BY ANDY ENRIGHT
If you appreciate the difference between genuine quality (as in reliability and customer satisfaction) versus what is dubbed 'perceived quality' (soft touch interiors and reassuring door slam sounds), you'll probably be a big fan of the Subaru Outback. Peerlessly reliable, the Outback is the most dependable car of its ilk and, as such, makes a very smart used buy. Here's what to keep your eyes peeled for.
Models Covered: 2.5, 3.0 petrol estate 2006- to date [S, SE , 3.0R, 3.0Rn]
It's hard to believe that the Outback has been on sale in the UK for more than a decade but when Subaru announced the fourth generation car in 2005, it had a lot to live up to, successive generations getting better and better. Sales never really matched the car's ability though and the Outback never really sold in big numbers primarily because it was never offered with a diesel engine. So for 2005, the Outback... again had no diesel. Quite why Subaru haven't been able to tie up an agreement for another manufacturer to supply them with oil burners is anyone's guess but with two engines and three trim levels, the Outback range was at least fairly easy to get a handle on.
What You Get
Many customers will be sold the moment they clap eyes on the latest Outback, something the old model could never really rely upon. All the Subaru trademarks continue. The frameless windows, the boxer engines and the all-wheel drive transmissions are all present and correct, but the big difference is that the Outback is at last a car that your passengers will enjoy as much as you do. I remember once enthusing about an Outback's four-wheel drive system while at the same time spotting my wife's barely concealed disdain for a cupholder that grated cheaply from its aperture. There are certainly no such issues with the latest car. Subaru poached Andreas Zapatinas from Alfa Romeo for the design of this model and in doing so, they snagged a very capable designer. Certainly these days Subaru seem to have a little more integration between their engineering and design departments. In this guise, the Outback at last became the car that most car nuts wished it always had been. The styling was sharpened up, excised of all the fussy detailing and gawky lines. The basic silhouette still shouts Subaru, but the deftness of detail in the headlamps, the swage lines and the perceived tension in the body is something that prior to this model, had eluded the crayon-wielders at Subaru. Everything was just that little bit neater. The mirrors house Mercedes style side repeaters, the wheelarches bulge gently out, topped by a pronounced hip. The roof pillars are elegantly slim and the wheels do a better job of filling the arches. One can almost imagine Zapatinas taking a red pen to blueprints of the old car. If you think that the exterior lines are sharp, just wait until you drop into the cabin. Although it's not quite Audi or BMW quality, the fascia is one of the better designs out there with an aluminium strip running its length. Gone are the acres of brittle grey plastics, flimsy cupholders, scratchy fabrics and uninspiring dials that characterised previous models. In their place sits a dashboard with a sleekly industrial metallic finish, featuring overlapping aluminium-ringed dials, soft-touch surfaces and rubber and felt-lined door pockets and cubbies. Head and legroom are generous up front and the seats are reassuringly supportive.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
Legacy-based Outback models are hardy things and little goes wrong with the mechanicals or the electrics. The body is well rustproofed and the main thing to look out for is that the car hasn't been subjected to overly enthusiastic off roading. Despite the marketing blurb, the Outback is really only a trail and forest track device and if somebody has attempted to go rock hopping with one, they may well have wreaked havoc with the exhaust, the suspension, the spoilers and valances and the wheelarch liners.
(Based on a Legacy 2.5 and exclusive of VAT) A clutch assembly will set you back about £220 and a new exhaust about £185 excluding catalyst. Front shock absorbers are close to £130 each. An exchange alternator comes in at around £300 and an exchange starter motor at around £150. A new radiator is about £215. Replacement door mirrors are around the £150 mark and a headlamp about £180.
On the Road
Two engines are available, a 2.5-litre four-cylinder engine that cranks out 164bhp and a six-cylinder 3.0-litre powerplant that's good for a healthy 242bhp. Both use Subaru's acclaimed 'boxer' engine layout where the cylinders are horizontally opposed to each other. This layout means that the centre of gravity remains very low despite the Outback's raised ride height that enables it to negotiate modest obstacles. The post '05 generation model is distinguishable from the pre-facelift versions by its 'wing' motif grille and the swage lines that run from the top edge of the headlights into the front wings. There are also upgraded interior materials and a range of tweaks to the suspension geometry deliver a more comfortable ride. As is often the case with new models, Subaru at launch claimed both better performance and economy for this Outback compared to its immediate predecessor. Much of this can be attributed to a weight saving plan this design underwent which shaved a full 55kg from the car's kerb weight. Aluminium components at front and rear gave the car a nimble feel and the chassis was stiffer due to smart strengthening at joints with lighter gauges used in non critical points. The engines also came in for some serious attention with a mere twenty per cent carryover of parts from before. Hollow camshafts, lighter cylinder heads, thinner exhaust liners and new crankshafts made these engines a good deal more refined, as well as contributing to the more power/less fuel consumption equation. An electronic fly-by-wire throttle control system also debuted, giving better response to the driver and offering more control for Subaru's engineering boffins. A 'constant pulsation' exhaust system helped engine breathing while retaining that characteristic boxer engine burble. The 3.0-litre models feature the SI-Drive system that manifests itself as a round dial on the centre console and steering wheel-mounted buttons. It allows the driver to select 'Intelligent', 'Sport' or 'Sport Sharp' modes which, in that order, deliver increasingly urgent throttle responses along with a growing eagerness to kickdown into a lower gear when paired with the automatic gearbox. The Intelligent mode provides a more relaxed and fuel-efficient driving experience. An Eco gauge on the speedometer shows just how well you're doing at conserving the planet's resources but everything's relative and this is still a 3.0-litre 242bhp car.
The Subaru Outback is a car that has been made markedly better in this guise but which is still crying out for a decent diesel engine. If paying a little extra in fuel bills isn't a key dissuader, there's a lot to like about the car, marrying deft tarmac manners with a modicum of trail ruggedness. Our choice would probably be a 2.5-litre SE model showing low mileage with metallic paint.