Car reviews - Subaru - Outback - diesel CVT
Continuously variable transmission well suited to diesel engine rugged soft-roader looks roomy and versatile interior can still pull a fair load
Room for improvement
Drab, hard plastic interior seatbelt and baby-seat fixtures hang from roof diesel engine isn’t that frugal tyres lack grip
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5 Jul 2013
By BARRY PARK
Price and equipment
The Subaru Outback range kicks off at $36,500 for a six-speed manual version of the car hooked up to a 2.5-litre petrol engine.
Our test car, the 2.0D, is the cheapest diesel model, and priced from $42,490. Bear in mind that $2500 of that cost is the premium commanded by the auto transmission.
For that money, you’re probably also looking at a Skoda Octavia Scout, a similarly sized, jacked-up wagon that sells from $42,290 – you’re $200 up already – and comes with a sophisticated dual-clutch six-speed automatic gearbox.
Both have all-wheel-drive grip, a large centrally-mounted colour screen with satellite navigation, dual-zone climate control, Bluetooth phone connection, six-speaker audio with a USB port, rain-sensing wipers, dusk-sensing headlights, leather-wrap steering wheel with audio and cruise controls, fog lights, roof rails and 17-inch alloy wheels with a full-size spare.
However. the Subaru’s trump cards over the Scout are a big 213mm ground clearance – its Skoda-badged rival has only 141mm – and a reversing camera that helps particularly in the bush.
Straight away I’m going to say I’d rather be in the Skoda. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the layout and presentation in the Outback, it’s just that everything in the Subaru looks and feels cheap and utilitarian by comparison.
Hard plastics are everywhere in the Outback, and nothing really has that soft, warming feel to it other than the door-mounted armrests. The seats are comfortable enough, but look drab, and the chunky electric parking brake that fills a fair whack of space on the transmission tunnel between the front seats is form over function..
The steering wheel, too, is a mish-mash of add-ons rather than a complete, well-thought-out unit.
The instrument cluster is nice, though, offset by a blue-lit interior. Crank the engine using the traditional key (the Skoda’s folds) and the instrument dials playfully flick across their faces in a now much-imitated act of theatre.
The interior of the Outback is a big space, helped by its boxy exterior. Rear-seat space is good, although the centre rear seatbelt has to drop from the roof, interrupting the driver’s view through the rear window. The tethers for baby seats are also on the roof, which in a worst-case scenario will make a glance in the rear-view mirror feel like peering through a broken picket fence.
The load space is a class-competitive 490 litres with the rear seats up, and 1690L with the rear seats laid flat. The tailgate lifts nice and high, too, so taller owners are not likely to brain themselves.
Engine and transmission
Diesels in the main are much better suited to heavy, all-paw soft-roaders because, well, speed is not all that important, and the lazy torque the oil-burning engines deliver makes light work of all the heft they have to haul around.
The key to that is delivering maximum torque low down in the rev range.
The Outback’s four-cylinder turbocharged 2.0-litre unit doesn’t do that, though. On paper it has the numbers, serving up a class-competitive 110kW of power and a 350Nm well of torque from its unusual boxer layout that keeps the engine flat and the car’s centre of gravity low.
It’s the torque we’re interested in. Instead of just off idle, the Subaru’s engine has to spin up to 1600rpm before maximum torque arrives. If you’re buying the Outback as a tow vehicle – it will pull a 1700kg braked load, after all – it will pay to have a few revs on board.
That would make the CVT a better choice than the flat-spotting manual Outback diesel. Loping along, the stepless transmission is a good match to the engine, allowing it to hit the sweet spot for power and torque almost instantly rather than a traditional auto, or even a manual gearbox, that has to build up revs to match demand.
In stop-start traffic, though, the CVT can feel a bit sluggish as the pulleys that vary the gear ratio struggle to keep up.
Diesels are supposed to be frugal, too. On paper, the Outback’s donk is good for 6.5L/100km when paired with the CVT, up from the manual version’s 6.0L/100km. We struggled to get the Outback below 7.4L/100km even with plenty of lazy highway kilometres thrown in.
Ride and handling
We’ve already mentioned that the Outback has a low centre of gravity in part due to its engine layout. That translates to some pretty good driving dynamics in the dry.
Notice we said in the dry. In the wet, the default high-profile 17-inch Yokohama tyres lack confidence, dissolving into understeer even when driven sensibly. For an on-demand all-wheel-drive system that is meant to improve grip, it’s a black mark.
Otherwise, the Outback corners flatly and somewhat confidently, with a smooth, absorbing ride and a fairly hushed interior. Drive it like Nana, and it’s everything a car needs to be.
The diesel-engined Outback uses a different steering set-up to the petrol models. Where the petrol versions use speed-sensitive steering to make it feel quicker as speeds rise, the diesel’s plain old electrically assisted steering remains pretty linear by comparison.
Safety and servicing
The entire Subaru range prides itself on its five-star crash safety record. Likewise, the entire Subaru range apart from the BRZ rear-drive sports coupe sends drive to all four wheels to improve stability.
The Outback gets six airbags as standard, and we’ve already mentioned the reversing camera – an important consideration in what will appeal to many as a family car.
Subaru offers a three-year, unlimited kilometre warranty on the Outback.
The Japanese car-maker has not jumped on the capped-price servicing wagon yet, but you can seek a quote online via Subaru’s website before committing to one.
Subaru’s diesel-engined Outback now has an automatic option that addresses a few of the problems exposed by the previously manual-only line-up.
However, you might have noticed we’ve mentioned the Skoda Octavia Scout a fair bit. That’s because it is a fair competitor to the Outback, and despite the question marks now hanging over Volkswagen’s reliability, a much more pleasant package to live with.
Where the Outback will crush its opposition, though, is when the road ends and the bush track starts. The Subaru is made for the rough stuff, while the Scout will baulk at the first washout.
In this respect, the Scout is left eating the Outback’s dust.
Skoda Octavia Scout (From $42.290 before on-roads)., Czech-made, the Scout follows the traditional jacked-up wagon style of SUV. Punchy four-cylinder turbo engine with idle-stop, fast-shifting auto gearbox and crisp drive combined with a smooth ride add up to a decent package.
Mazda CX-5 Grand Touring (From $43,200 before on-roads).
, Dowdy high-riding exterior looks, but brilliant interior, plush ride and powerful, frugal 2,2-litre diesel engine mated to a six-speed auto.
Class leader for fuel economy, too. It’s a shame the satellite navigation system uses Donkey Kong graphics, though.
Ford Territory TDCI (From $48,240 before on-roads).
, A whole size bigger and more expensive, but locally built and one of the most family-friendly interiors you’ll ever come across.
Jag-derived 2.7-litre V6 engine is cast-off technology, but fuel use will shadow the Subaru.
Specs, MAKE/MODEL: Subaru Outback 2.0D
, ENGINE: 2.0-litre four-cylinder boxer
, LAYOUT: Horizontally opposed
, POWER: [email protected]
, TORQUE: [email protected]
, TRANSMISSION: Continuously variable transmission, all-wheel-drive
, 0-100km/h: 9.7
, TOP SPEED: N/A
, FUEL: 6.5L/100km
, EMISSIONS: 172g/km CO2
, WEIGHT: 1551kg
, SUSPENSION: Macpherson (f)/double wishbone independent (r)
, STEERING: Electric-assist rack and pinion
, BRAKES: Ventilated disc (f)/ventilated disc (r)
, PRICE: From $42,490 before on-roads
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