Car reviews - Subaru - Outback
CVT suits the laconic diesel engine, well-equipped cabin, quiet on the road, spacious inside, sharper dynamics than most taller SUVs
Room for improvement
Constant tyre squeal, diesel not particularly punchy, cheap cabin plastics
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22 Mar 2013
THE Subaru Outback is one of the true originals – a high-riding crossover, based on a family wagon (the Liberty), that competes against passenger cars and SUVs alike.
And it was these passenger car underpinnings that were in evidence on the variable country New South Wales road surfaces we tackled earlier this week – few traditional jacked-up SUVs match the Subaru’s flat cornering and sharp (ish) handling.
Soft-roader sales are going gangbusters, and naturally Subaru wants a bigger piece of the pie – even if the Outback offering does without the commanding driving position many buyers find so appealing.
The main problem for the company is that the majority of larger SUVs sold in Australia are diesel-powered – got to keep those fuel bills down, remember – matched to automatic transmissions, and Subaru until this point simply hasn’t had one.
Until now. The company has belatedly fitted a slightly larger version of the continuously variable transmission (CVT) from the smaller but taller Forester to the Outback, and as such expects a sales boost of more than 50 per cent.
At $42,490 (or $45,490 for the up-spec Premium), the Outback matches high-end diesel compact SUVs or entry versions of larger SUV models. In terms of cabin and storage space, its closer to the larger members of the SUV set, so we reckon it represents decent value.
On the road, the Outback benefits from Subaru's long experience with all-wheel-drive – the wagon feels balanced and neutral in the bends, with a hint of tail-happy oversteer on gravel. The all-wheel-drive system can modify torque delivery to all four wheels independently.
The lower centre of gravity naturally minimises bodyroll, with the Outback staying nice and flat through the bends, while Subaru has fitted harder mounts on the steering assembly, lending more sharpness from centre. This version in fact steers better than its petrol siblings.
Where things fall down a touch is in the choice of tyre. The Yokohamas have an irritating tendency to squeal, and not just when the car is pushed to the limit.
The hoops certainly play their part in reducing road noise, though – the Outback is an exceptionally quiet cruiser, with tyre and wind noise kept to a minimum. Subaru has added sound insultion, and it shows.
The ride remained composed over a variety of surfaces, including nasty corrugated gravel and back-county roads. The all-round independent suspension fairly ate up the country miles.
Subaru has altered the dampers to counter the extra weight of the CVT over the manual, and on first impression the car feels equally languid at speed as its manual cousin.
Now, a languid disposition may be fine in terms of ride, but perhaps not so much in terms of engine performance.
With 110kW of power at 3600rpm and 350Nm between 1800 and 2400rpm, the 2.0-litre diesel is beaten on paper by SUV rivals such as the Hyundai Santa Fe, Kia Sorento and Ford Territory – and so it feels on the road.
The CVT does a decent job keeping the engine ticking over within the optimal torque band, and irons out the annoying 'drone' so synonymous with this type of shifter, but the small engine has a lot of weight to lug around (a tick over 1600kg).
Once up and running it's fine, but swift overtaking requires a degree of consideration.
With five occupants, their gear and a trailer or van hitched to the back (towing capacity is just shy of 1800kg), the Outback may struggle.
We'll await full judgement until a more comprehensive road test.
The cabin is unchanged from other variants, meaning heaps of space in the rear (both headroom and legroom are SUV-like) and a comfortable driving position.
There is also a decent list of standard equipment, although in typical Subaru style the Bluetooth system is more complicated than most.
We don't have much time for the great swathes of cheap feeling, hard to the touch plastics that cover the dash – the old Liberty/Outback models felt European in their execution, but the latest generation feels a tad retrograde inside.
It's odd, but the Outback offers soft-touch door trims with a hard dash, while the Forester has a soft dash and hard door trims.
Subaru may wish to consider doing both in future.
Still, small gripes. The Outback remains, as ever, a bit of a niche proposition. Most prospective buyers will likely opt for higher-riding models such as Subaru's own Forester, but the Outback is really just as practical and better than most to drive.
We don't really rate the diesel donk, and the cabin feels cheap in parts, but it gets more right than wrong. And the new CVT is one of the better ones we've driven.
We reckon being different isn't so bad.
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