First drive: Updated Subaru Outback driven on Kiwi soil

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Words: Peter Louisson
23 Feb 2021

The most popular Subaru model with Kiwis, the Outback, arrives here totally renewed in sixth-generation guise soon with the model range kicking off at $49,990. Pick the new one by its scalloped black plastic rocker panels and wheel arch flares, along with a new grille. Plus a more windswept look.

The company says it is the biggest, safest, most luxurious and technologically advanced Outback since the first launched a quarter of a century ago. Three variants will be available, comprising the entry level Outback ($49,990), the X ($54,990), and the flagship Touring ($57,490). Naturally, each model incorporates AWD.

All models are powered by the same naturally aspirated petrol engine, a significant update of the old 2.5-litre boxer four - it’s said to be over 90 per cent new - with almost seven per cent more power and five per cent more torque (up from 129kW/235Nm to 138kW/245Nm). There’s no six cylinder this time around. Stateside, there’s an XT variant available with a turbocharged 2.4-litre with 194kW/375Nm but it’s not a starter here, yet. When quizzed about the possibility, Subaru NZ chief, Wallis Dumper, said they’re in talks with the company and a 2022 dot down date looks likely. As for a hybrid, the timing is unclear, though electrification is in the future plan.

Still, the power boost for the conventional flat four helps increase braked towing capacity to an even 2000kg, up from 1800kg. That’s thanks as much to a heavily revised transmission; its eight-step CVT (up from seven) features more than 80 per cent new or improved parts and offers increased ratio coverage at both ends. All three models get this transmission, and all come with paddle shifters to control the eight-step system. Mean fuel economy is a claimed 7.3L/100km.

For enhanced progress off of sealed roads, there’s the Dual X-Mode system that optimises throttle response for mud, snow and gravel surfaces.

On the blacktop this seems even more refined than before, the motor scarcely audible, even when you give it a tickle along which it likes for hasty overtakes. The transmission shifts rather like a conventional auto too, and while paddles are supplied they don’t come in for much use, especially if you select the Sport drive mode.

The ride of course is very polished, something you expect of an Outback, even over some of the rock-strewn sections of the Nevis we negotiated. Yes, this Subaru once again went where no other wagon dared tread; everything we passed en route was SUV, high-riding ute or trail bike. And there were some pretty serious fords to negotiate too, up around the bonnet several times; steady progress rather than a headlong rush proved the best approach here, all making it through successfully.

The Outback is bigger than ever before, with the main dimensions upsized - it is 50mm longer, some of that going into extra rear legroom, and 35mm wider, though height is unchanged. The tailgate is larger (20mm wider) and opens further for easier loading and unloading. However, luggage capacity is similar to before, up by 10L to 522L. Ground clearance is unchanged at 221mm.

Outback rides on the Subaru Global Platform which first debuted in Impreza and XV a few years ago. It is said to absorb 40 per cent more crash energy in a frontal impact than before. New bonding techniques make it even stronger. The Mac strut and multilink set-up is unchanged but hollow sway bars are new.

Safety remains a core touchstone for the Outback, which receives Subaru’s updated genIV EyeSight Driver Assist safety suite, featuring standard lane centering and lane keeping assist, lane departure warning and prevention, autonomous emergency steer, speed sign recognition with intelligent speed limiter, RCTA, blind spot monitoring and pre-collision braking (AEB). There’s also reverse automatic braking, to avoid parking dingles. And there’s driver fatigue detection too, along with driver monitoring, the system recalling settings for up to five drivers.

An unusual feature is a passenger seat cushion air bag which, in frontal impacts, raises the seat cushion preventing submarining and excessive flexion at the waist. There are now eight airbags in total.

Each model also comes with a high-resolution 11.6-inch portrait-style infotainment touchscreen. Its operation is like that of a smartphone, simplifying the driving experience. And it really is easy and intuitive to use. There remain buttons for HVAC functions, along with controls for volume and tuning. All of these features are present across the new Outback range, as are comfort entry and push-button ignition.

The Outback X AWD model adds items like water-repellent upholstery, four heated seats (outboard seats in the rear), a powered tailgate, front- and side-view cameras, roof rails and satellite navigation.

Meantime, the flagship X Touring comes with Nappa leather appointments, in black, brown or white, a nine-speaker Harman Kardon audio system with subwoofer, a heated steering wheel, and an electric sunroof, amongst other things.

As to how it goes, you’d have to say there has been a modest improvement in most aspects, what you’d describe as progress but not a revelation; it would take a turbo for that. In other words, precisely what the competition such as the like-priced 138kW/380Nm Octavia Scout gets, albeit a turbodiesel. Or Superb Scout which has a turbopetrol but is more expensive. Effectively, Outback is on its own then as a high-rise AWD petrol wagon selling in the $50k area. As the world goes electrified, hybrid versions of Outback cannot come soon enough but likely as not supply will be limited, as it is for Forester and XV.

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