SUV TACKLES ISSUES SOME DRIVERS HAVE HAD WITH SUBARUS, WRITES DAVID LINKLATER
Subaru New Zealand is really adamant that its fifth-generation Outback is a proper SUV: exclusively all-wheel drive, 213mm ground clearance and a pushbutton X-Mode that automatically configures the powertrain for off-tarmac driving, including a hill descent control function.
But if we had to vote one model in the range as least likely to leave the beaten path, it would have to be the flagship $59,990 Outback 3.6R Premium. It’s not that it’s any less capable in the rough — it’s just that the 3.6R seems to be more after the executive dollar than muddy adventure.
Through subtle use of chrome and colour, the 3.6R has a much more upmarket appearance than the four-cylinder models, especially in the black exterior finish of our test car. More equipment, too.
The 3.6R does of course also have that big six-cylinder boxer engine, with a specific version of Subaru’s SI-Drive (Subaru Intelligent Drive) system that’s tailored specifically towards on-road enjoyment. It’s not an absolute powerhouse by any means, but power is healthy at 191kW and the 350Nm torque is matched only by the 2-litre turbo-diesel Outback.
In truth, the boxer-six engine is probably the least changed powerplant in the fifth-generation Outback lineup, but the driving experience is still dramatically different from the previous model. That’s down to a change in gearbox technology, from the slightly disappointing five-speed automatic in the previous generation to slightly worrying Subaru Lineartronic Transmission (SLT) technology for this new one. Already used by the four-cylinder models, SLT is Subaru’s version of continuously variable transmission. It might seem like an odd choice for a pseudo luxury vehicle, save a few salient facts: it’s substantially more refined than the old five-speeder, SLT is the way Subaru is going with almost every two-pedal model (including the high-performance WRX) and, in fact, the company has this technology pretty much nailed.
SLT is arguably the best such system currently available. Electronic control stops the random revving that you sometimes get with CVTs and although it’s still not the most engaging gearbox technology in the automotive universe (excuse the pun), the 3.6R does allow you to modify the SLT’s behaviour in a couple of different ways.
Most obvious is the manual mode, which gives you the illusion of six ratios to shift through. It’s okay, but not entirely convincing — you still feel the slip of SLT even when the gearbox is locked into one of those steps.
Better to embrace the gearbox for what it is and make use of the SI-Drive function, which lets you choose between three different powertrain modes.
Three-mode SI-Drive is unique to the 3.6R: there’s Intelligent (read economy) and Sport, but also a Sport Sharp setting which livens things up even more.
SI-Drive is worth experimenting with, because it succeeds in giving the powertrain more character. In the two Sport modes the SLT responds to rapid accelerator movement (on or off) and aggressive cornering, adjusting its calibration accordingly.
So yes, the Outback 3.6 does retain the driver enjoyment you expect from a Subaru. The powertrain can be made to play and the chassis is nicely balanced through the corners. Whether the extra performance of the boxer-six engine is worth having over the $49,990 2.5i Premium model is a moot point: it’s brisk, but you pay at the fuel pump. The overall economy figure of 9.9 litres per 100km is well up on the 7.3 litres of the petrol-four.
It’s also fairly optimistic if you’re doing a lot of urban driving in this machine: take the 3.6R into town and it does like a drink.
Power players need their little luxuries too, of course. It would be wrong to say the 3.6R adds a wealth of equipment over the four-cylinder Outback models. The 2.5i Premium already has leather upholstery, powered/heated front seats with driver’s memory, wiper de-icer, satellite navigation, LED headlights and power tailgate.
With the 3.6R, Subaru is relying more on the buyer appreciating some extra attention to detail. It has a unique instrument panel, for example. And the audio has also been upgraded to a Harman Kardon 12-speaker system.
Dowdy cabin styling has long been an issue with Subaru. The company is getting there, albeit very slowly, with gradual improvements in each new model that comes along. So no, the Outback won’t wow you with its interior ambience; it’s thoroughly conventional in every respect, but it is neat, tidy and well-made. The touch-screen information and entertainment system looks a bit aftermarket but is responsive and ticks all the boxes, with easily accessible sat-nav, audio and Bluetooth functions.
The EyeSight active safety system is still a good reason to buy any Outback. Introduced on the last-generation model, it uses stereo cameras (you can see them in the windscreen) to read the road ahead and provide driver-assistance features such as adaptive cruise control, lane departure warning, lead vehicle departure alert, pre-collision throttle control and pre-collision braking. It’s a brilliant system that works seamlessly and is unperturbed by bad weather, because the cameras are behind glass and mounted high.