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First drive: Outback ace for space, value

Give me Liberty: Subaru's MY04 Outback remains true to its cross-over roots, being based on the Liberty wagon.

Subaru's new Outback is a bigger car with better handling

6 Oct 2003

THE new Outback is the third generation of the Outback series, a vehicle that Subaru claims, with some justification, was the world’s first cross-over 4WD car-based wagon.

At this stage, Subaru Australia has only shown the media the 2.5-litre MY04 (stands for Model Year 2004) Outback in its latest Liberty-based guise.

The more upmarket 3.0-litre six-cylinder Outback gets its first airing at the Sydney motor show (mid-October).

The 2.5 is on-sale now, while the 3.0 will not be seen in dealerships until the end of the month.

As before, the Outback is based on the Liberty wagon. Apart from raised suspension, which allows 200mm ground clearance (55mm more than Liberty wagons), the Outback is basically a Liberty bodykit.

It gets an exclusive bonnet and grille, its own front and rear bumpers, the signature large-diameter foglights, roof spoiler and roof rails, an over-fender enlarging the wheel arches and side cladding along the base of the doors.

Basically, the new Outback is a bigger car with better handling and more passenger space.

It is longer by 60mm, there is 20mm more cabin space and it is 25mm wider. It has a wider stance on the road from a 35mm/30mm wider track front/rear.

Overall the weight has been reduced by 60kg and the centre of gravity lowered by 22mm due to selective pruning of the sheet metal in the extremities around the bonnet and at the back, as well as an alloy rear door and bonnet.

The engine is slightly lower in the engine bay as well. But the Outback retains the 200mm ground clearance it requires for its various off-road duties.

There are two engines for the 2004 Outback (the Liberty has three): the 2.5-litre non-turbo four-cylinder engine and the newly-refined 3.0-litre six-cylinder engine.

All Subaru engines are, of course, horizontally opposed in that the cylinders lie flat. They are also known as “boxer” engines because the pistons are “boxing” backwards and forwards.

Subaru has made a modest improvement in the 2.5-litre engine performance mainly from making the fuel enter the engine more freely and from tuning the engine exhaust.

The newly tuned exhaust system has four equal length exhausts flowing into two equal length pipes and then one pipe. By keeping the pipes equal length, the exhaust gas flows more freely and that helps the engine to respond faster.

This design comes from the rally program and has, in fact, changed the pulsating boxer engine sound in the Outback (and Liberty) to something suggesting the rally car sound, although obviously not as loud.

The effect is to make the engine more powerful and increase its important twisting power (torque) although we stress these improvements, while creditable, are only marginal.

Subaru claims economy improvements as well with the 2.5-litre Outback returning a combined fuel figure of 9.1 l/100km. That should be set against a number of other medium sized all-wheel drive wagons which consume considerably more.

The important change is to the 3.0-litre six-cylinder engine (launch mid-October).

This engine, only for Outback at this stage, now has variable valves. This means you can get the best performance from an engine “on-the-fly” because the valves are constantly adjusting to suit the engine speed.

Without this, engineers have to choose valve settings that are one-size-fits-all. That is a bit of a compromise so you don’t get the best out of the engine at different engine speeds.

Nevertheless, the engine is significantly more powerful at all engine speeds and that the torque or twisting power is not only higher across the whole rev range, it hangs in for longer at higher revs.

Surprisingly, Subaru’s work on this six-cylinder engine, and its new single-turbo four- cylinder 2.0-litre engine used in the Liberty GT, has produced two very similar results. Indeed, Outback buyers can see that their 3.0-litre six will have the same power output as the Liberty GT at similar engine speeds.

The big difference is in torque where the twisting power in the 2.0-litre turbo engine, while not that much greater, comes in so much earlier than in the six-cylinder engine.

That translates into an acceleration time from 0-100km (factory claim) of:Outback 2.5-litre SOHC: 10.9 sec
Outback 3.0-litre DOHC 6cyl 8.5 sec
Liberty GT 2.0-litre DOHC Turbo* 6.9 sec
* Not available in OutbackSo the six-cylinder for the Outback is a sensible choice where less complexity is balanced against more than adequate performance.


How the Outback engines have changed (with the Liberty GT engine included for interest):
2004 Models2003 Models
2.5-litre SOHC
Power[email protected][email protected]
Torque[email protected][email protected]
3.0-litre DOHC 6cyl
Power[email protected][email protected]
Torque[email protected][email protected]
2.0-litre DOHC Turbo*
Power[email protected][email protected]
Torque[email protected][email protected]
*Liberty GT only
The Outback retains the five-speed manual transmission with low range, which is only available with the 2.5-litre engine. The 3.0-litre engine will be four-speed automatic (with manual override) only. Low range is not available with automatic.

Until the launch of the six-cylinder versions, there are just three variants powered by the 2.5-litre engine only.

Like the Liberty, Subaru Australia has grand brand aspirations for the Outback believing that it will allow Subaru models to sell in the company of the likes of Audi, BMW and Volvo.

Subaru claims that the Outback 2.5-litre will compete with the Mazda Tribute V6 Classic, Mitsubishi Challenger V6, Nissan Pathfinder ST and the Toyota Prado four-cylinder GX.

It claims the Outback 2.5-litre Premium competes with the Jeep Grand Cherokee Loredo six-cylinder, Landrover Discovery, Nissan Pathfinder Ti and the Volvo XC70.

The Outback 3.0R is to be pitched against the Jeep Grand Cherokee Ltd, Mitsubishi Pajero GLS, Toyota Prado GXL and the VW Touareg.

And the Outback 3.0R Premium is seen by Subaru as a competitor to the Audi Allroad 2.7T, BMW X5 3.0, the Honda MDX and the Volvo XC90.

Subaru believes the new Outback will attract 500 buyers a month.

Prices have been held at the same level as equivalent 2003 model Outback manual 2.5 versions, although autos on the 2004 Outback have gone up to reflect the Sportshift manual override selection added to the four-speed automatic transmission.

Outback 2.5i manual $38,180
Outback 2.5i automatic $40,680
Outback 2.5i Luxury Pack manual $42,480Outback 2.5i Luxury Pack automatic $44,980
Outback 2.5i Premium Pack manual $43,980
Outback 2.5i Premium Pack automatic $46,480


LIKE the new 2004 Liberty, the important story is the interior package. While increased by mere tens of millimetres on paper, it adds up to a much more accommodating vehicle.

You don’t need much in the way of an increase of body dimensions to make a car feel significantly bigger and Subaru has achieved its goal of making the Outback more value for money in the package stakes.

Overall the car is also more balanced.

The increase in the track - the distance between the wheels on the same axle - effectively sets the Outback’s legs further apart and makes it much more stable in corners.

The designers have also reduced the overall weight of the vehicle. The average weight reduction of the body is 60kg although, including reductions in the weight of some engines, the total saving can be as much as the equivalent of an extra adult on board.

The key to the weight reduction is that most of the slimming is from the extremities. Alloy bonnet, alloy rear gate on the wagon and alloy bumper beams front and back. Taking the weight away from front and back like that makes the car more controllable while cornering and makes it steadier in a straight line.

The engine is also set lower in the car. So the centre of gravity is lower and all of these improvements conspire to make the Outback more precise and lively.

The opportunity to drive the Outback in 2.5-litre guise was confined to sealed roads with restrictive speed limits but it proved to be a tidy package with neat all-wheel drive handling that you expect from a full-time system.

It comes with respectable performance. Following a Liberty GT, the Outback 2.5 manual to hang in without falling too far back.

The non-boosted boxer engine goes well and inherits extra performance because there is less body weight to drag off the mark (plus those minor power/torque increases), although you still need to stir it along because it clearly lacks that incredible twisting power of the GT engine.

Revving out the 2.5-litre engine for overtaking can produce the kind of clatter you expect from Japanese non-turbo engines where the engineers focus more on horsepower than torque.

So getting engine speed is important to getting performance. But this is not an affliction confined to Subaru. All Japanese car-makers do it.

But the Outback worked easily through the gears and, while some people think the changes are notchy, it is something a novice would not pick up unless they drove a variety of cars.

The new Bosch 8 ABS brakes, which are bigger in the Outback than in the Liberty (apart from the Liberty GT where they are bigger again), are well-modulated for smooth speed reduction down into corners or in hard stopping tests.

Subaru says the brakes have been calibrated to Australian gravel road standards.

This was not something we were able to test in the Outback but the Liberty GT produced a near eye-popping gravel stopping test from 120 km/h in a dead straight line.

The accelerator is now connected to the engine computer rather than to the engine. The computer interprets what the driver wants and commands the engine to execute those desires electronically through a drive-by-wire arrangement. This is good news for learner drivers because the computer steps in and eliminates “bunny hops” from jerky use of the accelerator.

Interiors have become an important point of difference in today’s cars as the technology in various models comes closer together.

The battle, as cars go upmarket, is going to be increasingly fought over auto furnishings yet the Outback/Liberty range not only seemed behind cars like the new Honda Accord Euro, there was little discernible difference in the furnishing between various models as well.

So the Outback has nice fit and finish but there did not seem to be much effort made to drum up better real differentiation in the interior of the higher-priced versions. For a start you can have any colour - as long as it’s blackThe Outback 3.0-litre will, however, get a beige interior.

This level of Liberty gets the standard instrument cluster of silver rings and red needles which, while easy to read, are a bit bland for cars with premium car market aspirations.


Outback 2.5i features include:Safety
 ABS anti-lock brakes with four-wheel discs and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD)
 Child seat anchor points
 Dual front airbags
 Front seatbelts with pretensioners and load limiters
 Rear door child lock
 Seatbelt indicator lights – all seats
 Side intrusion bars
 Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive
 Three-point A/ELR rear centre seatbeltInterior
 Adjustable steering column
 Air-conditioning – climate control
 AM/FM radio/CD
 Six-speaker stereo
 Cargo area light
 Cargo security blind
 Cloth trim
 Cruise Control
 Height adjustable driver’s seat
 Leather steering wheel, gear shift, park brake handle
 Immobiliser security system
 Intermittent windscreen wiper control
 Map lights (2)
 Multi-function trip computer
 Power steering, mirrors and windows
 Two remote central locking keys
 Remote fuel lid release
 Seatback storage nets
 Sportshift (manual override) on automatic
 Sports seats
 Vanity mirror
 60/40 split/fold rear seat Exterior
 16-inch alloy wheels – full-size alloy spare
 Colour-coded mirrors and door handles
 Dual exhaust
 Unique Outback grille
 Headlights auto off
 Rear roof spoiler
 Rear wiper
 Other features
 Auto tailgate release on key
 DataDot security technology
 Dual range - manual only
 Electronic throttle control
 Three-year unlimited kilometre warrantyIn addition to Outback 2.5i specification, Outback 2.5i Luxury Pack adds:
 Self-levelling rear suspension
 Cassette player
 Eight-way adjustable power driver’s seat
 Leather trim
 Sunroof - dualIn addition to Outback 2.5i specification, Outback 2.5i Premium Pack adds:
 Curtain airbags – full length
 Dual front side airbags
 Eight-way adjustable power driver’s seat
 Self-levelling rear suspension
 Sunroof - dual
 Leather trim

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