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Car reviews - Subaru - Outback - 2.5i Premium 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Relaxed nature, smooth drivetrain, spacious and comfy cabin, build quality, ease of operation, and CVT economy
Room for improvement
Fussy nose styling, plasticky interior, tailgate needs to be slammed shut

15 Jan 2010

THIS year marks a decade since Subaru became Japan Motor Inc’s problem child.

Before 2000, the brand seemed on the verge of something special after unprecedented success in the marketplace, motorsport and beyond.

Slick design (Mk1 Impreza), quality engineering (Liberty), progressive marketing (Outback), trailblazing product (Forester) and the original bang-for-your-buck superstar (WRX) elevated a defiantly independent Subaru to new global heights.

It all went supernova on the back of both actual and virtual rallying, thanks to a starring role in Playstation, creating an elusive youth following that other brands would have killed for.

That all this was achieved without alienating Subaru’s traditional wellingtons and Labrador demographic was just as remarkable.

For a while – from about 1997 right up to about the beginning of summer 2000 – the halo surrounding the car-maker was palpable. Subaru’s reputation went transcendental. Think of where Apple is now and you might get an idea.

Then the bug-eyed MY2001 Impreza happened – the difficult second album syndrome that is up there with The Stone Roses’ Second Coming LP and the Matrix sequels as far as disappointments go.

Centred on the styling, the barbs flew with almost every new model – MY03 Impreza, MY06 Impreza, and especially the MY07 Tribeca. That the company was seen not to stand by its designers’ original vision by rushing through facelifts didn’t help.

Yet though all this only the fourth-generation Liberty (and closely related third Outback series) of 2003 to 2009 was spared.

Until now …

The hitherto sleek and stylish lines have been banished for a bigger and brasher visage of sledgehammer subtlety in the latest Mk5 Liberty/fourth series Outback.

Subaru’s line is that efficiency, refinement, ease of access and safety played crucial roles, and so necessitated the controversial abolition of signature visual cues such as the frameless doors and floating roof look that so defined the Liberty and Outback wagons to this point.

That Subarus until 1980 were hardly swans is little solace to those expecting the latest models to continue standing tall alongside an Audi A6 or Allroad like the previous pair (almost) could.

But after living with the (deep breath now) $46,490 Outback 2.5i Premium SatNav Lineartronic CVT for an extended period of time, we have come to the conclusion that the Tenties opens up a new era for Subaru, and a brilliant opportunity for family car buyers.

That’s because the fifth-generation model has the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Mazda6 and Ford Mondeo in its crosshairs – which means Subaru is seeking to seduce the mainstream.

To this end the Outback has grown in every vital dimension, extending in length by 65mm, width by 50mm, height by 70mm and wheelbase by 75mm.

Now, being a ‘crossover’ the Subaru rides higher than its rivals, with 213mm of ground clearance (up 13mm over the old car), to aid entry. Fewer vehicles are easier to get in and out of.

All four doors open wider than before and you will find there’s more room to splay about in every direction, with shoulder and leg space especially benefitting.

Sitting out back, so to speak, is where all of this is most obvious, with the wide, comfy rear bench able to accommodate three with utter ease – although the big transmission tunnel in the middle means the centre person will feel a bit more cramped than the other two.

That the rear cushion is amply padded and the split backrest reclines a little further adds to the Subaru’s newfound family-friendly kudos – as do the overhead grab handles, windows that go all the way down, back vent outlets (Premium and 3.6R versions only though) and folding centre armrest.

In contrast the front seats seem a little small and flat to start with, but they soon prove to be comfortable and supportive, offering excellent adjustment for the driver to find his/her desired relationship with the perfectly sized steering wheel.

So now – at last – if you’re 200cm tall you will fit inside a Subaru fitted with a sunroof. In comparison the old Outback was a bit like sitting inside a sardine can.

Except for one or two debatable items (like a fiddly electronic handbrake that is just a tiny switch tucked far away in the bottom right-hand corner of the dashboard), by all objective measures you cannot really fault the Outback’s interior presentation.

There’s a big but here though – if you’re inclined to tap the top of a fascia to ascertain whether it’s a quality item … don’t. There’s a disenchanting hollowness to the dashtop’s plastics, and the padding inside the door’s armrests is discouragingly thin. Plus there’s an overwhelming sense that Subaru chose sturdy and hardy materials instead of the expensive soft touch stuff that, say, VW uses.

We expect the gumboots brigade not to mind, but will you, Mr and Ms VW Passat wagon cross-shopper?

Admittedly, since the latest Outback 2.5i is targeting Toyota and not pretending to be premium (let alone a luxury car), we feel that families might prefer durability in this case. And there’s plenty of evidence that the quality of this Subaru’s cabin is in its execution.

Big clear dials – finished in attractive white markings – dominate the instruments, featuring a handy computerised trip display window between the speedo and tacho and a virtually useless ‘L/100km’ “eco” dial where you might expect to find a temperature gauge.

A protruding V-formation centre stack dominates the bulky but nicely finished dashboard, bookended by large and effective ventilation outlets for air-con that copes easily with dry hot summers.

Our Premium SatNav model forgoes the descending audio, storage bin and heater/ventilation control and display panel found in the standard Outback 2.5i for a large touch screen satellite navigation screen sited harmoniously in line with the oblong-shaped vents, above a funky translucent finish for the simple audio and classy climate control switches. It all looks and operates beautifully.

A reverse camera is also part of the Premium SatNav package, and it is one of the best we have ever encountered. This alone makes the top-line Outback 2.5i worthwhile, as it – along with the deep side windows – facilitates parking no end. A nice touch here is the reverse lights that act as rear floodlights when backing up at night.

There’s also an integrated Bluetooth system fitted that seamlessly pairs your phone to the Outback’s audio and speaker set-up.

Subaru has put thought too behind the many storage solutions scattered around the front-seat area, with a deep glovebox and huge centre bin augmenting the space available immediately ahead and behind the gearlever. The hard and cold door cards are also designed to carry stuff such as phones and maps.

The tailgate, meanwhile, has a set of levers to lower the backrests in one easy step, increasing your carpeted and hardwearing luggage area’s capacity from 526 to 1677 litres.

A temporary spare wheel lives beneath the floor, and the rear driveshaft below that means that the load area is not quite as low as it is on some front-drive wagons. But the obligatory roller blind cargo cover can be easily removed, and feels sturdy in place.

Unlike some previous Subarus we’ve sampled, our test car was rattle-free, although the tailgate needed a hefty slam to fully close.

This was underlined by the fact that the Outback is a quiet car, free of road and engine noise intrusion. Those newfound sash doors, along with the implementation of an engine cradle to keep everything solidly in place, seem to have worked minor miracles in terms of refinement.

In the end, these all tally up to help provide a stress-free driving environment – and this more than anything else really defined our time with the Subaru, winning us over completely in the end.

In fact, we discovered that much of what we have come to admire and respect about Subarus since the 1970s lives on from behind the wheel of the latest Outback – as well as a few things that irritate to boot.

For starters, when you turn the crank, you can no longer really tell it’s a boxer engine thrumming ahead of you because the company has worked so hard to manage noise paths. Clever move.

The Lineartronic CVT transmission should also take some credit here, because it just works so seamlessly with the boxer’s power and torque characteristics.

On paper the heavily revised naturally aspirated four-pot boxer is no blast, belting out a middling 123kW of power at 5600rpm and 229Nm of torque at 4000rpm – representing a 4kW drop and a 2Nm increase over the old Outback.

But married to the Lineartronic, the engine is a goer, combining the distinctive Subaru thrum at middling revs with a steady stream of power just when you need it – nothing more and nothing less.

Take-off acceleration is both smooth and brisk (even when the wagon is loaded right up), with speed rising fairly instantly when you need it to.

Approach a hill or prepare to overtake at speed, and there is a tiny bit of that CVT lag but it is neither too obvious nor annoying, especially as the gearbox seems to always be within the 2.5i’s sweet spot at all times. Consequently we cannot imagine too many owners really desiring for more performance.

This transmission is also terrifically efficient. Aided by a host of improvements to the exhaust system, the Outback 2.5i can easily return sub 10L/100km consumption figures, and does not stray too much above that even in heavier city driving, staying in the low 11s. The official combined average is 8.9.

Considering how much larger this Subaru is over the old car, and the progress is impressive indeed. We were sceptical at first but now we are Lineartronic believers.

So we are crushed to reveal that the Outback’s steering is completely devoid of feel, like somebody had poured valium into the fluid reservoir.

This is doubly disappointing when you consider how well weighted the helm actually is, and how beautifully planted to the road the Outback feels. It peels through turns with superb accuracy and control. Body lean is contained the car’s demeanour is poised and the handling is nothing short of pinpoint accurate.

Venture on to loose gravel or get into a heavy rainstorm and the Subaru remains completely unfazed, belting along safety and securely with balance and finesse. Suitable for all seasons, the Outback is not just a fair weather friend.

Remember, though, that all this is ascertained through the seat of your pants rather than from the palms of your hands is frustrating. If you want to feel connected buy a Mondeo instead.

But the good things do keep on coming – like fade-free brakes that feel like they can haul up an Outback with twice the speed and power and a slightly firmer than expected but never harsh and always quiet ride quality that does much to keep the Subaru’s veneer of refinement in tact as the miles pile up on a long motorway trip.

We can’t say we’re fans of the new electronic park brake, however, preferring a good old handbrake set-up. Its placement is nothing short of an after-thought. Would you believe you have to peer down towards your right ankle to locate the small switch?

It’s not especially intuitive to use either (we thought pulling for on and pushing for off would be the logical step, not the opposite) but at least the system releases automatically if you forget. There is also a Hill Holder to keep your Subaru from slipping backwards on an incline.

As the latter item proves in its small way, there is engineering depth in this latest Outback 2.5i that can only really be appreciated when you forget about the styling and start appreciating what it can do for you and your family.

Which surely is what Subaru was aiming to achieve with its latest family car against some quite mundane competition.

While the physical beauty of what has gone before has faded, the Outback 2.5i Lineartronic’s can-do attitude suddenly makes the others seem somehow a little incomplete.

We prefer the styling of the Mazda6 wagon, for instance, but cannot really gel with its cold character or terse and loud ride the Mondeo is a visually enticing inside and out and the pick of the bunch to drive, but its petrol engine can be thirsty and the other, exxier Euros like the Citroen C5, Peugeot 407 and Renault Laguna cost too much and don’t deliver enough (especially dynamically) compared to the Subaru.

Game over then. The Outback gets serious and streaks out ahead as a result.

In 2.5i Lineartronic guise at least, Japan’s problem child has at last shown maturity and grace.

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