Gung-ho South Africans think of 4x4s as big, muscular SUVs with equally beefy engines and a transmission equipped with low-range and diff locks. Anything else, including those so-called soft-roaders, is for sissies. But the truth of the matter is that soft-roaders are far more popular than hard-core 4x4s. And most of them aren’t just for sissies. The Subaru Outback 3.6R is a good case in point.
Among petrol heads, Subaru is best known for the grunting, snorting, mean-machine STI and WRX performance versions of the legendary Impreza, and its proud history of success in global motorsport, especially rallying. But that’s only one aspect of the brand.
Subaru, which is owned by Fuji Heavy Industries, also enjoys a reputation for eclectic engineering. It continues to build horizontally-opposed engines, for instance – a trait it shares with sports car maker Porsche. And it produces several fine all-terrain vehicles, of which the Outback is perhaps the most underrated.
Subaru calls the Outback a crossover SUV, because it straddles both the traditional road car and more conventional SUV categories. Based on the road-going Legacy sedan, the latest, fourth-generation Outback range was launched last year, and this 3.6R model is the flagship.
Styling has never been one of Subaru’s fortes. In fact, some of its vehicles, like the original Tribeca, were downright ugly. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Outback breaks no new aesthetic ground. But the design is honest and purposeful enough to express a certain functional attraction. And the raised stance confirms its all-terrain pretensions too.
It’s also an imposing vehicle. At 4.8m long and more than 1.8m wide, with a station wagon-inspired shape, this is a vehicle with a lot of bulk, and one that attracts attention, perhaps because it’s not encountered on our roads that often.
A chrome-rimmed, aluminium-slatted grille, those huge, tapered headlights and the vast expanse of the power-bulged bonnet create a bold face that is unmistakably Subaru. Black plastic scuff plates front and rear confirm that the Outback isn’t scared to tackle the dirty stuff.
In profile, the large wheel apertures look almost too big for the 17-inch alloy wheels, while the high waistline adds visual muscle. Subtle roof rails serve as a reminder of the Outback’s utility applications, while the rear sees a tidily executed tailgate framed by large tail light clusters and a chunky, integrated bumper.
That tailgate provides convenient access to a pretty decent cargo compartment, which provides 526 litres of luggage space with the split rear bench seat in place, and 1,677 litres with the rear folded flat. The fit and finish is pretty decent, even in the carpeted cargo compartment and it gets even better in the passenger compartment proper.
The spare wheel under the cargo floor isn’t full-sized, but at 185/65 R17, the tyre will still get you out of trouble and to the nearest tyre shop in the case of a puncture.
Subaru isn’t automatically considered a premium product as far as comfort and luxury are concerned, but the Outback 3.6R scores high marks for its comprehensive equipment levels and impressive execution.
The leather seats are comfortable and offer decent support, the textured metallic finishes look and feel upmarket, and the instruments and switchgear are intuitive and user-friendly. Subjectively, the glossy wood trim looks out of place in the otherwise high-tech cabin, but that’s really our only complaint.
There’s plenty of space front and rear, while the extensive list of standard kit includes a decent audio system with surround sound and an auxiliary input jack, a multi-function steering wheel, dual-zone climate control, electric adjustment for the seats, mirrors and windows, cruise control and a trip computer. More unusual is the analogue eco-indicator, which displays on-the-fly fuel consumption.
The Outback’s passive safety arsenal includes dual front, side and curtain airbags, as well as front seat belts with pre-tensioners and load limiters.
As mentioned earlier, Subaru and horizontally opposed engines are synonymous, so the presence of a flat-six powerplant under the bonnet comes as no surprise. The 3,6-litre unit has a rated maximum power output of 191kW, together with 350Nm of torque. That urge is fed to all four wheels via a five-speed automatic gearbox and Subaru’ symmetrical all-wheel drive system.
The gearbox would seem a little out of kilter with the current trend, which favours self-shifters with at least seven gears. But with generous lashings of torque available from the word go, and a well-spaced set of cogs, there never seems to be any need for more.
Adding driver appeal is a manual mode, which operates in conjunction with shift pedals behind the steering wheel rim. They serve as a reminder of Subaru’s sporty heritage, and allow quick, incisive shifts when required. However, we suspect that most owners will stick to the full auto mode.
But what about the Outback’s all-terrain talents? It might not look all that tall, but the big estate does have a raised stance, which endows it with a very useful 213mm ground clearance. The fat footprint of the 225/60 Yokohama Geolander all-terrain tyres provide decent grip and handling over a variety of terrains.
There’s no diff lock, and no low-range transfer case. But the Outback does benefit from all-wheel drive, a rear limited-slip differential and a variable torque distribution between the front and rear axles, which means the power can be distributed to the wheels that need it most.
Of course, it’s not a bundu basher in the league of a Land Rover Defender or a Toyota Land Cruiser. But the Subaru will tackle rutted gravel roads with poise and confidence, without compromising its sure-footed handling on paved surfaces.
Tackling a badly rutted, very muddy and often almost completely washed away Maanhaarrand Pass between Magaliesburg and Buffelspoort Dam showed off the Subaru’s surprising poise and traction, while underscoring its claimed ground clearance.
An interesting feature fitted to the Outback is the Subaru Intelligent Drive system, which is accessed via a rotary controller in the centre console. The system offers three settings – Intelligent, Sport and Sport Sharp.
In “intelligent mode”, the focus is on efficiency and smooth operation, especially in and around town. At the other end of the scale, Sport Sharp delivers more incisive gear changes and a more direct throttle response. The Sport mode finds a good compromise between these two extremes and is perhaps the best option.
Give it stick, and the big Subaru feels a lot more sprightly than you’d expect. It will sprint from zero to 100km/h in 7.5 seconds at sea level, and just more than 8 seconds at altitude, with a useful top speed of 230km/h.
Driven with gusto, the Outback feels more road car than SUV. There’s plenty of grip, and the suspension has enough give for comfort without becoming soggy. Body roll is well contained, and handling is predictable and confidence inspiring. Self-levelling suspension is standard.
Most of all, the big Subaru feels effortless in almost all conditions. The combination of ample power, a composed chassis, ABS-assisted disc brakes, stability control and high comfort levels make for a pleasing motoring experience.
Fuel consumption is fair for a large, big-engined, all-wheel drive vehicle, but depends on driving style. Subaru’s 10.6 litre/100km claim for the combined cycle is kind – expect high 11s in real-world conditions, and around 13 litres/100km in more taxing off-road environments, or around town.
The Subaru Outback 3.6R is a very real and viable alternative to conventional SUVs. It links lots of space and comfort to effortless performance on tar and gravel, and a personality that is more passenger car than utility vehicle.
Add the tangible build quality, a certain level of individuality, and competitive pricing, and the Outback emerges as a fine and versatile all-rounder.
Subaru Outback 3.6R
Flat-six, 3 630 cc, DOHC per bank
191 kW @ 5 600 rpm
350 Nm @ 4 400 rpm
11,8 l/100 km
Carbon Dioxid emissions
There is a 24 hour "LeMons" race where drivers must compete in cars that cost $500 or less.