Used to be a time that you could park a Subaru Legacy wagon and an Outback side by side and clearly see the difference. But now the only traditional wagon the Japanese brand offers is the Outback (at least in this market) and it begs the question: is the new Outback softer than before, allowing one vehicle to handle both roles?
Certainly, the fourth-generation version doesn’t look as overtly “dual-purpose” as before. Gone is the tough cladding down the flanks, and the big, bold, spotlights are now of more modest proportions – in fact they’re identical to those fitted to the Legacy sedan. But there’s still good ground clearance (213mm to be exact), tyres designed to work both on and off the tar, and of course a pukka full-ti me four-wheel-drive system. Roof rails, blacked-out side sills and unpainted front and rear valences give it a modicum of SUV attitude – or XUV (for crossover utility vehicle), in Subaru-speak. The latest generation of Subaru’s on/off -roader is very obviously a large machine and, like successive generations of most cars, it has grown in key dimensions. There’s a substantial 75mm increase in wheelbase, a 70mm jump in height, and about 50mm more width, wheel track and overall length. It has presence by virtue of its sheer size, but the end result is a vehicle which doesn’t look very elegant, with slab-sided flanks and some busy detailing around the grille area.
Features and equipment
The new flagship of the Outback range is the 3.6R Premium, which heralded the introduction of an enlarged six-cylinder Boxer engine some half a year aft er the 2,0 and 2,5-litre fours were introduced. Rather than the CVT introduced at that ti me, the 3.6R is fitted with a five-speed “Sport shift ” automatic. Sport shift means that there’s a manual shift opti on with shift paddles behind the steering wheel. This gives the driver an override function and even when in normal Drive mode a lower gear can be selected at a flip of the paddle, before eventually reverting to automated shifting. Move the lever across to the “M” position and you’re in charge, though the box will drop back to lower gears as road-speed drops. There’s no shortage of technology here and as well as automated wipers and headlights there’s now an electronic handbrake that is engaged and released via a switch to the right of the steering wheel. Nestling below where you’d usually find the nose of the handbrake lever is Subaru’s SI-Drive, a knurled wheel that allows the driver to choose from three settings that alter the likes of throttle sensitivity and gearbox response. “Intelligent” is the most conservative mode and Subaru say it’s the best setting for good fuel consumption, thanks to earlier upshifts and delayed downshift s. “Sport” and “Sport Sharp” do what the names suggest and result in crisper, more rapid responses. The Outback flagship also gets a keyless entry and pusbutt on engine start/stop system, a sunroof, and wood trim for the dashboard. Last but not least, the rear suspension has a self-levelling function, allowing the gargantuan boot to be fully exploited in terms of payload as well as volume.
Subaru has worked hard at moving their interiors from functional and hard-wearing to being inviting and cosseting and nowhere is this more evident than in the Outback. The perforated leather is sumptuous, the plastics of the dashboard and door panels of high quality, and the woodwork convincing. Slightly less so is the brushed aluminium-look plastic on the imposing hang-down centre section and on the transmission tunnel. But the ambience of quality isn’t spoiled once you’re on the road and levels of refinement and noise suppression more than meet expectations.
One of the Outback’s great strengths will definitely be leaving its occupants feeling relaxed and unfatigued on arrival at far-flung destinations. Achieving that objective means having plenty of space, and with its long wheelbase the latest Outback is especially roomy inside. The rear compartment is limo-like thanks to a plush seat with excellent legroom and plenty of shoulder room for three, and backrests which recline through a 20 degree arc. Fold the centre armrest down and it turns into a great four-seater with a place for drinks, plus airvents and flow control in the tail end of the centre console. The boot is a giant affair and expanding it to wardrobe-swallowing dimensions couldn’t be easier. Levers just inside the tailgate swiftly flip the 60/40 split seat forward to create a long and perfectly flat luggage compartment measuring almost 1,9 metres, depending on the position of the front seats. Widthways it is no less impressive either. As is the norm with Subaru, the luggage cover is a well-designed, high-quality affair and fits perfectly to effectively hide the contents below. Bagholders and tie-down rings are well-positioned, while accessing the spacesaver spare under the floor is easily done. Driver and front passenger both get electrically-adjusted seats (with a two-position memory function for the driver) and dual-zone climate control. Oddment storage is a strong point, and there is a massive double-decker box between the front seats (which houses both aux and 12 Volt sockets), a deep, lidded compartment between the six-CD/tuner and the climate control, and a small open area fore of the gear lever.
Scooby’s big-bore fl at six has got an engine note all of its own and with 191 kW at 5 600 r/min and 350 Nm at 4400 r/min there’s plenty of oomph, and the Outback is relatively light for this class of vehicle. Variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust cams provides a broad spread of power and there’s real punch in the kidneys when you need it. You can also punt the Outback around with the minimum of throttle pressure without it feeling lethargic and a pleasant upside of that is impressive fuel consumption – not something traditionally associated with this engine. In our driving we averaged around 12,5 litres per 100 km, including freeway cruising and a lot of stop-start suburban conditions. The three settings on SI-Drive do change the character of the drivetrain somewhat, but we suspect the vast majority of drivers will leave it in “S” and be done with it. “Intelligent” mode seems to result in an occasional delay in the transmission responses, though when you mash the throttle it doesn’t disappoint. Click SI-Drive into “Sport Sharp” and it feels almost indecently eager. SI-Drive also had us wondering about the need for the gearshift paddles – especially for the typical Outback driver. The brakes – vented all round – are terrific in terms of both power and feel, stopping the 1 750 kilograms with assurance and little in the way of nose-dive, despite the elevated ride height.
The decision to import only an Outback and not a Legacy wagon as well was a smart one and is vindicated by how well the Outback behaves on tarmac – especially the constantly changing topography of our current suburban mix. To all intents and purposes it behaves like a regular wagon, and road manners and overall handling are barely compromised by the raised height. We think this bears testimony to Subaru’s philosophy of cars that are the “best of both”, and the Outback personifies that. Subaru seldom misses an opportunity to remind car buyers of the benefits of their symmetrical all-wheel-drive/Boxer engine combination and it is certainly believable when you drive the Outback briskly. It steers without delay and feels precise in how it can be positioned, considering its size. The suspension has generous amounts of travel and feels compliant without being mushy. It soaks away the vast majority of bumps with ease, yet doesn’t leave the driver in a feedback void. Parking is easier than expected too thanks to extremities which are easy to judge and a turning circle of 11 metres – slightly less than before. Expect some understeer when you chuck it into tight corners, but in fast sweeps it inspires confidence with its overall stability and the way it copes with surface changes. Its off-road ability is arguably not quite as good as before and while there is slightly more ground clearance, the extra wheelbase affects the real-world benefit of that. It still happily copes with middlemannetjes and the like, but you’ll be less tempted than before to venture into anything much rougher, and the Outback’s forte is reasonably well-maintained dirt roads and farm tracks.
With its seven airbags and improved safety features, masses of space and powerful and reasonably frugal powerplant, Subaru’s Outback flagship looks like a good value proposition for those after a roomy soft-roader (in the broadest sense of the word) that neither looks nor behaves like a typical SUV.