IT’S fascinating to analyse other countries’ sales charts and compare them with our own. Yes, economic status, wealth, brand cachet and the availability of manufacturers and ranges do play a significant role in determining which vehicles sell well and which ones are duds, but often the environment in which a vehicle will be used plays an equally large part.
Subaru does rather well in the northern parts of the United States, as well as Canada. There, harsh winter conditions necessitate all-wheel-drive technology, with which Subaru is very familiar. Those markets seem less obsessed with badge and brand heritage and more with practicality (unlike the southern parts of the US, where large, expensive SUVs and pick-up trucks seem to be favoured).
In South Africa, Subaru performs rather less well. We don’t really need AWD and, although locals prefer larger vehicles (so you’d think this Outback would be a roaring success), they tend to be of the full-size SUV variety. Granted, Subaru offers such a vehicle in the shape of the Tribeca, but that is old and thirsty. So, even considering the revised Outback’s accomplished nature, we can’t see the sales situation improving for the Japanese manufacturer.
Which is a pity because, as we found out, it’s perhaps Subaru’s best vehicle…
The Outback fits into a sub-niche of the market populated by the Audi A4 Allroad and … well, that’s it, really. Not many carmakers seem brave enough to attempt the station-wagon/SUV body style.
Adding spice to the Outback package is the addition of a flat-four turbodiesel engine. Developing 110 kW and 350 N.m, the engine pulls strongly, while the torque delivery is spread evenly throughout the range so there’s always enough grunt under foot.
Initially based on its ability to swop gears quickly and seamlessly, we thought the transmission was a torque-converter automatic, but we soon learnt it’s a continuously variable unit that features set gear “ratios”. The result is perhaps the best CVT we’ve yet used because there’s none of the clutch-slip sensation of other gearboxes of this type. Somewhat superfluously, there are paddles attached to the steering wheel.
The cabin is extremely spacious and trumps the Allroad’s in terms of luggage and utility space. All controls fall to hand from the driver’s seat and seating comfort is excellent. However, perceived quality is somewhat behind that of the Audi.
Like the cabin, performance testing was a mixed bag. The Outback reached 100 km/h in a respectable 10,01 seconds, but braked woefully, achieving a “poor” rating in our scoring system with its average after 10 stops of 3,55 seconds.
Once on the move, the situation improves somewhat. The ride quality is broadly good – although some irregularities do filter through to the cabin – and the interior is refined.
Take it off-road, though, and it shines brightly. Along our fairly strenuous off-road course, the Subaru displayed excellent composure and comfort.
It features three differentials, of which the rear mechanical limited-slip unit is automatically managed by the car’s electronics. By switching off the VDC (vehicle dynamics control) system, the wheels are allowed to spin slightly and so maintain the car’s momentum over gravelly, rocky and slippery surfaces. Compared with more “rugged” off-roaders (such as bakkies), the Outback’s passenger-car-like turning circle was advantageous on the tighter sections of the route.
It’s not perfect, though; owing to its station-wagon roots, approach and departure angles are small, while the Yokohama Geolander tyres are ultimately more skewed to on-road use. But there’s little doubt it possesses enough off-roading ability to teach a few of the hardebaarde a lesson.
Coinciding with a mild facelift that mostly focused on updating the rather dour frontal aspect, Subaru’s decision to add the boxer diesel to the Outback range was a masterstroke. Together with its surprisingly accomplished off-road manners, Subaru may just have found a niche for the Outback within an already small sub-section of the market.
There are elements to the car that need improving, including the somewhat tacky interior and braking performance, if it wishes to compete with the Allroad (a vehicle we rate highly, even though it’s no match for the Japanese car on the rough stuff), and it won’t set the sales charts alight – the task is simply too big – but if you’re in the market for a road-biased crossover vehicle with pukka off-roading ability, you could do a lot worse.
The world’s only flat-four turbodiesel finds its way into Subaru’s family wagon. Off-road enthusiasts, pay attention aw we test the Subaru Outback,