Car reviews - Subaru - Outback - 2.5i
A lot of car for the money, super comfy, spacious and user-friendly, fantastic country road dynamics, proven rough-road toughness, excellent touchscreen and driver assist tech
Room for improvement
Still feels a bit old and frumpy, some unconvincing interior trim, rear seat comfort doesn’t match wafty front seat experience, EyeSight beeps too much, parking sensors a pricy dealer-fit accessory, frequent and expensive servicing
Useful Outback updates maintain this Subaru’s status as high-riding wagon of choice
7 Nov 2018
SINCE the 1990s, Subaru’s Outback has been the definitive ruggedised wagon, a formula emulated globally with varying degrees of success by European brands including Volvo, Audi, Skoda and Volkswagen. Holden struggled in the early-mid 2000s with the Adventra and is now having another stab with the ZB Calais Tourer.
For Subaru, it has been a sales success story. In Australia the Outback is one of the brand’s most popular models, regularly outselling showroom staples such as the Impreza small car and Forester medium SUV.
The fifth-generation Outback launched in late 2014 with a mid-life refresh arriving earlier this year that brought the model bang up-to-date and aligned it technologically with younger Subarus such as the Impreza and XV.
Essentially, almost all gripes we harboured about the Outback evaporated with this update. It’s still a bit frumpy, but at least it will age well.
Price and equipment
With the Outback’s February 2018 facelift, Subaru dropped the slow-selling manual diesel, making the whole range auto only.
Due to the price-leading diesel manual’s exit, entry pricing for the Outback range is now $36,240 plus on-road costs for the petrol 2.5i, with the equivalent 2.0D automatic oil-burner costing $2500 more.
We were a step up from that, in the $42,640 (plus on-roads) petrol-powered 2.5i Premium (the diesel version being $3000 higher again).
Topping out the range is the six-cylinder petrol 3.6R variant at $49,140.
Skoda is yet to confirm whether the oft-overlooked Octavia Scout will return, while the diesel-only VW Passat Alltrack starts at $51,290 plus on-roads and the Golf Alltrack is significantly smaller. Only the V6 petrol-only Holden ZB Calais Tourer (from $45,990 plus on-roads) is similar in price and size.
All facelifted Outback variants are treated to a redesigned front bumper and grille, with LED headlights and daytime running lights on the Premium and 3.6R plus door mirrors that don't protrude quite so much and new alloy wheel designs. To our eyes the total effect is a classier, more modern and cohesive-looking car.
But the biggest news is the integration of Subaru’s third-generation EyeSight safety and driver-assistance technology suite as standard across the range, which now includes lane-keeping assistance and is generally more accurate and capable, plus the brand’s latest multimedia system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring.
This is built into a revised and more modern-looking central stack with larger touchscreen, new climate control panel and new vent design. The rest of the dash gets a lift with a contrast-stitched trim finish, and there’s a new steering wheel as well.
In addition to the base Outback’s reversing camera, the Premium and 3.6R have a multi-view monitor providing side and front cameras plus lane-change assistance, rear cross-traffic alert and adaptive steering-responsive LED headlights.
For some reason, Subaru continued to omit front and rear parking sensors on the Outback, instead making them an eye-watering $918.53 per end as a dealer-fit accessory! More than $1800 for a full set of sensors is crazy.
The EyeSight system bundles adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist with lane departure warning and lane sway warning, and autonomous emergency braking with pre-collision brake assist and pre-collision throttle management (which prevents you accidentally driving into an obstacle by pressing the accelerator instead of the brake).
Other smart EyeSight features include lead vehicle start alert (which beeps if you fail to respond when the vehicle in front moves off, for example when traffic lights turn green) and brake light recognition (in case you don’t notice vehicles braking in front of you).
All Outbacks have dusk-sensing headlights and automatic wipers, electric rear seat folding and a reclining rear bench, while the Premium and 3.6R add leather upholstery in ivory or black, eight-way electric front seat adjustment, heated front seats, sat-nav (in a larger 8.0-inch touchscreen compared with the base 6.5-inch unit), a powered tailgate, self-dimming interior mirror, keyless entry with push-button start and an extra USB socket, bringing the total to four.
In addition to its sonorous flat six engine, the 3.6R also has a 12-speaker Harman Kardon premium audio system with amplifier and subwoofer.
A drive mode selector has Intelligent and Sport settings in the base and Premium trim levels, while the more performance-oriented 3.6R has a Sport Sharp mode that further heightens responses.
For challenging surfaces there is X-Mode, which manages traction control, torque distribution and throttle control. It also activates hill-descent control. This, combined with 213mm of ground clearance and Subaru’s proven symmetrical all-wheel-drive system, provide some genuine rough-road capability.
Visually, the Premium is differentiated from the base Outback by indicators built into the (heated) door mirrors, resin wheel arch trims, front and rear mudguards (rather than just rear) and piano black interior trim (instead of silver). The 3.6R goes a little further with silver roof rails (instead of black), chrome side cladding and skirt trim, dual tailpipes and engine cover.
All variants have rear privacy glass and ride on 18-inch alloy wheels with a full-size spare.
Essentially, with the 2.5i Premium tested here, you’re getting pretty much the full fruit and the majority of extra money spent on the 3.6R is justified by the larger engine. All 10 colour options are available at no extra cost and the only options are dealer-fit accessories.
As one of the last remaining models on Subaru’s old platform, there is an underlying sense of oldness about the Outback interior, despite the vastly improved multimedia screen and classier ambience wrought by the visual changes accompanying this update.
It’s just the unconvincing look, feel and fit of various piano black and chrome interior trims that let down in what is otherwise a solid-feeling, easy-to-use cabin and logically laid-out.
That said, those trading up from another Subaru will appreciate the changes and it’s certainly a practical and hardwearing cabin that is generously equipped for the money.
It is also ridiculously comfortable in here, with incredibly plush seats, heaps of cabin space and legroom – but not at the expense of capacity in the substantial 512-litre boot. It is quiet and refined on the move, too, including on coarse-chip country lanes. We wished the driver’s seat could be set a little lower, though.
The new multimedia system – like other modern Subarus – is one of the best on the market with genuinely effective voice control when not using Apple CarPlay or Android Auto and EyeSight continues to impress with the effectiveness and intuitiveness of its uniquely blended driver assistance and active safety.
Our main gripe with EyeSight is its constant – although quiet – beeping. For example, with the adaptive cruise control on, it beeps to notify you that it has detected a vehicle in front. As you can imagine, this happens dozens of times on a journey.
On the upside, the four-stage up/down controls for adjusting following distance are great and much better than the usual single-button method of incrementally reducing the distance and only being able to increase it by pressing it again to return to the farthest setting.
Cabin storage is good, with a big glovebox and under-armrest bin, capacious cubby in front of the gear selector, reasonably large door bins, a pair of map pockets, a sunglasses holder and quartet of cupholders.
The boot has a perfectly proportioned, flat load area with handy fold-down shopping bag hooks and retractable tie-down points plus plastic-lined wells behind the wheel arches. The rear seats fold flat at the touch of a button, liberating a full 1801L of cargo capacity.
Overall, then, it’s more of the same but a fair bit better courtesy of that brilliant new multimedia setup and some nicer trim.
Engine and transmission
Subaru has tweaked the Outback’s 2.5-litre petrol engine and continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) to reduce internal friction and inertia while providing a longer cruising gear ratio.
The company says this has resulted in a 3.0 per cent fuel efficiency improvement, but the official combined-cycle consumption figure of 7.3 litres per 100km remains unchanged.
We averaged 8.4L/100km during our week-long test, which isn’t bad for a big petrol-powered wagon. Our car’s trip computer had stored a 1600km long-term average of 8.8L/100km. We’d expected to get high nines or even low tens before we took custody of it, so Subaru’s changes have clearly had some real-world effect.
A reprofiled crankshaft and crank pulley are said to improve refinement, with the most obvious benefit we noticed being a newfound smoothness and seamlessness to the Outback’s idle-stop system.
More tangibly to our senses was Subaru’s work on the CVT to make it more responsive, quieter and smoother while shifting between forward and reverse, and provide seven stepped virtual ratios when manually shifting using the steering wheel paddles or manual gate on the gear selector.
Peak power and torque outputs remain at 129kW at 5800rpm and 235Nm at 4000rpm respectively, which we found to be merely adequate in motivating this 1599kg wagon. We’d describe it is the absolute minimum drivetrain for this size and weight of car.
For urban and suburban work it is fine and the rejigged and frankly excellent CVT does better at making the most of what it’s got without excessively flaring the revs, but quick bursts of acceleration, overtaking and motorway on-ramps are not its forte, requiring patience, planning and bravery.
Step-off acceleration is now much improved, but the 2.5 still has a bit of a dead zone from around 2500 rpm until around 4500rpm that must be overcome if meaningful thrust is required. Thankfully the CVT does well at keeping the engine in either of its sweet-spots, which really comes into its own in hilly areas.
We’d go so far as to surmise that Subaru has cracked the CVT code and that this transmission is what lets Subaru get away with continuing to use a naturally aspirated 2.5-litre petrol engine rather than smaller, much more flexible turbocharged units such the excellent 1.6 in the Levorg.
Manual shifts still leave a bit to be desired for dynamic driving, with some ratios too closely stacked and an unnatural feel, so we preferred to engage Sport mode and leave the CVT to its own devices, which it did a great job of on our local stretch of twisty country back-road.
The Outback driveline’s well-judged responsiveness and predictability is excellent for driving on dirt, too.
Ride and handling
Subaru has clearly tuned this car’s onboard experience around the driver. From the front seats, the Outback feels positively wafty but it is unfortunately a different story at the back, where a lot more road imperfections are felt and the body’s pitch and roll motions are accentuated.
This improves as speeds rise, with the Outback all but impervious to road imperfections from 80km/h and above.
Similarly, handling at urban and suburban speeds is a bit heavy and combined with the lacklustre engine performance the Outback can feel a bit frumpy round town.
But head to the countryside and Granddad’s still got some moves. This car starts to make much, much more sense outside the city limits. Hence the name, we suppose.
Boy is the Outback a charming bus to fling along a twisty country road, whether sealed or unsealed. Sure, its high-set stance and comfort-oriented nature cause it to roll a little but it is surprisingly interactive, with heaps of feel through both the chassis and steering.
It is also extremely surefooted in that typical Subaru way, its long-travel suspension enabling its tyres to dig in and finding deeper reserves of grip and traction than most would give a car like the Outback credit for. It never feels floaty or vague, just composed and confident.
We loved the complete sense of control we got from the very first fast corner we put the Outback through and it felt entirely natural for the duration of our dynamic test. All in all, a really pleasant surprise.
All this translated into the Outback’s outstanding performance on gravel. Most all-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive vehicles have a slight sketchiness to the way they drive on loose dirt roads, but Subarus – and particularly this latest Outback – tend to feel rock solid and utterly predictable in this environment.
The Outback just soaks it all up, with high levels of traction and grip but also delivering the driver an innate sense of where these both run out as well and what to do when that happens. Again, the Outback feels intuitive, natural-feeling, forgiving, cohesive and pretty much untouchable here. And the steering feel is sublime.
We don’t usually enjoy undue extra steering heft most manufacturers inflict on drivers who select Sport mode, but it makes absolute sense in the Outback on loose surfaces where the extra weight discourages heavy-handed inputs and helps improve driver accuracy.
Safety and servicing
All Outback variants attained a full five ANCAP stars for crash-test performance in 2015. Overall, the model scored 35.99 out of 37 with 14.99 out of 16 in the frontal offset test and perfect results in the side impact and pole tests. Pedestrian and whiplash protection were rated as ‘acceptable’ and ‘good’ respectively.
As mentioned, the standard EyeSight advanced driver-assist safety technology suite provides forward collision warning, autonomous emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, lane-sway warning, lane-keep assist, blind-spot monitoring, lane-change assist, rear cross-traffic alert, side- and front-view cameras, a reversing camera and hill start assist
This is all well and good, but we’re still smouldering from the fact Subaru charges more than $1800 to fit front and rear parking sensors.
Other standard safety equipment includes seven airbags (dual front, side and curtain plus driver knee), anti-skid brakes, electronic brake-force distribution, brake assist, and the usual traction and stability control systems.
The Outback 2.5i Premium comes with a three-year/unlimited-kilometre factory warranty that is occasionally extended to five years as a factory-backed promotion. Also provided is one year of roadside assistance.
Service intervals are every six months or 12,500km, whichever comes first. Under Subaru’s three-year/75,000km pre-purchased service program, each visit costs between $311 and $544, or $380.27 on average, which is pretty expensive.
The Outback’s rivals barely move the needle in terms of sales and while the Holden Calais Tourer and VW Golf Alltrack are worth considering, we expect most people in this market segment to continue driving away in a Subaru.
What’s more, we know those buyers will enjoy their Outback for the well-rounded and now much more polished vehicle it is.
Although we’ve raised a few negatives here, none were deal breakers and we’d have very few reasons to hesitate in recommending the Outback – particularly the value-packed Premium trim level tested here – to family and friends.
That’s Subaru’s secret sauce and why the Outback still has no real competition. It’s the original and best, and it just got even better.
Holden Calais Tourer $45,990 plus on-road costs
Brilliant to drive and full of equipment but not as comfy for the broad-shouldered as the Subaru, especially for those who have to share rear-seat space with bulky child restraints, despite the body being wider. Similarly, despite being longer than an Outback, boot space is inferior, too.
Volkswagen Golf Alltrack 135 TDI Premium $41,490 plus on-road costs
Substantially shorter than the Subaru but somehow manages more seats-up luggage space. Of course, it’s not quite as plush and spacious for passengers as the big Subaru but the Golf Alltrack is a classy, capable and versatile all-rounder that is well worth a look. In fact, we prefer it to the bigger and much more expensive Passat Alltrack.
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