The Subaru Outback could make a case for being the most PetrolBloggy all-wheel drive estate car of all time. And we’re not talking about performance-led all-wheel drive wagons here, more the go-anywhere, throw anything at it kind of estate car. And this week, PetrolBlog went to the Cotswolds to review the new 2014 Subaru Outback, complete with a diesel engine and a CVT transmission.
Hang on, what? A Subaru Outback with a diesel engine and a Continuously Variable Transmission? Surely an Outback – or Legacy Outback as it was formerly known – should, at the bare minimum, have a ‘Boxer’ petrol engine? And ideally, a manual gearbox? Certainly not a torturous CVT ‘box…
Times change. Today’s Subaru Outback – now a standalone model in its own right – has the potential to offer fuel economy figures in the mid 40s. The 2.0-litre ‘Boxer’ diesel may not be the last word in efficiency, but it means the Outback can hold it own in a sector where the Volvo XC70 offers around 60mpg and the Passat Alltrack around 50.
Speak to anyone who has owned a Subaru Legacy or Legacy Outback and they’ll regale you with stories of absolute reliability, strong performance and – in the case of the Outback – true go-anywhere spirit. But ask them about running costs and, after a sharp intake of breath, they’ll mutter something about thirst and expensive parts. The 2.0-litre diesel can at least solve one of these issues.
PetrolBlog Country is littered with Legacies in various states of disrepair. Many are the ‘classic’ two-tone Outbacks, often complete with numerous dents, invariably picked up following an encounter with a gate post. Or a stone wall. Or a bull.
The Subaru Outback isn’t so much ‘loved’ by its owners, more relied upon to offer complete dependability. No matter what is chucked at it, no matter what the weather is doing, the Outback will keep on going.
Which causes a problem for Subaru UK. Owners see no need to sell their Outbacks, so they keep them until they’re either physically or mentally unable to drive. At which point they simply pass them on to their children. Bulletproof reliability is all well and good for us. But for Subaru it must be a royal pain in the wet grass.
The new model – the 2014 Outback 2.0D SX Lineartronic – is, according to Subaru, the world’s first diesel engined car with a CVT ‘box. Which is fine, but the real story is that this particularl CVT isn’t rubbish. In fact, it’s actually quite good.
It’s as though the diesel engine and transmission were meant to be together, with the pair harmoniously working in partnership. Push the Outback too far beyond its comfort zone and it soon becomes the whining horror story we’ve come to expect from CVTs, but more often than not, it’s actually very good. The stepped changes are smooth and there’s a sense that the transmission is working with you, as opposed to being hellbent on making your life a misery.
If Subaru want to claim a world first, why not take the ‘world’s first CVT ‘box that isn’t rubbish’ award?
Should the mood take you, it’s possible to switch over to manual mode and make use of the seven gears by using the paddle shifters mounted behind the steering wheel. This mode will inevitably come in handy when more control over the Outback’s pace is required, but for the most time you’ll be content using the CVT. ‘Content using the CVT’ – a sentence you never thought you’d read on PetrolBlog.
The Outback remains a very good car to drive, even more so after some tweaks made to the 2014 model. The front suspension has been stiffened, the dampers and springs improved and the double-wishbone rear suspension treated to new bushes. On a combination of wet Cotswolds roads and wet Cotswolds fields, the Outback felt sure-footed, surprisingly planted and genuinely good fun to chuck about. The steering is sharp and direct, and the turn-in is good. It’s more communicative than you’d think, with only a small amount of body roll and a slightly firm ride blotting an otherwise impressive copybook.
Other niggles? Well the diesel lump isn’t the last word in refinement, with a fair amount of clatter at idle and once at speed. Road and wind noise are at levels you’d expect from a 20mm jacked-up all-wheel drive estate car, running on 17-inch alloys wrapped in Mud&Snow rubber. It’s never going to be the most relaxing and cosseting of vehicles on a long trip, but at least you can take advantage of a revised interior that now offers quality on a par with its European rivals.
Actually, that’s not quite right, as although Subaru has improved the Outback’s interior, it still feels about a decade out-of-date compared with its Swedish or German competitors. Overall the plastics feel too cheap, but it’s the little things that really let it down. Like the flimsy sunroof cover and the small piece of felt covering the base of the central storage bin, which itself boasts an inadequate lid. Then there’s the comically small 3.5-inch display, which feels like a Nokia 1100 in world obsessed with smartphones.
But then Subaru does claim that the Outback’s cabin offers enough storage space for 53 CDs – 31 in the glovebox and 22 in the centre console. Which perhaps tells you all you need to know about the Outback’s priorities and its key target market. Now That’s What I Call Slightly Dated, Vol. 2014.
In fairness to Subaru, the interior has been improved. There’s far less shiny silver plastic and the electronic handbrake has, sensibly, been moved to the centre console. The dashboard layout is simpler, the dials are clearer and the steering wheel is quite delightful. The same can’t be said of the fake carbonfibre trim. It’s not that it’s necessarily bad, it’s just that it feels so out of place in a rural wagon.
We’ll cut the Subaru Outback some slack by saying the interior does have a robust feel to it. It’ll probably age like a country cottage – a little rough around the edges, but ultimately built to last. And besides, once the seats are wrapped in heavy duty covers and the dashboard is covered in an inch of mud, it won’t really matter.
Nor will the cosmetic enhancements, which are already slightly hard to spot. The fog lights are bigger, the formerly black plastic cladding is now body-coloured and the headlights are now gloss black-finished. Oh, and the 17-inch alloy wheels are now gunmetal grey as standard. It’s a handsome machine, with a definite look of intent at the front.
A job well done then? Well yes actually. Whilst the new car may lack the charm and character of the original (how often do we say that?), it had to adapt to changing demands and the diesel/CVT combination should help to broaden the Outback’s appeal even further. With only 50 dealers, Subaru has to work hard to grab a share of the market, but the Japanese firm is promising to add a further 20 dealers to the network in 2014.
The Subaru Outback remains a delightfully niche vehicle in an increasingly mainstream and ‘me too’ world. It’s a car that relies on no-nonsense practicality and ability as opposed to marketing-led spin and needless bling. At £31,495, the Outback 2.0D SX Lineartronic isn’t cheap, but it’s so well equipped and offers the potential for such unflinching reliability, that it could be the best £30k you’ve ever spent.
And yes, this is PetrolBlog recommending a diesel-engined estate car with a CVT ‘box. It must be something to do with the country air.