Report three: A small catch and a cover up

A small catch causes a slight headache with our car. It’s also prepped for pooches.


Mileage on arrival: 3706kms

Mileage now: 7321km

NOW I’m not saying the Outback isn’t perfect. In fact, I know beyond all doubt it isn’t. Because I have found an imperfection.

To be be fair, though strictly speaking it surely must be a design fault, it comes across mainly being more of a foible, somewhere between a major and minor annoyance, depending how much in a hurry you are to overcome it.

So you’ll want to know more. It’s the cubby at the base of the centre console, the one that looks like a mini bread bin, directly ahead of the gear selector.

As a place where you might well generally put your spare keys and other detritus that doesn’t need to be in your pocket or hand when driving, it’s well suited.

Subaru has specifically designed it for a cellphone on assumption that this device is also being used, as most are nowadays, as a media player, because on the wee cave’s back wall is where you can find two USB input points, the sole ones provisioned in this car, plus a 12 volt socket.

It’s a good location for the USBs because they’re nicely out of sight and less likely to be damaged by anything; a bit daft because reaching in to slot in the USB cable requires a bit of dexterity. You cannot see what you’re doing, it’s pretty much all by feel.

But that’s not the problem. It’s the lid, a spring-loaded panel that retracts at the push of a button and slides closed again with a gentle touch. Well, that’s the logic. In reality, closing is easy; re-opening not so much.  

Sometimes when it closes, it steadfastedly stays that way – jabbing the thin centralised chromed release bar does nothing, nor does any thing else until, that is, you use a greater degree of force than seems prudent.

I doubted it was a design fault on the logic (if that’s the right word) that Japanese car companies simply don’t allow these kinds of flaws through their design and production systems these days. I have it in my minds’ eye that, back at Fuji Heavy Industries during the Outback’s development phase, they would have had a robotised finger persistently prodding at one of these lids for, I dunno, a solid year just to ensure it would never fail.

So I laid blame where most motoring journalists do whenever they have a car that has spent previous time with other motoring writers. It had to have been a heavy-handed colleague who somehow wrecked it.

I knew this car had been with maybe half a dozen other journalists and, of those, there was one who – shall we say – has a reputation for being, well, a bit hard on gear. So, in this instance, I think he’s slammed the latch shut with enough force to make the locking mechanism a little bit skewy.

The latch only played up now and again. I thought I could live with it and, in fact managed to do so.

Until, that is, the day when my wife put her office keys in there and then spent five increasingly frustrated minutes trying to retrieve them.

That night, I treated the latch and every other bit of mechanism I could access a good dose of silicon spray, something that can usually be relied upon to be an instant fix. It wasn’t.

Thereon, we kinda spent a week or so avoiding it. But then, on the morning of taking the car in for its scheduled 5000km check, a free service, I thought: “Why should I?” Potentially, there’d be a tech at my local dealership, Palmfeild Motors in Palmerston North, who would nod knowingly, get out a Phillips and maybe a funny hooky implement they’d whipped up in the garage and have the thing back to normal with 30 seconds.

I was right only about the time frame. That is, it took half a minute to recognise the only solution was to take out the whole cubby and put in a new one. A quick fix, except it’s not a bit that is carried in local stock. It’d have to be ordered in.

I’m not sure if the replacement came from a warehouse in Auckland or all the way from Japan. All I know is that, after a week, the call came. “The parts here, bring the car in and we’ll sort it while you wait.”

And they did. I was allowed out into the workshop to witness the transplant. I was intrigued by how much had to be removed. Basically, every part of the structure that links the transmission tunnel to the bottom half of the dash. I was impressed how dextrous the technician was and how neatly and cleverly designed the components were.

Back when I was a teen, swapping a radio was a must-do that everyone was told would take a jiffy but in reality seemed to occupy a whole day, punctuated by loads of swearing, fitting then removing to refit, a pile of screws and the like. And, at the end of it all, you’d always – always – have a couple of circlips spare.

Anyway, they basically slotted in a while new cubby and, 10 minutes later, I was back on the road. No cost, no rattles and .... praise be, no problem with the lid. Until two weeks ago. The bloody thing is sticking again. Only occasionally, but I know suspect it’s something that the Subaru design team should definitely look at come facelift time.

Other utility aspects are, fortunately, not at all troublesome. The back part of a wagon is very much the business end and it’s pretty nicely sorted.

Seats are a 60/40 split with the 60 on the kerb side.  As this car is not a 7-seater that’s fine.  A nice touch are handles in the cargo area which flick the seats down; all good given the family focus.

Our family, however, includes a couple of beagles. They love riding in the back of cars, and we have a two-generations’ old Forester decked out just for that purpose. The hounds love their old car but I know they’d be just as keen riding in the new as well. My wife isn’t keen to give them an opportunity, because it’s a new car and we know how hard it is to get dog hair out of carpets. And so many plastics don’t stand up to scrabbling claws.

So, officially, the Outback is a dog-free zone. However, I figured it was a good idea to put some protection into the boot anyway, as a just-in-case. Subaru had kindly provided the heavy duty rubber mat, but as it only covers the boot floor it wasn’t quite enough. Past experience told me I needed something to cover the seatbacks and the side panels within the cargo area. A degree of protection for the bumper would also be good, because that’s what dogs tend to jump onto when leveraging into bootspaces.

So I needed a purpose-made liner. Subaru here doesn’t have them and I simply had no luck finding a NZ-based supplier. So it was down to good old Google. I knew Subaru America had run a very successful campaign promoting itself as the dog friendly brand (those clever tv ads showing sogs driving the ‘Barus to the beach and skifield, shown briefly about a year ago, were part of that) so I looked on their site for bits and bobs.

It was useful, but where I finally hit the motherlode was by hitting an owner forum. That took me to Canvasback, a small family-run outfit – what Americans like to call ‘mom ‘n pop’ business – that specialises in making boot liners for wagons, Subarus included, based up in Minnesota.

This looked promising: What attracted was their liners are not rubber or plastic trays but constructed from a tough textured polyester fabric with a pvc waterproof backing. Also, the place advertised that each cargo liner was custom fit and hand made for every vehicle in our line. The claim that “this liner sheds water and dirt like a ducks back” also appealed, of course.

Would it fit? I first of all checked that a cover made for a left-hand-drive market would fit a right-hook car; in some models rear seat back design changes depending on this and, since mine is 40-60 split, I didn’t want the sections mis-matching. Fortunately, Subaru makes the same seat for everywhere.

Secondly, I checked with Canvasback that they’d ship here. No problems they said; we have lots of customers “down under” already. From thereon, it was just a matter of choosing what I wanted – the whole hog in a liner, a pair of side pieces and a bumper flap – in a suitable colour (black) then ordering it up: $US129 for the main part, $US50 for the side bits and $30 for the flap. It was here within a week, was dead easy to install and fit very beatly. The purchase price covers the mail cost, too. (One bit of advice; use PayPal because, when I bought, it wasn’t a secure site).

Anyway, I’m still not officially allowed to carry the dogs in the Outback but, just between you and I, they have tried it and seem to be as pleased as I am.