By Andy Enright
The Subaru Outback is a one of those products that have an inherent beauty borne of sheer utility. It's a vehicle that's always bought to be used. You don't purchase an Outback to posture and preen. It's a no-nonsense piece of kit that also just happens to compete in a market sector that's all about posturing and preening. Perhaps that's why its quietly managed to carve out its own little niche that has gone largely unchallenged. We've had a look at earlier versions of the Outback in some detail, but the car we examine here is the revised Mk4 model, introduced in 2013 and running through to the model replacement in 2015. Here's the gen you need to know.
5dr estate (2.0 diesel [SX])
With a history going all the way back to 1996, the Outback was the original off-road-orientated family estate, with an image that, at the turn of the century, placed it comfortably alongside big Volvos and Land Rovers as a preferred choice for the tweed jacketed country set. In more recent times, it's been a rarer sight on our roads - something Subaru's importers set out to change in 2013 with the introduction of this much improved fourth generation version. The Japanese brand reckons that this was the original 'Crossover' vehicle. Now this may be true but the way the market now understands 'Crossovers' (as Nissan Qashqai-like SUV-styled family hatches with little off road ability) doesn't fit the Outback's remit at all. With a core market following in wild parts of Australia, America and Asia, it has to be pretty capable in the rough - or at least pretty capable for something that remains a conventional estate car. In this fourth generation guise, it continued to be. The Outback's based almost entirely on Subaru's Legacy Tourer estate, though it offers a tougher look and extra ground clearance, both key ingredients for the emerging market niche of capable all-wheel drive estates lately popularised by cars like Audi's allroad models and Volvo's XC70. It was in response to competition of this sort that Subaru launched the original version of this fourth generation Outback model in 2010, making it bigger and more capable than before. It wasn't enough, partly because the automatic gearbox most buyers wanted couldn't be matched with the diesel power most of them needed. Hence the need for this car, the smarter, more efficient and much improved MK4 model which kept this model range competitive between the Autumn of 2013 and the arrival of the all-new fifth generation design in April 2015.
What You Get
The links between this Outback and the Legacy Tourer model it's based upon are obvious to any casual observer also familiar with Subaru's model line. Where the Outback goes its own way is with the metallic boarders for the larger round fog lights and the chunky skid plate that provides chin protection. Extended wheelarches and further body-coloured protection along the sills also emphasise the car's off-road credentials, as does its higher 200mm ground clearance. If your memory of Outback models goes back some way but you're not familiar with this MK4 model, then you might be surprised to find it a little bigger than expected. The fourth generation version took a step up in size from its predecessor as Subaru chased after buyers who might be considering cars like Volvo's XC70 or even maybe Audi's much pricier A6 allroad. That's something you particularly notice when taking a seat in the back. Here, there's reasonably comfortable room for three, assuming you're not using the centre folding armrest with its integral cupholders. The roominess is thanks in part to the way that the backs of the front seats have a concave shape to allow for extra knee room. It'll also help that the rear bench can, if required, be reclined by up to 20-degrees. To properly compete with prestige rivals, a far more upmarket cabin was necessary and though the original MK4 model offered a step forward in that respect, it still looked a little plasticky alongside the best of the competition. Hence the effort put into the revised version, which got smart carbon-effect accents on the doors, metallic accents for the centre console and the dashboard and a more ergonomic steering wheel design. There are classier instrument dials too, separated by a neat 3.5-inch colour liquid crystal display. Expect to find 526-litres of space with all the seats in place and 1677-litres when you flip the 60:40 split-folding rear bench down. The SX trim that all original buyers had to have comes with 17-inch gunmetal-coloured alloy wheels, silver roof rails, power-folding heated mirrors, a roof spoiler, UV-protected glass, a power-sliding glass sunroof, self-levelling automatic HID headlamps with washers, rain-sensing wipers and front foglamps. Inside, you get dual-zone automatic air conditioning, a six-speaker stereo system with USB and aux-in compatibility, Bluetooth 'phone compatibility, a trip computer, a VGA centre display with rear parking camera, heated sports seats with power adjustment for the driver and a leather-trimmed multi-function steering wheel from which you can operate cruise control. Original buyers only really had two extra cost options: leather trim and satellite navigation.
What You Pay
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What to Look For
The Outback's mechanicals continued from the previous generation car, Subaru tuning the suspension slightly and ditching the thirsty and unpopular petrol models. The advantage of that is that all of the teething issues which tend to affect a clean-sheet design were already well taken care of. Look for signs of overzealous off-road action, which usually means hedge scrapes in the paintwork, chewed alloy wheels, dented exhaust boxes and possibly misaligned suspension. Paintwork durability is good, finish quality sometimes less so. The interiors have proven hardwearing, although the dashboard mouldings can creak and rattle and the metal-finish plastics can look tired, especially around the centre console. Seat trims are hard wearing.
(approx based on a 2014 Outback 2.0 diesel) Spare parts are priced a degree or three above what you'd expect to fork out for Vauxhall or Ford bits but Subaru counters that you'll need to buy them less often. A replacement headlamp unit will cost in the region of £295, whilst an exhaust is around £400. Tyres are around £95 a piece.
On the Road
Vehicles like this aren't bought to tackle the Rubicon trail but to deal with muddy cart tracks and slippery backroads, with or without heavy trailers in-tow. All of which is well within the Outback's remit thanks to its Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system. This usually splits power 50:50 between front and rear axles in manual models - or 60:40 if you've gone for the Lineartronic CVT automatic version. But it's also intelligent enough not simply to leave it at that, instead cleverly shunting power around to the wheel that can best use it in any given slushy situation. In short, it's better off the tarmac than a car of this kind has any right to be. Which wouldn't be much good were this Subaru to be a poor companion on road where of course, it'll spend nearly all of its time. Fortunately, it isn't. There are still sharper drivers' cars in this class but changes to the front and rear suspension have certainly given this Outback a stiffer, more controlled, more engaging ride in a car that now offers a little more driver feedback over twistier roads. Here, you really get the benefit of the low centre of gravity offered by the deep placement of the Boxer engine up-front. Under the bonnet, well this wouldn't be a Subaru without a so-called 'boxer' powerplant plumbed-in up-front, the name designating a unique engine layout that sees the banks of cylinders punching out at each other like pugilists. It's supposed to be a better balanced and thus smoother configuration but what you'll probably notice most is the distinctive - and rather endearing - thrum that's even common to this diesel version, a unit that takes you to 62mph from rest in 9.7s on the way to 120mph. Diesel was the only choice for buyers of this 2013-2015 revised MK4 Outback model - a 150PS 2.0-litre unit. Original purchasers could though, pay extra to match it to automatic transmission, which at last for Subaru created the diesel power/auto gearbox combination that most buyers in this segment now want. That gearbox is Subaru's well respected Lineartronic CVT unit, designed to work in tandem with the power band characteristics of the diesel engine. And you can give it a particularly good workout by switching into 7-speed manual mode and using the paddle shifters provided behind the steering wheel. You might expect the Lineartronic option to be better suited to Outback buyers likely to be mainly limiting themselves to the tarmac. In fact, you'd be wrong in that, for this transmission has actually been optimised to be as at home on Snowdon as it is in Surbiton thanks to an active torque-split system that applies power to the road through all four wheels. In our experience, it's just as effective in the mud as the manual gearbox set-up, which channels the Symmetrical All-Wheel drive through a centre differential then coupled to a limited slip differential. But whichever gearbox you favour, off the beaten track, you'll find that useful approach and departure angles of 18.6 and 23-degrees will certainly help. Having said all of this, we don't want you to get us wrong: this is no rock crawler. For a start, there's no low range gearbox for that kind of thing. But for simply dealing with field tracks, towing or getting somewhere icy or muddy, this Subaru will suit many owners perfectly.
The Subaru Outback is a bit of an acquired taste. At first, you'll find yourself wondering whether it falls between two stools: not rugged enough to be a proper 4x4 and a bit too gnarly to make a decently refined estate car. The longer you spend with it though, the more you'll like it, this model quickly becoming that no-nonsense one car solution you may have long been looking for. That's because the thing with the Outback is that it's better than it lets on. It'll go places you wouldn't expect, yet it's comfortable in day-to-day use too. Plus it's mechanically bombproof. All of that makes it a great used buy. Don't expect it to turn heads, but over time, it may turn yours.