The Subaru Outback has been thoroughly updated and it now offers better value than ever. Jonathan Crouch reports.
Ten Second Review
Subaru has pulled out all the stops with the latest Outback. Yes, this stalwart ruggedised estate might look similar to the old car, but it's a fresh design with a more amenable price tag, a better quality cabin and a great warranty. The good news for British buyers is the fact that you can now buy a diesel version that's paired with an automatic gearbox.
Have a guess at how many cars Subaru sold on the UK last year. To help you with some ballpark numbers, Ford sold over 326,000, Vauxhall shifted almost 270,000 and even a prestige outfit like Porsche registered more than 9,000 cars. You're probably not even close. The Japanese company sold a mere 2,793 cars here, and that was 23 per cent better than the previous year. It has struggled to overcome the strength of the Yen, which almost killed Subaru as a viable entity in the UK but, having been shaken to the core by that experience, the company has vowed to come back stronger than ever before with products that really speak for themselves. To that end, say hello to the revised Outback. This is a car that rarely gets the credit it deserves. A quarter of a century ago, before the Audi allroad or the Volvo XC70 were even doodles on sketchpads, the Outback brought us the all-wheel drive ruggedised estate. The fourth generation car launched here back in 2010 and this fifth generation model moves the game on in several key regards.
Mechanically, the big news with this version of the Outback is that Subaru has decided that it's time to stop shooting itself in the foot with petrol-only engine ranges and diesel manual models that few folk ideally sought. Instead, the brand plans now to deliver what customers want, namely the excellent boxer diesel engine paired with an automatic gearbox. Well, when I say 'automatic', it's strictly speaking a seven-step Lineartronic constantly variable transmission, but you get the idea. There's no clutch pedal. The engine's good for 150PS and if that's not enough, you can still buy a 2.5-litre petrol with 165PS. We'll stick with the diesel if it's all the same. This being Subaru, the engineers have tweaked the car's suspension for sharper handling. As before, you get a healthy 200mm of ground clearance, and Subaru's Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive (AWD) system features on all models. Choose the manual transmission and there's also an Active Torque Split, and for those with the Lineartronic CVT there's a centre differential with viscous limited slip differential; just two ways to achieve much the same end, namely strong traction in all conditions.
Design and Build
The changes to the Outback's exterior look decidedly modest. Then you speak to the Subaru people and they tell you that the body is all new. Everything. You look at the vehicle again and wonder what possessed them to design and then retool for a complete set of panels that look virtually identical to the old ones. Ah, but Aston Martin have been doing that for years, cynics will chuckle, but whereas Aston will just tinker because they had no money, Subaru's decision to rebody a car very few will realise is rebodied takes some figuring out. The cabin, usually a Subaru Achilles heel, is much improved. It's far simpler looking than before with a more upmarket sheen. The usual riot of clashing textures, grains, fonts and switches has been given the flick in place of a more coherent look and feel. There's one of the best steering wheels in the class and even the touch screen system is easy to operate. The boot measures 512-litres to the tonneau cover, with 2,000-litres available when the seats are folded. That's way bigger than Volvo's XC70 which can only muster 1,600-litres. Choose a diesel and it'll easily pull a two-tonne caravan as well. If you're into that sort of thing. Not that there's anything wrong with it.
Market and Model
Subaru reckons it can shift 800 of these Outbacks per year, with 60 per cent of them being diesels. While we wouldn't take issue with the extent of their ambition, it's hard to see four out of ten Outback customers turning down the economy and torque of the diesel-engined version. Prices start at around £28,000 for the 2.0D SE variant, which is very reasonable given that an entry level Volvo XC70 opens at over £34,000. That buys you a manual Outback diesel: you do need to add £2,000 (which is quite an ask) for the Lineartronic box. The petrol model starts at around £28,500 with a Lineartronic transmission. The difference between the entry SE and the SE Premium trim is £3,000 and we suspect that most will be content with the more affordable version. After all, SE customers still get automatic LED headlamps and headlamp washers, cruise control, Active Torque Vectoring, 17-inch alloy wheels, heated front seats, electrically-adjustable driver's seat and privacy glass, as well as a 7.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system, incorporating satellite navigation, audio, smartphone connectivity and a rear view parking camera. Petrol SE models also feature an emissions-reducing start-stop system and Subaru Intelligent Drive, which allows drivers to select different engine modes depending on road conditions for improved economy and performance. Your extra £3,000 for the Premium variant nets you a sunroof, keyless entry and push-button start, 18-inch alloy wheels, leather seats and a powered rear tailgate. Lineartronic models also get the camera-based 'EyeSight' safety system. This monitors the road and traffic ahead for potential hazards and includes autonomous Pre-collision Braking Control and Pre-collision Throttle Management, Adaptive Cruise Control and Lane Departure & Sway Warning. The Outback has scored a five-star EuroNCAP safety score, so it's hard to put your family in anything much safer.
Cost of Ownership
Subaru owners tend to be a well-informed bunch and they probably won't thank us for letting a few of their secrets out. The big one is residual value. The Outback has long been a big winner in that department and things have only got better in recent years, in the main due to the company's excellent five year, 100,000 mile fully transferable warranty. That means that if you sell the car after, say, three years and 40,000 miles, the new owner gets a two year, 60,000 mile warranty. Try that in a Volvo XC70 and the new owner gets nothing, zilch, zip, nada. The same goes for the poor schlub buying a used Skoda Octavia Scout or even an Audi Allroad. Only Vauxhall's Insignia Country Tourer gets close to Subaru in that regard. Go for a 2.0-litre diesel model and it'll return 48mpg with a manual gearbox and 45mpg with the Lineartronic CVT. This translates to emissions figures of 145 and 159g/km respectively which isn't bad at all. The 37mpg figure for the petrol model (161g/km) isn't quite so clever.
Subaru has learned some harsh lessons in recent years. It has learned to listen to its customers. It's been forced to react to markets that change quickly. It's been taught a humbling lesson in global economics and has seen that clever engineering alone no longer sells cars. All of these learning points have been incorporated into the latest Outback. Although few will realise quite how new this car is, it won't take long behind the wheel for the penny to drop. With improved cabin quality, top-drawer safety systems, a practical body, the same rugged mechanicals and a diesel engine and CVT gearbox combination that's just right for the British market, this one deserves to do well. The biggest challenge will be getting potential buyers back into Subaru dealers in the first place. Many still remember the launch of cars like the XV which, through no real fault of Subaru's, carried asking prices that were up there with Audis. These days the price tags are a whole lot friendlier and the cars a good deal better. The Outback genuinely deserves its moment in the sun.