Subaru Outback on test: tackle every crossing
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Subaru Outback X
- Improved low-speed performance
- Great off-tarmac
- Slick new interior
- Hard to pick from previous model
- Four-pot engine can run out of puff
- No higher-performance option... yet
The Subaru Outback is a car that doesn’t seem to change much. But on the 25th anniversary of its launch in New Zealand, let’s not forget it’s also a car that changed everything.
SUV semantics are almost irrelevant in 2021 because the genre is utterly mainstream. But back in 1995, Subaru established a whole new genre of “crossover” with the original Outback. Why crossover? Because it blended a traditional Legacy station wagon with the high ride height and styling detail of an off-roader. Being a Subaru, it was already AWD of course.
The other really influential new-generation SUVs were the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V of the same era. But they were and are a little different, because although they had road-car platforms they were not directly derived from passenger cars. They looked like 4x4s.
The RAV4/CR-V (and later, Subaru Forester of course) style of SUV has become the dominant one, but crossovers like the Outback have still been popular for two decades. Volvo followed Subaru very closely, there’s Audi, Skoda, Volkswagen… the list goes on.
In fact, in a world now overflowing with SUVs, the Outback’s wagon status might have become a point of difference.
“We think it’s the best of both worlds,” says Subaru NZ managing director Wallis Dumper. “It’s as capable as an SUV, but on top of that it’s a really good wagon; that’s what seems to appeal to loyal customers.”
Outback has been a star performer for Subaru in NZ. It’s currently part of an almost perfectly balanced portfolio with XV and Forester, but back when the previous model was launched in 2015 it rocketed up to half of Subaru NZ’s sales. Dumper reckons the new sixth-generation model can do that again – providing the company can get enough cars in the current Covid-affected global environment.
The impression of familiarity isn’t helped by the fact that this new model was launched in the US back in 2019, although our version has more angular wheel-arch cladding and a different grille.
Outputs of the 2.5-litre powerplant are mildly increased (power and torque up seven and 4.2 per cent respectively), but 90 per cent of it has been changed. There’s also a broader range of ratios from the continuously variable transmission, which offers an eight-step mode in every version. Towing capacity is also up 200kg to a useful 2000kg.
There are three Outbacks to choose from: the entry version (just called “Outback”), the X specification (pictured in green) introduced in the previous generation and a flagship Touring model (that's the dark blue one). All have the same powertrain, with Subaru’s latest dual-setting X-Mode.
Even the $50k entry model is quite lavish, with new-gen EyeSight (now with Lane Centering and Speed Sign Recognition), self-levelling LED headlights and 10-way power driver’s seat.
The $55k X adds extra parking cameras, power tailgate with badge sensor (use your elbow!), heated front and rear seats, special badging/exterior details and this model’s USP: water-resistant upholstery.
The $57.5k Touring gets Nappa leather, upgraded audio and a more blingy trim package.
Subaru has always argued that the Outback has a lot more off-tarmac cred than your average SUV. And so it proved on our media drive along the 65km Nevis Road in Central Otago. It’s unpaved, unsuitable for 2WD vehicles (there’s a warning sign at the entrance) and traverses the highest point of any public road in NZ: Duffer’s Saddle, 1.275m above sea level.
But getting there from Queenstown also showcased the Outback’s sophisticated on-road demeanour. The new transmission plays better to the boxer engine’s strengths, with improved low-speed power delivery and a more relaxed gait at 100km/h. Ride comfort has always been a strength and the new one is no less luxurious feeling.
This seems like a good point to talk about what really is a big change for Outback: the interior. Cabin design has often been a weak point for Subaru, but this one is genuinely impressive. There are soft-touch materials everywhere, the new seats are great and the dashboard is dominated by a new 11.6in portrait touch-screen.
The screen is bigger than that in Volvos but smaller than the Tesla Model S/X. Just right then? It’s nicely set up and while some of the switchgear functions have been moved into the virtual world (including X-Mode), physical buttons remain for the most-used functions. The big screen is especially good when you let the sat-nav take over the whole thing.
Oh yes, we had places to go. Subarus are still a bit special when you get onto the loose stuff. The Outback’s combination of accurate steering, compliant suspension and great chassis balance makes it a joy on deep gravel. Even the CVT seems to have the knack of modulating the power nicely when you’re in the right X-Mode setting.
Those overhangs mean the Outback is never going to be a hard-core off-roader, but 213mm ground clearance and a truly capable AWD system mean it’ll go over terrain that most owners would probably never dream of tackling.
One car did get grounded and another momentarily drowned on our Nevis trek; the former was due to changing conditions from a previous day and the latter more down to bad luck than anything. The fact that either was attempted is probably a compliment to the Outback’s confidence-inspiring all-round capabilities.
You could argue the sixth-gen Outback doesn’t move the goalposts a whole lot. You could also argue it didn’t really need to. It’s just really good at this game… because Subaru pretty much invented it.
It might have occurred to you that the powered-up boxer-six engine has not returned in the new model. But help is at hand. The grunty 193kW/360Nm boxer-four turbo offered in the US is definitely coming to the Kiwi Outback; perhaps this year.
ENGINE: 2.5-litre horizontally-opposed four
GEARBOX: Continuously variable transmission (Lineartronic) with eight-step mode, AWD