Arguably the most surprising performer at our recent TowCAR of the Year shoot-out was the Subaru Outback. With many popular SUVs in attendance, the Outback was seen as a bit of an underdog. But it really impressed our judges with its performance, so we decided to conduct a road test of the updated 2014 Outback.
During our recent search for the best compact SUV towcar in SA, all vehicles had to conform to three demands. They had to be priced below R500 000, sport a diesel engine, and make use of an automatic transmission.
The most obvious Subaru entry into this competition would have been the Forester, but there was a problem: at the moment the Boxer diesel Forester isn’t available with an auto ’box. This is apparently set to change in the near future, but at the time of our shoot-out, the Forester was out of the running. But there was a Subaru that fitted the bill: the Subaru Outback 2.0 Diesel Lineartronic.
Now, the Outback is a bit of an oddity. Is it an SUV or a station wagon? Well, it’s a bit of both, really. It certainly seems like a wagon at first glance, but looks can be deceiving.
The Outback’s ground clearance is an impressive 213mm, more than that of a lot of compact SUVs. Also, the overall height of the Subaru is extremely close that of more typical compact SUVs. The Outback’s total height is 1615mm. The Toyota RAV4 and Kia Sportage’s heights, for comparison, are 1705mm and 1645mm respectively, so the Outback is actually far more of a compact SUV/crossover than it at first appears.
So can the Outback compete against the large number of compact SUVs available in SA at the moment? Well, if its performance during our TowCAR shoot-out is anything to go by, it just might be up to the task…
**** Features and equipment
First released in the mid-1990s, and based on the Subaru Legacy station wagon, the Outback can be described as one of the earliest crossover utility vehicles to hit the scene. Originally, the Outback was created as a more off-road capable version of the Legacy, but over the years the line between the two models have blurred somewhat, with the design of the Outback becoming sleeker and more refined. Originally, for instance, it sported cladding along its flanks that hinted at its ruggedness, but those have disappeared.
In fact, the Legacy and the Outback have become so similar in appearance, that Subaru SA has stopped selling the Legacy wagon here, opting to focus on the Outback instead.
But the fact that the Outback has largely replaced the Legacy on the Subaru model sheet shouldn’t lead one to believe that the latest Outback is more station wagon than crossover.
To be sure, you’re not going to tackle a difficult 4×4 trail in it, but, then, neither are you going to attempt that in a new RAV4 or Sportage.
For a crossover/compact SUV, the features and equipment offered by the Outback is more than adequate. There’s no low range, but there is a symmetrical all-wheel-drive (AWD) system.
What is a symmetrical AWD system?
What the system basically does is to distribute power symmetrically between the front and rear axles, as well as to the left and right sides of the car, when necessary. The benefits of this are particularly evident when venturing onto bad dirt roads, since the Outback remains remarkably composed and surefooted, even when the road surfaces are terrible.
The vehicle’s list of safety features is also very impressive. Not only does it boast seven airbags, but it also has a host of electronic safety aids, such as ABS, EBD, BAS, VDC (Vehicle Dynamics Control) and traction control.
Nice-to-have features include climate control, a screen with rear-view camera, leather seats, a driver’s seat with memory function, keyless entry and cruise control.
What is new for 2014? Not much, but some nice additions have nevertheless been made. New features include dark 17-inch alloy wheels, and innovative roof rails that feature built-in cross-bars, which can easily be folded across the roof for fitment of a bike rack or roof storage box. There are also contrasting black side skirts and bumper edges, and a striking intercooler scoop on the bonnet. Dark xenon headlight clusters and a black grille complete the look.
For a vehicle priced well below R500 000, the interior of the Outback is impressive. In terms of build quality and finishes, it doesn’t quite compare with what you would find on the inside of a Mercedes-Benz, BMW or Audi, but you’d be surprised just how close it comes. It undoubtedly has one of the nicest interiors within its segment. The dashboard has been sensibly laid out, and everything looks well made. The vehicle we tested had a black centre console that looked lovely. In May 2010 (issue 73, page 26) we tested a 3.6 R Premium Outback that sported wood inserts and light grey finishes. That interior wasn’t bad, but this new black look is a definite improvement.
As mentioned above, the Outback also has a lot of snazzy accoutrements, such as keyless entry, climate control, a driver’s seat with memory function and a centre screen that, in addition to showing info related to the entertainment system, shows images from a reverse camera. The screen is a nice touch, but it is unfortunately on the small side. Still, it is a nice addition to the features list.
Arguably the most impressive aspect of the Outback’s cabin, though, is its sheer size. It simply doesn’t look as spacious from the outside as it truly is. The boot is massive (490 litres), and there’s plenty of room for passengers in the second row. With the second row of seating folded flat, luggage space is increased to 1690 litres.
Lurking under the bonnet of the Outback 2.0 Diesel Lineartronic is a two-litre Subaru Boxer oilburner that develops 110 kW of power and 350 Nm of torque.
The Subaru Boxer diesel engine uses turbocharging and a horizontally-opposed punching or “boxing” piston action around a central crank shaft. According to the company, this construction allows for the engine to be long and flat, with a low centre of gravity, as opposed to a conventional in-line engine, which is much taller, with a high centre of gravity. The advantage is that the engine can be mounted low down in the engine bay, which in turn lowers the vehicle’s centre of gravity, contributing to noticeable handling improvements.
Somewhat controversially, perhaps, the engine has been mated to Subaru’s Lineartronic Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT).
Now, CVT gearboxes have a reputation for being somewhat frustrating to use, but were all CVTs as pleasant to live with as that of the Outback, these transmissions would be far more popular.
The Lineartronic CVT works incredibly well with the Boxer oilburner. Like most auto ’boxes, it doesn’t like it when you mash the pedal into the floor, but steadily increase pressure placed on the accelerator, and the Outback responds wonderfully.
Of course, the vehicle only has 110 kW of power and 350 Nm of torque on tap, so this isn’t a “sporty” vehicle, but it still feels eager. The Outback is fun to drive.
The biggest reason why the Outback is fun to drive is that it handles so well. The vehicle feels very nimble and agile, and the engine/gearbox combo suits this character perfectly.
Does the use of a flat Boxer engine really result in better handling? If our test is anything to go by, Subaru might just be telling the truth.
Yes, the Outback isn’t the tallest of SUVs, but, as mentioned, it still has a ground clearance of 213mm and an overall height of 1615mm, yet it doesn’t behave like a high-riding vehicle. It hugs the tar and doesn’t get ruffled when you chuck it into a corner.
The ride offered by the Outback is also comfortable. There’s not a lot of body roll when you go through a corner at speed, but the suspension is still able to smooth out rough surfaces. In fact, it has the perfect sort of set-up for a crossover vehicle: there’s decent wheel travel, and the ride is comfy on gravel roads, but it handles well on tar.
Don’t let the Outback’s unconventional looks fool you. It might look like a station wagon, but it is a very competent crossover. You also shouldn’t let the use of a CVT gearbox put you off. Yes, these transmissions are terrible in some vehicles, but in the Outback Subaru’s Lineartronic CVT works incredibly well. Considering everything it offers, the Outback is great value for money.