ROAD TEST: New Subaru Outback: Old Dog, New Tricks?
One of our favourite, trusted road tripping steeds – the loveable labrador that is Subaru's Outback – has had a (now fifth generation would you believe?!) makeover.
Yes, the flagship of the Subaru range (until the Levorg launches later this year?) and the car that launched the crossover genre in 1995 with its go-anywhere, all-wheel drive estate format has been re-vamped, re-worked, re-enregised and modernised into this new format, some two decades on from its launch, with Crocodile Dundee down under in Australia, where it remains a massive hit.
The new Outback is now loaded with new technology, a fresh infotainment set-up, better fuel economy, lower emissions, revised suspension and is also claimed to be safer, more upmarket and better finished than ever.
It appears the original "farmer's choice" has come a long way, and whilst it still might (unfairly) be a rare sight on UK roads (outside of rural Wales & Scotland, where as soon as you park one up another appears, as we found road tripping in Wales), maybe that's about to change?
"Built for the road less travelled, our brand new Outback really is a crossover for all seasons" says Subaru and as aforementioned, the new car is also loaded with new technology helping it to "set the standard for world-class safety."
Among a raft of new technology is Subaru’s 'EyeSight driver assist system' – acting as a second pair of eyes for the driver to help avoid collisions.
And the Outback now boasts active cruise control, with lane departure and collision warning systems – to go with its incredibly high, very typically Subaru generous modern specification.
But Subaru says the Outback hasn’t forgotten its rugged, practical roots and as such still boasts Subaru's famously limpet-like Symmetrical All-wheel drive and a choice of peppy 2.5-litre petrol with 175bhp & 235Nm torque or the more economical, torquey and popular 2.0-litre diesel Boxer Engines with 150bhp and very useful 350Nm – now also capable of being matched to the super-smooth 7-speed Lineartronic automatic gearbox, sure to be a popular move. Although the chunky, strong six-speed manual (the purist's choice, as it's a proper centre diff and rear LSD conventional mechanical AWD set-up, not electronically enhanced) is also available for cog shifting fans like us, or those who require more off-road control and ability.
In addition, there's also now hill decent and X-mode (off-road) functions, available at the flick of a switch – giving further credential weight to the Outback's already class-leading rough track, muddy field, moorland crossing abilities, still coming with its hallmark; the large 200mm ground clearance.
And, with smarter exterior styling and plusher interior luxury, not to mention better exchange rates against the Yen making the car's asking price of £27,995 to range-topping £31,495 seem affordable, the rugged, good value and practical Outback range has never looked so appealing... on paper.
The last time we tested the Outback (4th Gen), we took one to the Alps and back on Winter tyres, in deep snow. And it was incredible – secure on all surfaces, comfortable over the 1,500 miles, economical, smooth, practical, spacious, refined and extremely lovable. I would have gladly bought one after that trek.
And we're chuffed to report the new 5th Gen car still has all that "Outbackness" and core Subaru flagship DNA.
Plus, it now looks more attractive (never its strongest suit) – which should now be just enough to make Audi A4 Allroad, Skoda Scout and Volvo XC drivers think twice about whether they want to splash more cash for badge snobbery, or arguably greater aesthetic charm. Or should they be more original, save money, suffer the longer trek to the nearest dealership and try an Outback – with its longer five-year, 1000,000 mile warranty and excellent reliability and low service costs?
Tempting them new buyers in, there's a new grille, the essential-these-days LED headlamps (and rears), a steeper rake to windscreen, re-positiuoned A-pillar, new body cladding, smoother back end and generally speaker lines – all of which works from all angle, but especially the side profile...
Like Subaru's recently re-vamped XV we also tested this month, the Outback also now has revised spring and damper rates – which act to further improve its already excellent ride quality and handling ability, as does the ATV (Active Torque Vectoring) system – imperceptibly braking the inside wheels during cornering, to channel more torque to the outside wheels, making full use Subaru's tried and tested symmetrical all-wheel drive system. Good solid Subaru stuff: And this is still – in my view – the Outback's trump card; superior all-weather handling making for a brilliant, rich drive, on and off-road.
On the right sweeping A-road (without too many tight turns slowing the big bulk down) and lots of rise and fall to enjoy making the most of riding that wave of torque from the Boxer diesel engine, the huge Outback defies its massive size and weight.
It's well capable of demolishing cars with more power and a sportier pedigree... especially if it's wet, muddy or challenging under foot. And this is even more noticeable off road, where the Outback would leave most of its rivals for dead.
Although I must say, I felt the brakes had lost some of their previously superb pedal feel, even if they are still effective. But such a decline in feeling would worry me – especially if I was towing the impressive maximum 1,800-2,000Kg load behind it.
Still, brakes aside, you can fly along perfectly happily in an Outback, with five passengers all in total comfort and with the enormous boot full of luggage, dogs, bikes, or whatever you like. The Outback is still truly an enormously practical, swift load lugger, whatever the weather.
It's also quieter out on the road too, thanks to a more refined engine set-up and better sound deadening – all of which will sit nicely for new buyers with the all-new touch screen Infotainment system, which offers everything you could possibly want and a lot more besides (except a DAB radio on our test model, bewilderingly), including eco monitor, apps, maps, information, service schedules... the lot. It's nicely put together, and what buyers are calling for, so the manufacturers tell us!
The 7.0" Subaru Starlink infotainment system is a simple to use and accurate built-in navigation system, with a superb reversing camera, twin USB ports and aux jack, a working Bluetooth arrangement and a highly irritating (and therefore instantly useless) voice command affair.
Additionally, on the dash itself is a useful eco monitor and driver configurable data display – 3.5-inch full-colour LCD Display with Electro-luminescent gauges as standard, or 5-inch full-colour LCD screen including Eyesight display with Electro-luminescent gauges, which our test 2.0D SE Lineatronic model had, along with the very effective active cruise control system, all of which is expertly steering-wheel button controlled.
And all the data stuff and Infotainment looks very smart, and is sure to impress a new breed of buyers to the new Subaru brand; but, not a Luddite die-hard Subaru purist like me, I'm sorry to report.
I hated it... not the displays per say (although the main screen reflects light and shows up finger marks all too easily), but the systems attached to it – like anti-collision and lane departure, both of which (like the traction control) require turning off with a long press of a button by the door, every single time you start the engine. Argh!
Now, maybe it's the way I drive (well and safe, but fast and some might say with more than an element of self preservation for myself and my family so I'm told), but the fact both of these emergency systems – along with their loud, irritating warning lights and incessant beeping – had kicked in within one mile of me first testing this car says something.
Either I truly am a dreadful, unsafe driver... or these systems need a bit of lenience programming into them, for people who use the whole road when driving and occasionally cross a white line or two without indication... when it's legal, safer, faster or more economical to do so.
At the risk of sounding as old fashioned as I can be, these darn newfangled 'safety' systems drove me to (unsafe) distraction – as did the fact I could only sit back and enjoy the comfort, ease, richness and simplicity of the superb Outback driving experience by first turning them off, and ignoring the OTT ("cheap-looking and gordy" as my BMW-driving dad put it) Infotainment system! Sad.
Really, it's madness as far as I can see – enough (for me anyway) to almost ruin the ownership experience of what is a very well conceived and further improved in Gen 5 form, standard setting vehicle.
Sadly, this unnecessary over-complication and over-modernisation is also enough to put me off buying the new version, despite the fact I love the car.
I'd rather have the simpler, less irritating and more old school Subaru pleasing Gen 4 Outback we drove to the alps a two years ago, and they are great value for money now too.
It's a shame... but it looks like Subaru can teach a (much-loved) old dog the new (tech) tricks... I'm just not a fan of them!