Car reviews - Subaru - Outback - range
Impeccable off-road ability, excellent on-road ride and handling, sharpened price
Room for improvement
Underwhelming four-cylinder engines, lack of kit for diesel
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18 Dec 2014
ON PAPER the new Outback has all of the credentials to make it one of the most versatile vehicles on the Australian new-car list.
Its dimensions perfectly straddle the divide between large and medium-size, its five-seat, big-boot body is half SUV, half wagon, and its four-wheel drive system reportedly improves safety on the road and allows the Outback to go further when the blacktop runs out.
But do-it-all cars have come and gone with historical regularity and the latest Outback will have to honour its promises if it is to stand a chance of doubling sales over the outgoing version, which is what its maker is predicting it will do.
First impressions are good with the all-new styling bringing subtle handsome looks that are more appealing than the fourth generation, while still being recognisable as an Outback.
The styling overhaul continues on the inside with a higher-quality feel than outgoing versions. Soft-touch materials are more prevalent, the layout of the dashboard and controls is simpler but classier and equipment including the touchscreen and driver information display are more modern.
Our first test car was the more generously equipped 2.5 Premium which at $41,490, plus on-roads, adds $5500 to the $35,990 price of the entry-level 2.5 and includes a host of more desirable kit such as heated leather seats, the larger 7.0-inch touchscreen, sunroof, LED headlights and keyless entry.
Space is abundant in the Outback with a Tardis-like wagon appearance on the outside but SUV room on the inside complemented by a supportive, upright but a comfortable seating position offering a good view of surroundings.
Head and shoulder room has noticeably grown, as has the boot, which is a very useful 512.
Finding a desirable position was easy with electric adjustment of the seats and the two-way adjustable steering wheel that has a high-quality feel with leather extending from the rim to the spokes.
The new Outback has many more functions accessible through the steering wheel including adaptive cruise control, sound-system settings and a drive mode selector.
Compared with the previous 2.5-litre boxer four-cylinder engine, the 2015 version has two more kilowatts taking output to 129kW with torque unchanged at 235Nm, but the meager figure is only just enough to spirit the Outback along under day-to-day driving conditions.
With a 2.5-litre petrol engine the big crossover has a braked towing capacity of 1500kg but we feel that with a trailer and/or car-load of people and things, the Outback would struggle.
Revving the petrol engine out to redline remedied the situation a little but would become tiresome and probably thirsty on longer trips.
Diesel versions appear to do better on paper with a heavier 1600kg towing capacity and 350Nm of torque from its turbocharged 2.0-litre boxer four, but this engine felt a little flat too.
The good burst of torque ran out quickly and the automatic CVT revved the boxer away from the useful low-down torque.
The Outback is available as a $47,990 3.6R variant which would no doubt solve many of the four-cylinder shortcomings, but we didn't get a chance to sample its 191kW 350Nm 3.6-litre flat six.
Under less earnest driving conditions both four-pot engines did better with very low cabin noise and the horizontally opposed layout providing a smoothness many in-line engines struggle to match.
The diesel was particularly unobtrusive with little to indicate the cheapest Outback is powered by a compression ignition engine at all.
Only the diesel is available with a six-speed manual gearbox but both our test cars were fitted with Subaru's Lineartronic CVT auto. While we frequently bemoan the droning variable transmission technology in many other manufacturer's products, it is harder to criticise the Subaru version.
Of all the CVT players, Subaru seems to have programmed the single-speed variable box to behave most like a multi-ratio automatic with noticeable steps in the power-transmission in place of a constant intrusive laboured engine note.
Petrol four-cylinder variants have a sports setting which alters the median rev-range and sharpens the steps in 'gear changes', but manual selection of ratios was most satisfying through the steering wheel paddles.
Once up to speed the Outback is comfortable blasting along open roads with a surprisingly agile chassis and minimal body roll despite the 213mm ride height.
Road noise was also remarkably minimal adding to the cabin comfort.
The pair of four-cylinder engines might not provide sportscar performance but thanks to the supple ride and responsive chassis, maintaining a good pace in the new Outback is a breeze.
Even the constantly changing and typically unpredictable condition of Australian roads couldn't falter the big crossover, which ate up big lumps and bumps and the slightly numb steering feel was compensated by the communicative suspension.
Leaving the tarmac behind, we ventured on to looser unsurfaced trails and the Outback really came into its own.
The cracking Subaru symmetrical four-wheel drive system is perfectly suited to loose gravel surfaces and relies on honest mechanical torque transmission for a majority of the time rather than relying heavily on sensor feedback and variable power distribution.
If the going does get tough the system can shift torque around, but under most circumstances, the tried and tested true 4WD transmission handles everything in a very uncomplicated and simple manner, giving the driver confidence.
But perhaps the Outback's most surprising trick is only apparent when the way ahead gets even rougher giving us a chance to try out the X-Mode off-road program.
Hitting the centre-console mounted button sets the gearbox, traction control and hill descent to their most capable settings for negotiating serious trails and terrain that would test most full blown four-wheel drives.
Climbing steep inclines with loose boulders and dust was no problem for the big crossover with the four-wheel drive making short work of the gradient and large rocks.
Descending was just as simple with pitch angle automatically detected by the car and descent speed adjusted accordingly.
We liked how the smoother hills that were not as steep were dealt with quickly and severe drops were approached more carefully and all without any adjustment or intervention from the driver.
Crawling over tricky obstacles at low speeds made better use of the diesel torque and we felt both four-cylinders were better suited to off-road work.
Subaru says it range of four-wheel drive vehicles are perfect for Australia and after a day in the new Outback, we think that claim is exemplified by the new model.
Judgment is yet to be made for the vehicle's suburban performance, but out and about in Victoria's changing environment and conditions, the Outback couldn't be phased.
With almost all the versatility and capability of a large off-roader the Outback will give owners the confidence to explore, but its car-like road-holding and pleasing looks make it a viable proposition for the day to day grind as well.
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