Outback sets the scene

Subaru is one of the original players in the sports utility sector. The latest Outback delivers old-school values with a new-age edge. We’ve scored a Lineartronic diesel in Premium form for long-term test.


Price: $54,990

Price as tested: $54,990.

Mileage on arrival: 3706km.

Mileage now:  4356km.

CARDS on the table.

I like Subaru (enough to already own a Forester, admittedly an earlier-gen example). I’ve always considered the Outback a cool thing. Fuji’s 2.0-litre turbodiesel impresses me. And CVT? Well, I’m even coming around to accepting that Lineartronic is somewhere between ‘more friendly’ and ‘less frustrating’ than some cog-less 'gearboxes'

So really, the idea of living with the elevated wagon in latest $54,990 Lineartronic diesel Premium form should be a wholly happy affair from the outset.  And yet …Well, there’s actually still good reason why opportunity for long-term consideration is a challenge. Anyone conversant with the previous generation Outback will know that implanting this drivetrain into that car as a late-life enhancement was an imperfect experiment.

An integration that seemed so logical on paper really didn’t pass full muster in actual use and only proved the inclusion of four sure-to-please ingredients does not always result in a winning recipe. It was mainly the drivetrain. Great engine ..not so great transmission (sorry, I refuse to call a gear-less setup a gearbox) and one abiding vexation was that one wasn’t that interested in the acitivity of the other. When the engine was willing, that generation of Lineartronic was often not, and vice versa. Particularly disturbing was a tendency to dwell, momentarily, in a kind of false neutral after the onset of throttle application: Not good when you were seeking to 

pull smartly from, say, a side road intersection into a main 100kmh thoroughfare, my daily routine.  In the week I had it, the car’s dilly-dallying hesitancy never ceased to scare me.

Other peeves were the specification, which seemed a bit mean-minded, and the styling was a mixture of ideas, none especially good. It looked a little gawky and out of proportion.

What to make, then, of the new one? Launched in February this year with three engines and three specification levels - 2.5-litre petrol and 2.0-litre turbo diesel versions in standard (called Sport in petrol guise) or Premium specification, plus a 3.6-litre petrol six Premium – it blends old and new bits but nonetheless delivers fresh intention. Try it, is the brand message, and you’ll see we’ve learned. Fixed the wrongs. Revved up the rights. Can it be that easy? Well, it’s certainly worth finding out.

Gosh, how it’s grown. The upsize has also emboldened 

Subaru to call this model something new: A sports utility vehicle. Sorry, hasn’t it always been? Not in my book. The first that emerged in 1996 and the last before this new one were, as was plain to see, jacked-up versions of the much-loved Legacy station wagon. The only difference now is that the Legacy load-all has gone, so if you want a big Subaru wagon then there’s Outback .. or nothing.

The argument for considering it an SUV now, if I’m reading factory logic correctly, is based partly on it being bigger but also seems to reflect brand desire to join a gang that it previously cold-shouldered. This desire to conform interests me. Like I say, Subaru has always been something of a lone wolf marque and still is: Who else presents a flat four turbodiesel? Exactly.

Anyway, we’re obviously still looking at what it has 

always been - a five-seater station wagon meted extra air, additional body armour and a bit dollop of no-nonsense super practicality – and that’s fine by me. Outback’s appeal to me has been how well it ha

s represented as the perfect alternative for those seeking four-paw grip and commodious luggage potential without having to surrender to a fu

ll SUV experience, and nothing changes now. It’s still in a sliver of a niche, a p

lace otherwise occupied by just the Audi A6 Allroad which, other than adding more chrome, some occasionally zestier engine and an extra zero in the price tag, otherwise is no better a drive than the Outback.

And as good to look at? Hmm. The Germans certainly know how to do proportion and detailing, yet overall the latest Outback is a fine looker in its own right. Certainly much more handsome thane the last: Bolder, brasher but, immediately to my eye, better-looking; the lines are more cohesive and the shape overall is more characterful. And it is certainly a bigger car than any before. Standing beside it, I was stunned to find the roof rails (there to accentuate its stance) are basically parallel with my shoulder line. I’m a lanky 1.8 metres.

The specification has also lifted, though only to a point. Diesel Outback even in the top-drawer form still lack the EyeSight crash avoidance setup now meted to petrols, starting with a 2.5-litre that’s $4000 cheaper than our test car.

True, the diesel at least now upgrades to sat nav, parking radar with a camera, reasonable leather upholstery plus the heated front seats and wing mirror functions that tend to cement its status as the best choice for extreme weather driving. Yet deciding if the lack of the stereo camera-operated EyeSight (hence the name) system hinders this variant’s acceptance will be something we’ll keep in check.

Certainly, driving the $5k-dearer 3.6R to the pick up point for our tester reminded that this clever set-up does a lot of good, monitoring the road and offering features 

like adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist and autonomous braking. All of which seemed to operate perfectly in atrocious weather on the day.

So much to think about, then, though not immediately. With the rain still hammering down when we picked up the car Winger Subaru in Auckland’s Greenlane at 4pm on a Saturday afternoon, the immediate imperative was to effect a quick transfer from the 3.6-litre and then get to our hotel in time to settle in and watch a key rugby game.

Settling into the car was easy. Safety-assist packaging aside, the diesel Premium cabin environment is identical to what we’d just left. It was simply a matter of  setting the heated seats to max, giving the air con a moment to demist the glass and the engine a chance to warm through and then we were off on the two minute drive to the Greenlane Novotel. Quite potentially, the shortest single trip the car will make in our hands.

Next day delivered a journey more likely to bring the best out of the car; six hours open road running down to my Manawatu home. The improvement in economy over the big six was not only obvious but also immediate; starting with a cleared trip computer was logical yet the electronics were hardly stretched to sort the fuel average. By the top of the Bombays the brain had cemented into a 7.0-litre return that maintained for the remainder of the trip. I know the Road User Charge offset has to be taken into account, yet a thrift that pretty much instantly bettered by 2.2 litres per 100km an above-average and hard-fought average from the 3.6-litre petrol on the same journey was an instant feel-good. Gratifying, too was being able to undertake a 517km trip in one go (something barely possible in the big petrol) and still be left with than half a tank of fuel and 330kms’ range.

There’s more to like. A 2.0-litre four-pot might almost seem a bit small of a car of this size, but it remains very much the quiet achiever of this range: Just 19kW less than the 2.5 petrol and a whole lot more torque, with a peak of 350Nm from 1600-2800rpm (the four-cylinder petrol has 235Nm at 4000rpm).

Subaru’s claim of the engine-transmission relationship having, for this new car, undertaken counselling to sort out marital differences was more of a focus and I’ll concede, now, that I wasn’t coming in cold on this matter. Having once been the sold choice with the oiler, the six-speed manual is completely off the menu for Outback diesel now (it can still be had with Forester).

Having hogging a base diesel on launch (discovering it surprisingly good for the off-roading section) and also spent a week with this very test car a month ahead of this evaluation, I’d already found a marked improvement from the SLT arrangement. It’s something I’ll go into in greater depth on the next report, but suffice to say that while it’s premature to suggest all my prejudices against CVT have been eradicated, SLT is the one version that I’m starting to think has real promise.

But the engine is already selling itself to me; I love how it lopes along in ultra-relaxed fashion and often at optimum (read, just 2000) revs at 100kmh. A nice trait, even though this oiler is fact remarkably free-revving. For a diesel. The sense that mileage is going to be good for it doesn’t just show in the economy. We took this car directly after it had left general road test duty, going through six or seven pairs of hands. After me, it spent time with a colleague who, let’s just say, is not renowned for showing much mechanical mercy. I’d worried it might have suffered, but if anything it’s smoother and more free-revving when I first tried it.

Meantime, the home run suggests another pleasing Outback trait that somehow seemed to be lost from the old model seems to have re-emerged now. A to B barnstorming was never this car’s style and nothing has changed; it has viceless and easy handling but its only role at a racetrack will be as a towcar. Nonetheless, the ride quality is sublime, which is great. That’s how Outback’s used to be and I was annoyed when the last once seemed to trade off that trademark bump and ripple-suppressing rolling gait in fruitless pursuit of tighter handling. It didn’t drive any better, but simply felt too edgy. Now it’s back to the old ways and all the better for it.

You’ve got to allow for the fact that there’s 213mm of ground clearance now, and the car’s greater substance is also inescapable, but you sense it mostly when parking – it’s though standard spaces have somehow reduced in dimension by 20 percent. Simply accept that it’s not Subaru’s most incisive choice and adjust your driving to suit and all is good, not least because at the end of the day there’s still a safety net in it having something most four-wheel-drive crossovers and SUVs lack; a proper all wheel drive transmission.  Most of the rest drive the front wheels, and send drive to the rear wheels only as and when the computers decide the time is right. Subaru’s is constant and, regardless of what the other brands say, it’s still the best. As a colleague told me “symmetrical AWD is not just a marketing slogan, it’s a description of what all such vehicles should be.”

So here we go. It’s home and ready to be part of our lives. One future test is to further try out its behaviour on gravel: and beyond. All New Zealand Subarus are all-wheel drive, of course and now there’s the tantalisingly tagged X-Mode setting that optimises the powertrain for off-tarmac work. Gotta play with that.