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Car reviews - Subaru - Outback - 5-dr wagon range

Our Opinion

We like
Dynamics, space, refinement, ride, practicality, safety, stability, ease of operation, CVT’s economy and responsiveness, 3.6R’s smoothness and speed
Room for improvement
Styling too similar between models, lower models’ plasticky cabin presentation, dowdy exterior styling, lack of old car’s premium feel, no Outback 2.5i GT variant (why? – when there’s a Forester XT!)

9 Sep 2009

THE Outback has always made sense in Australia, and not just because it has the sort of badge that would send Baz Lurhmann cock-a-hoop with a camera and a bewildered cast of thousands.

Stylish and practical enough for the inner city suburbs yet demonstrating enough SUV traits to be quite capable off the beaten track, this is the Subaru that most closely combines the brand’s image and reality – a quality family car that offers that little bit extra.

The previous, third-generation model – based on the Mk4 Liberty – even managed to edge up into Volvo XC70 and Audi Allroad quattro territory, thanks to a rather expertly executed exterior of handsome proportions. And the interior – especially on the sweet and powerful 3.0R Premium – carried off the premium look and feel, but without the prestige pricing.

A fine crossover, then, and one of the true originals, having been a Subaru mainstay since 1996.

Now there is the Mk4 Outback, sibling to the long-lived Liberty series once again.

Like the latter, the latest version is obviously a larger, wider and roomier car, growing to the point where a Commodore Sportwagon owner might consider it for all the extra room and practicality that it offers.

Seat comfort is exemplary, aided by inviting front seats and a rear bench that has no problem accommodating even larger adults. And of course, the cargo area is larger than ever, so the Outback can deliver on the lifestyle potential that its carefully nurtured image so clearly promises.

But we are not fans of the styling, since the latest models – while still recognisably Subaru – have lost the crisp look of the old ones. As with the newest Mazda6 and Honda Accord Euro, the Outback’s design seems to have digressed as the dimensions progressed. Yet it feels solid and looks imposing in an in-your-face sort of way.

Yet the opposite is true inside, because while we generally like the appearance of the neatly presented and ultra functional dashboard and surrounds, they feel and sound cheap.

Lower-line models – that is, ones without leather upholstery and monochromatic trim – suffer the indignity of sheeny seat fabric and far-too much shiny plastic material.

Once upon a time an Audi A4 buyer might consider going down the more sensible (and rewarding) Subaru Liberty/Outback route, but now this car as it stands before us is firmly entrenched as a competitor to the aforementioned Japanese rivals as well as that icon of normality, the Camry.

Well, like the Toyota, at least the Outback will keep on going, never letting its owners down, and reward cultured and cultivated driving techniques with excellent economy.

Yet the Outback begins to pull away from the mainstream midsized maelstrom with an expertly realised chassis tune that provides responsive steering, stable and secure handling, brilliant roadholding and strong levels of body control when pushed, but otherwise performs completely benignly at all other times.

In quite inclement weather on wintry country roads in middle Victoria, the Subaru crossover crossed over from its role as a family wagon to a strident and quite sporty tourer with aplomb.

We only managed to drive the 2.5i in six-speed manual guise, and while the lighter shifter is a welcome change to previous notchy Subaru gearboxes, we felt that some fine-tuning is needed to reduce the abrupt clutch release that had us stalling it once or twice.

But this four-cylinder boxer unit pulls strongly, revs in a fairly smooth and muted way (for this sort of engine), and managed to haul four adults with luggage without hesitation or effort.

The opportunity to drive the Outback 2.5i with the Lineartronic CVT gearbox eluded us, but in the lower Liberty it impressed as a slick and responsive drivetrain that should deliver excellent fuel economy. We look forward to sampling this combination in Subaru’s crossover soon.

Meanwhile, the Outback 3.6R five-speed auto is as quiet and refined as its six-cylinder specification suggests, cruising sweetly and fairly serenely without raising a sweat. Experience with the old 3.0R suggests that this car’s performance will become even more potent with a few thousand kilometres under its big belt. And it might even be more economical too, we hope.

Other general virtues for choosing to live with an Outback include very effective brakes, and a supple ride quality that is an appealing match for the Subaru’s laid-back demeanour.

So, the good news is, despite the rather brash styling, the latest, upsized Outback remains a more appealing choice against more mundane wagons as well as many inferior compact SUVs.

Subaru’s labour in quelling unwanted noises and harshness, backed up by a very competent drivetrain, ensures that families wanting a quality weekend getaway vehicle won’t be let down.

And although we now find ourselves longing for Subaru to find its AWOL styling groove again, we acknowledge that – for most buyers in the market for this sort of car at least – the Japanese have created an ideal family car for Australia.

A bit Moulin Rouge in the styling perhaps, but still a better all-rounder nevertheless.

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