70 Cross-Country and the Audi A6 Allroad. But Subaru
has been active in this field for many years, albeit not necessarily in full-on
SUV guise. The Legacy Outback featured here is a second-generation model with
a lineage that stretches back a much longer way than some of the latecomers.
Subaru, an offshoot of Fuji Heavy Industries and now latterly linked to the
General Motors empire, had acquired by the 1980s a reputation for capable, if
unexciting, saloons. Its products looked and went like just about any other
small car out of Japan, albeit with two distinctive features: four-wheel drive
and “boxer” flat-four engines. Predictably, the marque won favour
with farmers and buyers in the snow belt. Of course, all that changed with the
realisation that the car’s characteristics were ideally suited to rallying,
and the creation of the worldbeating Impreza turbo catapulted Subaru into the
Having created a demand for civilised 4×4 road cars based on its vehicles’
off-road abilities, Subaru has almost in a sense had to take a few steps back
by “re-off-roadering” its saloons. The Outback is, then, a high-rise
version of the Legacy station wagon, with macho SUV looks and increased ground
clearance. Unlike the standalone Forester wagon, it is more clearly tied to
the Legacy and is, naturally, bigger.
This particular model features the 3,0-litre flat-six engine, which moves in
above the current 2,5-litre four-cylinder version. The H-6, as it is dubbed,
features six horizontally opposed cylinders each with four valves and multipoint
fuel injection, with a variable induction system to optimise mixture flow and
thereby create a nice fat
torque band. Subaru’s Vehicle Dynamics Control helps maintain traction
and stability in concert with the full-time four-wheel drive system, with at
its heart a central viscous limited slip differential, common to all Subarus.
Suspension is by MacPherson struts and anti-roll bar in front, and a compact
multi-link arrangement on a floating subframe at the rear, with coil springs
and anti-roll bar. The standard self-levelling helps maintain ride height irrespective
Accustomed to the characteristic thrum of a four-pot boxer in Subarus, we were
pleasantly surprised by the muted but agreeable growl when planting the right
The multi-mode electronically controlled four-speed transmission may not be
the last word in leading-edge tech, but apart from wavering between hesitancy
and snappiness in the upper gears, it matches the silky engine well.
By contrast with the normal Legacy wagon’s 155 mm ground clearance,
the Outback is jacked up to 200 mm. The striking bodyside mouldings and SUV-style
plastic protective gear and roof rails complete a picture that certainly has
presence, though some more reserved folk may find it a bit over the top.
Cabin ambience and trim quality are similarly distinctive. Given the R333 000
price tag one would expect a high standard of luxury, and the Outback does not
disappoint. Not only do the fittings and trim feel substantial, they feature
enough leather and wood to cut it with the upmarket competition despite the
underlying feeling of comfortable functionality. Overall, the look is a bit
fussy, but quality seems good.
Unlike many genuine SUV wagons, which have all the right credentials for crossing
continents but need to be festooned with racks and trailers, the Outback gobbles
up a huge amount. Its vast interior provides ample room for four to five, although
rear headroom could be better. The tailgate rises to 1,82 m to reveal 616 dm3
of boot space, which can be enlarged to 1 216 by dropping the rear seats. Seats
are comfy, and the handy electric adjustment gets the driver seated ideally
Unlike manual-transmission models, the automatic-shift Outback does not offer
a low range, which will be a liability in extreme off-road situations demanding
engine braking or hill-climbing ability without the advantage of a run-up to
The Hold facility on the transmission does help keep it in a lower gear, but
it’s not really enough.
Having said that, having gone on a brief off-road foray to see for ourselves,
we reckon that most sensible people would never plumb the depths of this car’s
abilities simply because they couldn’t conceive of it scrambling –
as it does – like a mountain goat up a steep, muddy track or clambering
across rocks and fording streams. Again, the high-range-only gearing means that
one does have to attack tricky uphills with more vigour than good sense might
There was some disagreement in our test team about the Outback’s handling.
On our usual test route featuring a mix of tar and some dirt road, with plenty
of hills and twisties, one tester reported that it performed well enough but
lacked the assurance of its stablemates. It also seemed susceptible to interference
from crosswinds, and its turning circle can make manoeuvring in confined spaces
a little awkward.
Wrung out during a swift extended cross-country run through the Cape winelands
a different picture emerged. On the good, fast B-roads and freeway surfaces
heading towards Franschhoek the Legacy proved itself to be a superbly comfortable
ground-coverer. In the tighter hairpins and switchbacks of the passes, the off-putting
body lean and dominant understeer inhibited sharp manoeuvres. However, with
plenty of power and traction on tap it was possible (though not always satisfying)
to drive it by the scruff of the neck and simply power through bends with the
four-wheel drive system clawing the car through. We would imagine that the Yokohama
Geolandar tyres, a hybrid design for sport-utility use, are not necessarily
first choice for high-performance road motoring.
It was when we came to take the last leg on a rocky, tortuous mountain road
that certain things came into focus. Dive into a corner hard, and the Outback
resolutely washes out in understeer, prompting the driver to back off. Traction
is there, but cornering attitude is found wanting. Yet turn in and brake (left-foot
brake rally-style if you like) and, hey presto, the rear end steps out sharply
to tighten the line. In a regular two-wheel drive this kind of behaviour would
be confined to the expert or the foolish, but with the awd Subaru, now drifting
into position and set up for exiting the corner safely and under full power
with the aid of traction control, it’s a blast. Up to a point, then,
the Outback discourages untidy driving, but rewards an expert – even sometimes
a brutal – approach, while providing a generous safety margin for both methods.
Developing peaks of 154 kW at 6 000 r/min and 282 N.m at 4 400, the Outback
3,0 promises excellent performance. We achieved our best standing-start sprint
times shifting manually; 9,56 seconds from 0 to 100 km/h and just on 30 seconds
to the kilometre are brisk without being sparkling, though. It’s in the
midrange that the big Subaru shines, with effortless overtaking ability. Top
speed, averaged both ways, panned out at 205 km/h with abut 4 900 r/min rung
up on the tacho.
Braking was a somewhat less satisfactory story. Normal braking is good, but
our simulated emergency stopping routine resulted in fairly inconsistent performance
to produce an average of 3,28 from 100 km/h to standstill. That combination
of changed centre of mass and hybrid tyres again?
In keeping with Subaru’s sensible shoes approach, the car is well equipped
with safety features, which include dual front airbags, a three-point harness
for the centre rear passenger, and pretensioned front belts.