When is a station wagon an SUV? Or, when is a SUV a station wagon? Subaru’s Outback is too rugged to be considered a mere estate, and not rugged enough to be a proper SUV. But it does offer some of the most appealing elements of both – and a new turbodiesel engine has added further lustre. By DEON SCHOEMAN.
Nobody would argue that South Africa is SUV country. But because the popularity of these vehicles has as much to do with their macho image as it has with our love for the great outdoors, you’ll see bigger herds of all-terrainers in Sandton, Ballito and Claremont than in the Kruger, Sabie Sands or the Cederberg.
Subaru’s Outback isn’t as obviously rugged as mainstream, full-size SUVs. But it’s clearly not your average station wagon (or estate car, as posh folk prefer to call them), either. Instead, the Outback straddles both genres.
Yes, you’d be forgiven for considering the Outback an estate at first glance. That’s because it’s effectively a Legacy station wagon on steroids – the same elongated silhouette, the almost bulbous front end, the roof rails. Up close, though, it’s bigger and taller than you think, with that 218mm ground clearance creating a stance that’s a lot loftier than any normal wagon. Black, scuff-resistant skid plates front and rear, together with sill protectors, add to the Outback’s no-nonsense character, while the 17-inch wheels look a little lost under the flared wheel arches.
So, the Outback looks purposeful rather than refined, with an emphasis on functionality that precludes any mainstream fashion appeal. The front treatment, in particular, with its prominent, brightwork-garnished grille, and wide-eyed headlights that seem disproportionately large, is more agricultural than city slicker smart.
That the Outback looks like the kind of vehicle that can roll up its sleeves, don some Wellies and pick its way through the rough stuff with good humour is an endearing trait, and suggests that those people who drive them are unlikely to be too concerned about anything beyond functional appeal. And while there might be a utilitarian edge to the Outback’s exterior styling, the interior is plush and airy. The leather upholstery is smart, and there’s a long list of standard features. Perhaps the only disappointment is the diminutive size of the infotainment system’s colour screen.
Form-hugging bucket seats are among the real surprises, as is the sliding glass sunroof. You can also tick the boxes for the multifunction steering wheel, dual-zone climate control, keyless entry and starting, and a multi-speaker audio system with Bluetooth, USB and auxiliary sockets. Those generous exterior dimensions allow equally generous interior space. Rear occupants will find no shortage of head, leg and shoulder room, and the rear backrest can be reclined for personalised comfort.
The massive cargo compartment will swallow 526 litres of cargo with the rear seatback raised. Fold down the seat (easily accomplished by pulling a handle in the cargo compartment) and that capacity increases to a gargantuan 1,726 litres.
The Outback has a stellar safety track record, thanks to five-star ratings for both the Euro NCAP and the ANCAP crash test authorities. Seven airbags provide passive protection in the case of a collision, while the active systems include ABS brakes, as well as traction control and stability control.
But let’s take a look at the oily bits. The big news under the bonnet is the presence of Subaru’s rather unique two-litre flat-four turbodiesel engine. Maximum output is 110kW, which is a little below par compared to other, albeit more conventional high-end two-litre diesel mills. But the 350Nm torque peak means there’s plenty of low-down shove. In fact, on the move, there’s always more urge than the statistics intimate.
The gearbox deserves special mention. Regular readers may have noticed that I’m not the biggest fan of constantly variable transmissions, or CVTs, as they’re generally referred to. While the principle of a transmission that always offers the best effective gearing is attractive, most CVTs sound if they’re murdering the engine and slipping the clutch in what has become known as the dreaded rubber band effect.
The Lineartronic gearbox is a CVT device, but uses seven software-determined, virtual ratios that can be sequentially selected using the gear lever, or shift paddles behind the steering wheel. There’s also a full auto mode. Lineartronic works a treat in either mode, and is also perfectly matched to the turbodiesel’s characteristics. If only all CVTs would follow this example!
And let’s not forget that the Outback has very real off-road aspirations, thanks to its symmetrical all-wheel drive. The system splits torque equally between the front and rear axles, but also between the left and right wheels, ensuring ample traction across a spectrum of conditions.
The result is loads of grip and composure on anything from tar to rough gravel, but without a diff lock and 4×4 low-range, the Outback will not be challenging gung-ho off-roaders anytime soon. Still, the combination of ground clearance and traction will get you places normal estates can only dream of.
On-road, the steering is sharper and lighter than it should be, but a tighter then expected turning circle benefits manoeuvrability so that piloting the big Outback around town is a lot less onerous than expected. Of course, the raised seating position and resultant good all-round visibility help here, too.
As for outright, straight-line performance, don’t expect the Outback to burn rubber. After all, this is a large crossover estate tipping the scales at more than 1.6 tonnes. In that context, the Subaru’s ability to reach 100km/h from standstill in less than 10 seconds is actually laudable.
The secret is the incisive shove of the turbodiesel and gearing that is nicely matched to the engine’s output characteristics. In-gear tractability is equally impressive, and in manual mode you can really coax the optimum urge from the diesel-burning boxer.
For many, a part of the Outback’s attraction will be the fuel economy promised by that engine, and yes, the spec sheet promises a mixed-condition consumption figure of 6.3 litres/100km. However, don’t raise your hopes: our test consumption, encompassing a mix of driving styles and conditions, was a more realistic 9.6 litres/100km. Town-only driving will up that even further, but at constant, open-road highway speeds, high sixes and early sevens should indeed be feasible.
The Subaru Outback 2.0D Lineartronic provides decent all-terrain capabilities without the bulk and the ostentation of a full-sized SUV. The diesel engine is a beaut, and the Lineartronic transmission does most things right. Add user-friendly road manners, smart and comfortable seating for five and a massive boot and this Subaru begs the question whether all but the most committed 4×4 fans may not be better off investing in a vehicle as sensible – and as enjoyable to drive – as this. DM
Subaru Outback 2.0d Lineartronic
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