OUTBACK AND BEYOND
Is it a 4x4? Is it an estate? It's a bit of both but Subaru's Outback should be none the worse for that. Steve Walker takes a look.
Through four generations, we've witnessed Subaru's Outback evolve from a higher riding version of the Legacy estate to something that Subaru can plausibly claim is a model in its own right. It's still a high riding version of the Legacy estate you understand, but the latest Outback is more of a cohesive product in its own right rather than a bolt-on addition to the Legacy line-up. Compact 4x4, family estate or crossover, the truth of the Outback is out there somewhere but more important than its marketing pigeonhole is how successfully it fits in with buyers and their families.
Ten Second Review
Based on the Legacy Tourer estate, Subaru's Outback is a model for those who want a smidgeon more ruggedness from their big family car. The Outback is certainly large, having expanded in most of the relevant directions in its latest guise. It's also well equipped and technologically advanced, with clever 4x4 technology and automatic gearboxes standard on many models.
There are quite a few cars that tread the void between ordinary estate cars and full-on 4x4 vehicles. Springing immediately to mind come the Volvo XC70, Saab's 9-3X and the Audi allroad models. This is where the Subaru Outback has been designed to operate but like Volvo, Saab and Audi, Subaru will be hoping that its product can transcend the somewhat limiting crossover 4x4 niche and pinch sales from the more traditional compact 4x4s and family estates. Just so long as it isn't the Japanese marque's own Forester compact 4x4 and Legacy Sports Tourer estate that see their volumes suffer from the Outback's spread, everything will be just dandy at Subaru head office.
The Outback sticks rigidly to the tried and tested Subaru formula of 'boxer' engines and all-wheel-drive. The boxer tag results from the distinctive horizontally-opposed engine layout that sees the banks of cylinders punching out at each other like pugilists. There are two four-cylinder units, a 2.0-litre diesel and a 2.5-litre petrol, but customers wanting a car that can throw a real haymaker might like the 3.6-litre six-cylinder option. Expect vigorous performance and charismatic engine notes and you won't be too disappointed, although don't expect the Outback to serenade you with the classic Subaru burble of a tuned Impreza. The 148bhp 2.0D diesel that will be the choice of most buyers can get from 0-60mph in 9.7s and has 350Nm of torque. It makes the 165bhp 2.5-litre petrol engine look rather redundant. Lacking the turbocharger it employs to ferocious effect in fast versions of the Impreza, this petrol unit comes up with a 10.4s 0-60mph sprint and torque of 229Nm. The 3.6-litre engine has 256bhp and 350Nm at its disposal and is the fastest Outback with a 7.5s sprint.
Design and Build
The links between the Outback and the Legacy are obvious to the casual observer but so are the differences. The cars share the same combination of front grille and sculpted bonnet with the large headlamps that stretch up and around into the wings. Where the Outback goes its own way is lower down with the metallic boarders for the round fog lights and the chunky skid plate as chin protection. Extended wheelarches and further body protection along the sills also emphasise the car's off-road credentials, as does its 200mm ground clearance. Being so closely related to the Legacy, the Outback inherits the growth spurt which that car put on for its latest generation. The Legacy Tourer compact executive estate isn't so compact these days and the Outback too is 45mm longer, 50mm wider and 60mm taller than the car it replaced. That's good news in the family-focused crossover 4x4 market because it enables the Outback to improve passenger space across the board and through the tailgate is a large 526-litre boot.
Market and Model
The model range isn't huge on the latest Outback, Subaru electing to stick to a single basic trim level that includes just about everything as standard. The SE grade that's the entry-point for the 2,0D and 2.5-litre models includes 17" alloy wheels, front fog lights, an electric sunroof, leather trim, heated front seats, electric windows, dual-zone climate control, a six CD stereo, cruise control, Bluetooth, automatic headlamps and more. Then there's the NavPlus pack which adds keyless entry, a rear view camera and satellite navigation. With a comprehensive safety specification also thrown in, few rival models will be able to match the Outback's equipment levels. This should be factored in to any comparisons, as should the automatic gearboxes that are standard on the petrol models. The Subaru Symmetrical AWD system on the Outback varies according to the engine choice, as do the gearbox options. The six-speed manual 2.0D models get a basic 50:50 torque split with a limited slip differential but the 2.5 petrol cars have an Active Torque Split system that monitors the standard VDC stability control and redistributes torque according to changes in the road surface. These models also get the Lineartronic CVT automatic gearbox. At the top of the range, the 3.6R model has a five-speed auto gearbox and a 4x4 system with Variable Torque Distribution which gives a rear-biased torque split for improved handling.
Cost of Ownership
We've established that the Outback is a large vehicle with four-wheel-drive and that doesn't usually help where running costs are concerned. The diesel model isn't half bad considering these handicaps, with economy of 44mpg and 167g/km emissions. Hindered further by their self-shifting transmissions, the 2.5-litre and 3.6-litre petrol cars get 33.6 and 28mpg respectively, with CO2 outputs of 194 and 232g/km.
If you can't decide whether a compact 4x4 or a large estate car is the best way to move your offspring from place to place, the Subaru Outback might be just the thing. It's bigger than you'd credit, the car having grown substantially in this its fourth generation guise, plus it's well capable of light off-road duties and is conspicuously well-equipped.