A quarter of a century ago, Subaru broke new ground by offering what’s generally considered to the world’s first estate-shaped off-roader. The Subaru Outback created a niche that continues to appeal to both swish urban dwellers and country types all around the world and paved the way for the Volvo XC70, Audi’s Allroad range, Volkswagen’s Passat Alltrack and a handful of other jacked-up tough-looking all-wheel drive estate cars.
To coincide perfectly with the model’s 25th birthday, Subaru has launched the fifth-generation Outback that continues its successful formula but with a series of notable improvements. The old car’s rugged abilities have been untouched but it comes wrapped in a body that’s all new – although you wouldn’t really know it – a new interior and new technology. There’s the choice of two trims and a 2.5-litre petrol or a 2.0-litre turbo diesel – and it’s the latter that’s expected to take 60 per cent of the predicted 800 sales in the UK this year.
The diesel, like the petrol, is one of Subaru’s beloved ‘Boxer’ units – where the cylinders are horizontally opposed – and has 148bhp and 350Nm of torque on tap, emits 159g/km of CO2 and returns 46.3mpg. Being a Boxer, it’s lightweight and sits low down in the engine bay dropping the centre of gravity and giving the nose a pointier feel than you might expect.
The 148bhp never delivers sparkling performance but its smooth power delivery is well-matched to the CVT transmission. While those who want full control over their gears will lean towards the six-speed manual option, the Outback’s Lineartronic CVT transmission is one of the best we’ve tried. Subaru has given it seven steps to give the feeling of a conventional auto gearbox and in most situations it works fine.
Drivers can take control in manual mode via the gear lever or the paddles behind the steering wheel. Throw in more direct steering and little body roll, and the new car is more involving to drive than the old model and easily beats its rival, the Volvo XC70, when it comes to attacking country roads.
Don’t think the Outback has dropped its off-road credentials in favour of a sportier driving experience, though. Thanks to its symmetrical all-wheel drive and hill descent control, the Outback shines on rocky roads and muddy tracks. Excellent ground clearance means it keeps on crawling over tough terrain that would leave rivals beached or spinning their tyres.
It’s a practical proposition on the inside, too, with 512 litres of boot space, growing to 2,000 litres when the seats are folded (a Volvo XC70 has a maximum of 1,600 litres). And caravan owners will be pleased to hear it can pull a two-tonne trailer.
There’s another bonus to having the CVT too – clever safety technology. Outbacks fitted with the Lineartronic transmission come as standard with Subaru’s collision avoidance technology called ‘EyeSight’ that uses two colour cameras in front of the rear view mirror that is constantly scanning the road ahead for obstacles. Subaru has been working on the technology since the late 1980s and believes it’s one of the most advanced on the market. It can tell the difference between a pedestrian and a cyclist and includes pre-collision braking and throttle management, adaptive cruise control and a lane departure warning system.
The fifth-generation car’s most obvious visual change is at the front thanks to a new corporate nose that looks posh and there’s a pair of redesigned lights at the rear. Meanwhile, inside, there’s a new dash that’s well-built and has an easy-to-use touch-screen infotainment system, but somehow Subaru has managed to make the dashboard look more old fashioned that the previous car’s layout.
Subaru says, for the first time in its history, it has spoken to customers all around the world. The overwhelming impression was that Outback customers wanted few improvements over the previous Outback's key strengths of ruggedness and all-round abilities – and it’s clear to see that’s what the new Outback builds on. The fifth-generation Outback remains a left-field choice, but that’s no bad thing for thousands of brand-faithful customers around the world.