Audi allroad has traces of A6 Avant in its genes, and Volvo’s XC70 has
obvious ties with the V70 estate, both are far more than muscular versions of
their wagon siblings. And, with the introduction of an all-new model, the other
member of the trio, the Subaru Outback, now also stands apart (in a full marketing
sense) from the rest of its immediate family, namely the Legacy. So from now
on, just call it Outback.
But why not simply go with an SUV? They offer a slightly more elevated seating
position some people appreciate for a variety of reasons, such as a better view
a perceived – due to size – feeling of safety. But that height translates
into more body roll through corners, and increases frontal area that generally
affects aerodynamics and, consequently, adversely affects fuel consumption.
Ground clearance is not an issue: the allroad, XC70 and Outback equal or better
almost all SUVs in this respect. And there is seldom much between the two types
when it comes to boot/utility space, either. So, a 4×4 station wagon does make
a lot of sense.
Actually, the previous Outback does look like a pumped-up Legacy, but this
new generation model is a far more cohesive design. Compared with a new Legacy
estate, the wheel-arches are flared wider, the grille, sills and front bumper
are different – as are (oddly) the roof rails – and there is greater
use of black paint around the lower edges that provides some visual utilitarian
aggression. The glasshouse pillars are all blacked out, and the roof neatly
extends into the tailgate spoiler, which carries the third brake light. Other
exterior features include the big-bore tailpipes in the rear corners, indicator
repeaters in the door mirror housings, and Subaru’s trademark window
We have remarked before that Subaru interiors are understated, but recently
there has been a distinct improvement in visual and tactile quality, and the
Outback continues the trend. The cabin’s only jarring aspect is the handbrake,
which looks like an afterthought tacked on to the side of the floor console.
Otherwise, everything is well integrated, with some almost Swedish-like touches
– especially in the door panels – in the use of satin aluminium and
wood for highlighting and detailing.
However, the blackened wood used here did not appeal to all the test team.
The trim colour is beige, and there is a huge two-piece multi-function sunroof
that lightens up the interior even more – another Swedish design cue –
but unfortunately when open it does create more noise than the norm.
The facia is two-tone, the black upper section sweeping around into the tops
of the door panels. Air-con and sound system controls are contained in the hangdown
section that flows into the console. At the top of the stack, between the centre
air vents, is a useful small, lidded cubby, but if the lid is left open it allows
light to reflect badly on the trip computer/time display underneath. Further
down is the integral audio system with its own setting display, then the air-con
(with auto mode) controls also with its own display. The fragmented layout was
criticized by a couple of testers.
Instruments perform the “Subaru swish” (the red needles sweep
right round the black dials before settling back at point zero) when you switch
on the ignition. The dials overlap each other a little, and have adjustable
backlighting. A useful feature is a “bright” setting: when you
switch on the headlights, the backlighting automatically dims, which is fine
at night but can be a handicap when travelling in daylight. Bright brings up
the intensity to a more legible level. The gear indicator is contained in the
tacho-meter, and when manual override is engaged, small arrowheads show whether
you can change up or down from the gear selected. Total and two trip odometers
are housed in the speedometer.
New Outback is being offered, as before, with both 2,5-litre four-cylinder
and 3,0-litre six-cylinder horizontally opposed engines. Our test car was the
flagship 3,0R Premium model, with SportShift five-speed transmission. SportShift
was developed by Prodrive – the company that oversees Subaru’s world
rally championship programme – and is a variation on the familiar three-mode
auto transmission theme. From Drive, moving the shifter to the right engages
Sport mode, which provides a more enthusiastic change pattern, from which you
can then indulge in manual override. And, hallelujah, the transmission’s
electronics do not overrule your selection: engage third, say, and it will run
to the limiter (around 7 000 r/min) and stay there without shifting up.
The naturally aspirated flat-six motor has been improved. Power has been upped
from 154 kW at 6 000 r/min to 180 at 6 400, and torque has been increased from
283 N.m at 4 000 r/min to 297 at 4 200. Strangely, when stretched, the engine’s
beat does not exude the distinctive thrum usually associated with engines whose
cylinders lie flat and face away from each other. It actually sounds more like
a straight six – and a very smooth one, at that. Electronic throttle response
depends on the gear mode. In Drive, you need to get the boot in to make things
happen in a hurry, otherwise the Outback gets up and goes in averagely-quick
time to right-foot demands.
With Vehicle Dynamics Control switched out, and the transmission in Sport,
the large but relatively light (1,5 tons) Outback sprinted to 100 km/h in a
brisk 8,46 seconds, covered a kilometre in an equally impressive 29,83 seconds
at 173,4 km/h, and achieved a two-way averaged top speed of 208 km/h in both
fourth (5 596 r/min) and top (4 667 r/min) gears. Our fuel index worked out
at 13,02 litres/100 km, which is reasonable for such a vehicle. However, given
its size, we would have thought Subaru’s engineers would have given the
Outback a bigger tank: the capacity of 64 litres limits touring range to around
Perhaps a few will consider this a handicap, because for travelling a long
distance in some style and comfort, the Outback makes for a fine carriage: cruise
control is standard. The all-leather seats are comfortable – the driver’s with
8-way electric adjustment plus variable lumbar support – and there is more than
adequate room, even for five. Everyone is provided with a three-point seatbelt
and an adjustable head restraint, and the rear seat’s outer positions have ISOFIX
child seat fixings. A generous glasshouse, and that huge sunroof, create a light
and airy environment, and the air-con (with auto mode) is well up to keeping
cabin temperatures pleasant.
The custom audio system comprises radio, tape and front-loading 6 CD player,
so in-car entertainment is well catered for. Unusually, the powered window isolator
button disables the front passenger’s window as well as the rears. The driver
enjoys a big footwell with left-foot rest, electric mirrors, a rake-adjustable
steering wheel with satellite audio controls, and a remote fuel flap release.
The Outback has excellent ride characteristics. There is plenty of suspension
travel to soak up irregularities, and the damping is firm and well controlled.
Grip, naturally, is excellent in all conditions, and off the beaten track, the
vehicle will easily match anything a soft-roader SUV will do – and some
more besides. Ride height is high (202 mm), but the wheelbase is long (2 670
mm) and the footwear substantial (17×7-inch five-spoke alloys with 215/55 aspect
tyres), which helps contain body roll to comfortable levels. But derring-do
cornering is not really what the Outback is about. Sure, you can charge through
the twisties but, in this application, Subaru’s symmetrical all-wheel
drive creates a lot of understeer that forces you to lift off – and automatically
regain composure. All very safe and secure. The all-disc brakes are effective
enough: the average stopping times recorded in our test are typical for a combination
of 4wd and ABS. Dual front, side and curtain airbags are fitted.
Of course, wagons are about load carrying, too, and the Outback has a large
cargo area. The wide tailgate rises to 1 900 mm, and the load height into the
sensibly shaped hold is 680 mm. Four tie-down hooks are provided, along with
a pair of fold-out bag hooks. Oh, and there is a neat removable flap in the
tailgate that butts against the retractable cargo cover to fully close off the
boot, which holds 384 dm3. With the 60:40 split rear seat backrest folded forward
(the cushion remains in place), 1 224 dm3 of utility space is available. A full-sized
alloy spare lies under the boot floor. Self-levelling rear suspension compensates
for all load configurations.