Subaru Outback review
Need an estate that can tackle tough terrain? The Subaru Outback may well be worth a look
Subaru is often overlooked here in the UK, but not by a loyal band of customers who have come to depend on the Outback's combination of rugged off-road capability and good value pricing.
The latest Outback retains those traditional strengths but in a new and improved design that enhances the car’s premium feel. There’s also a welcome extra dose of on-road ability thanks to a stiffer suspension.
The Outback is very well equipped for the money, but the engines can be thirsty and residual values have yet to rise to meet those of more lifestyle-orientated brands such as Audi or Volvo. Still, as a comfortable and practical family workhorse, the latest Outback has a lot to offer.
Subaru claims to have pioneered the crossover 25 years ago with the original Legacy Outback. The segment has changed somewhat over the last quarter of a century with the introduction of models such as the Nissan Qashqai and Toyota RAV4, but the Japanese brand still insists there is a market for a beefed-up 4x4 estate car.
A new version of the Legacy was revealed in 2014, and went on sale in April 2015 – and to all intents and purposes is the best incarnation yet. This generation has tweaked engines, new technology and a plusher interior, while also being better to drive and cheaper to run.
While the Legacy is no longer available in the UK, the Outback shares many of its parts and is essentially a jacked-up version of the practical family car. As a result, it goes head-to-head with the likes of the Volvo XC70, Volkswagen Alltrack and Vauxhall Insignia Country Tourer. It also rivals the Audi A4 Allroad for price and the Audi A6 Allroad for size.
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The Outback features Subaru’s much-loved symmetrical all-wheel-drive system, meaning its off-road ability can embarrass far more expensive and stylish 4x4s.
This AWD system, along with a 200mm ride height and under-body protection panels, means the Outback is one of the more rugged options in a sector that’s mostly aimed at the lifestyle market.
There are two engine choices – a 2.5-litre petrol and a 2.0-litre turbodiesel. Both are four-cylinder ‘boxer’ units (meaning the cylinders are horizontally opposed in two pairs), which is an unusual configuration that Subaru has made a mainstay of its engine range for years.
The Outback comes in just two trim levels (SE and SE Premium), which both offer lots of kit as standard – even the entry-level SE comes with 17-inch alloy wheels, sat-nav, heated seats and cruise control.
Engines, performance and drive
Subaru has worked hard to transform the way the Outback drives, and in many areas has succeeded.
Changes to stiffen the suspension and damping have been implemented to cure the previous model’s wobbly driving characteristics. This brings a trade-off with a slightly harder ride, especially over the rough tarmac that many Outbacks will spend much of their time having to cope with in rural UK.
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But these changes also means the handling feels more secure when you’re pressing-on through those country bends.
When the going gets tough, the Outback can easily mud-plug its way through slushy and craggy routes. There’s also an ‘X-Mode’ function for increased off-road ability as well as a hill-descent option.
It’s this off-road aspect of the Outback’s performance that has endeared the Subaru brand to Britain’s farming community, and the Outback continues to deliver.
Neither engine has particularly strong performance, but it’s the 148bhp 2.0-litre diesel that delivers the best package. It’s somehow quieter than the 173bhp 2.5-litre petrol under hard acceleration and has more punch, thanks to the 350Nm of torque available from low revs – the petrol engine makes 235Nm at best.
There’s a choice of a six-speed manual box, which suits the car's rugged character, or a CVT automatic – called Lineartronic – with the 2.0-litre diesel. The 2.5-litre petrol engine is offered with the CVT gearbox only.
A CVT-equipped car normally results in a droning driving experience, but Subaru has fitted seven ‘steps’ in the transmission to give the impression of the box swapping ratios. It works very well and is probably the best of its type on the market.
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If you pick the 2.0 diesel with manual gears it will accelerate from 0-62mph in 9.7 seconds, or 9.9 seconds with the CVT gearbox. Top speeds are 124mph and 119mph respectively. Opt for the CVT-only 2.5 petrol and it will do the sprint in 10.2 seconds, while also raising maximum speed to 130mph.
MPG, CO2 and running costs
Subaru believes 60 per cent of new Outback sales will be the diesel – and it’s hardly surprising. It has relatively impressive claimed figures of 50.4mpg and it emits just 145g/km of CO2 – not bad for a ‘gas-guzzling’ 4x4.
Choose the CVT gearbox and the fuel consumption increases to 46.3mpg, while emissions rise to 159g/km, so automatic drivers will need to keep an eye on the road tax figures. The CVT diesel also costs a couple of grand more than the manual version up front.
Those figures put it on a par with an Audi A4 Allroad, comparing favourably with more conventional SUV rivals too. Smaller hatchback-based crossovers such as the Nissan Qashqai are the real winners here, though, managing figures closer to 70mpg in mixed motoring.
However, the Subaru is the stronger car off-road, and owners who need a rugged working vehicle may find such alternatives wanting.
The 2.5-litre petrol presents a conundrum for owners considering towing trailers, and don’t mind the added burden of a 40.4mpg combined test figure and 163g/km of CO2. The car is rated to tow 2,000kgs compared to the diesel’s 1,800kgs – although the diesel’s torque characteristics arguably make it a better bet if you don’t need the extra 200kgs in ultimate capacity.
Picking the petrol will save you £1,500 on the new price, and that’s before you’ve wrangled any discount out of your dealer.
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It’s also worth noting that Subaru’s boxer engines have a reputation for being thirsty in day-to-day driving, so you can expect to be calling at the pumps a bit more regularly than the official figures imply.
The cheapest Outback to insure is the diesel 2.0 SE CVT, which falls into insurance group 18. Picking the manual gearbox causes that to jump to group 22 – or groups 19/23 with the more expensive SE Premium trim. The 2.5-litre petrol models are group 19 or 20, depending on trim level.
While rugged Subaru 4x4s often made sense for farming types who bought new and ran their vehicles into the ground over many years of ownership, the depreciation picture for ‘ordinary’ users is not brilliant.
Predictions we’ve seen suggest the diesel Outbacks could retain around 35 per cent of their new cost after three years and 30,000 miles, but the petrol variants could easily do worse.
Interior, design and technology
The Subaru Outback has plenty of off-road presence, even if it doesn’t blend this with sleeker design cues.
This new version boasts plenty of dark plastic body trim around the bottom of the bumpers and side sills to reinforce its 4x4 credentials, and with its jacked-up ride height the added styling features give the car plenty of visual impact. The headlamps are sharp, with an interesting LED running light design, and the big, gaping grille works with the Outback’s chunky lines.
Subaru’s designers have tried to finesse the car’s shape to improve the look and, complemented by bold rails, the roofline arcs back nicely to the rear, with a strong crease on the sides running into the tail-lights. However, there are still some awkward details, and at the back it’s quite bland and blocky, with a flat boot and simple rear lamps.
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At first glance, the interior is a vast improvement on the old Outback’s, but beneath the surface there are a few annoying quirks. While the touchscreen infotainment system is relatively easy to use, the glossy screen shows up fingerprint smudges and reflects light badly, making it difficult to see.
There’s a mix of materials on the dash and centre console. The top of the dashboard is covered in soft-touch plastic, but lower down things are harder and feel cheap.
We’ve no complaints about the Subaru’s standard kit list, though – it includes cruise control, reversing camera, heated leather seats, keyless go, sat-nav and Bluetooth.
With the central touchscreen controlling many of the functions, the basic layout of the Outback’s centre console is clean. The dash has been decluttered and doesn’t look as busy as before, but it still feels dated.
There are two trim levels on offer – SE models come with automatic LED headlamps, cruise control, Active Torque Vectoring, 17-inch alloy wheels, heated front seats, electrically-adjustable driver’s seat and tinted windows, as well as a seven-inch touchscreen.
SE Premium models add a sunroof, keyless entry and push-button start, 18-inch alloy wheels, leather seats and a powered rear tailgate.
Sat-nav, stereo and infotainment
The standard Outback infotainment system packs sat-nav, Bluetooth, voice recognition and a rear view camera. You have to pay extra for DAB digital radio, although you do get a pair of USB connectors for music streaming – so you can charge two devices at once.
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Phone connectivity is available via the MirrorLink system, while the STARLINK app allows you to access internet services from your car.
Practicality, comfort and boot space
Given its estate car dimensions, it’s little surprise that the Outback scores strongly in this area. There's plenty of space inside for five adults – although there’s no facility for an extra row of seats - and the large glass area creates a bright and airy atmosphere.
A multitude of cubbies, deep door bins and a large glovebox mean there’s a decent amount of storage, while there’s also a roomy boot.
There’s plenty of adjustment for drivers of all shapes and sizes to get comfortable, while the raised driving position aids visibility of the road ahead. If you’re not a confident parker the standard rear camera will be a boon, and it will also be a reassuring feature if you plan to use your Outback for towing.
The Subaru Outback measures 4,815mm long, 1,840mm wide and 1,605mm tall. This makes it noticeably bigger than the 4,721mm x 1,841mm x 1,495mm Audi A4 Allroad, and the 4,767mm x 1,832mm x 1,477mm Passat Alltrack.
The Volvo XC70’s dimensions are almost identical to the Outback at 4,838mm x 1,870mm x 1,604mm.
Leg room, head room & passenger space
Up front there are no issues at all, as the Outback provides plenty of leg and headroom. The driving seat has height adjustment as standard too.
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In the rear the headroom should be fine for all passengers, but taller adults might find the legroom a little restricted. Child seat ISOFIX mountings are provided as standard on the outer two rear seats.
Opening the large tailgate reveals a usefully low loading lip (slightly lower than on the previous model) and a generous 512-litre boot.
Fold the rear bench flat – which you can do with a pull of a lever in the boot – and the carrying capacity increases to a van-like 2,000 litres – 400 litres more than the Volvo XC70.
The combination of grippy four-wheel drive and self-levelling rear suspension makes the Outback a first-rate towing vehicle – the petrol version can pull a two-tonne caravan, for instance.
Reliability and Safety
Choose an Outback with CVT transmission and it’ll come with Subaru’s ‘EyeSight’ technology. The company believes it’s the most advanced crash-preventing system on the market, and includes two cameras in front of the rear-view mirror that continuously scan the road ahead for obstacles and pedestrians.
It also features a lane departure warning system and adaptive cruise control, while Subaru claims it can actively prevent an accident at speeds of up to 31mph.
The focus on safety has paid off, as the Outback has been awarded a five-star rating in EuroNCAP's crash tests, with strong scores in all areas and maximum ratings in side-impact and 18-month-old dummy tests. Adult occupant safety is rated by the organisation at 85 per cent, child occupant safety at 87 per cent and pedestrian safety at 70 per cent.
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All versions of the Outback come fitted with electronic stability control, six airbags, seat belt reminders and ISOFIX mountings for baby seats.
With the car only going on sale in 2015, there are no reliability ratings yet. But, with the fifth-generation car using well-proven mechanicals and Subaru’s reputation for strong and dependable cars, we have good reason to expect the car to rank well in the future Auto Express Driver Power surveys.
The Subaru Outback comes with a five-year, 100,000-mile warranty, which should alleviate any reliability concerns over the life of the car. The cover outclasses rivals, who mostly offer only three years and 60,000 miles.
The Outback’s service schedule requires a visit to the dealership every 12 months or 9,000 miles.
This is more frequent than some rivals, which now offer flexible intervals that can extend up to two years, and the lack of any manufacturer-supported fixed ‘menu’ pricing means you could end up paying a bit more too.
There aren’t too many Subaru dealers around either, which could make life a little more complicated at times.