Surely a station wagon by any other name is, still, a station wagon? But while Subaru’s new Outback is listed as an SUV, it seems more aligned to the external aesthetics of a traditional wagon than an SUV.
Is that a bad thing? Not at all; in my opinion, it’s a refreshing alternative to the sea of tall, podgy SUVs dominating the landscape and yearly sales figures.
When Subaru handed me the keys to their latest Subaru Outback Sport, I was keen to find out just how well they had blended the balance between weekend adventurer and practical daily driver. Had improving one area been detrimental to the other? Just how much of this vehicle was Outback, and what percentage would be Sport?
By the end of my time with the Subaru, I can say neither character trait dominated in a nicely balanced compromise. Outback, in the true sense of the word, is not somewhere I’d expect to see the Subaru adventuring. However, long hauls on gravel roads, or exploring picturesque bush trails and firm sandy tracks to coastal campsites will present no challenge. As for sporty, it’s more the way the vehicle suits an active family lifestyle, as opposed to hard-core driving dynamics and performance.
Finished in an eye-catching autumn green metallic paint, the bright lime green outback insignia in the lower door mouldings and visual cover caps on the black roof rails added a subtle uniqueness to the Sport’s appearance. The front re-styled LED headlights with black fascia are bordered by crisp C-shaped daytime running lights neatly housed in a slimline assembly that sweeps upward and back to intersect with the front quarter guards, further enhancing the clean angular front body lines. Complemented by the blacked-out grille, a large lower air dam and bold black front bumper mouldings incorporating fog lights giving the Sport a pronounced jaw line to deepen its rugged appearance and win extra street cred.
Side on, the Outback displays prominent wheel arch flares and chunky lower sill panel covers that link back to a two-piece rear bumper highlighted with a gloss black lower shroud. The outward rear styling is finished off with a larger rear spoiler, dominant red LED taillights that extend into the rear tail gate with sharp edges to form the same C-shaped design language featured up front.
Overall, the Sport is a good-looking vehicle. It’s lower roofline, long body, raised ground clearance and rugged protective panelling give it a strong purposeful stance. After subduing the shiny black 18” alloys wrapped in 225/60R18 Bridgestone Alenzas with a thin veneer of orange gravel dust and apply dried mud camouflage stains to the lower body panels, the Sport seemed even more appealing and a talking point with passers-by every time I parked up.
Open the driver’s door and drop yourself into the smart-looking two-tone light and dark grey seats covered in an anomalous high-tech water-resistant material that feels softer than Nappa leather and as smooth as Mulberry silk. Great if you’ve just towelled off after a dip at the beach, or your better half’s long hair hasn’t quite dried yet. But I’m not convinced about how well they breathe after being left with a sticky rear shirt sensation after a long run on a hot day. Maybe it was just me! But those 8-way power front seats provide good support and plenty of adjustment to get comfortable, and outward visibility from the captain’s chair is pretty good.
You will appreciate the style factor of the fluoro green accent stitching on the seats, console, door trims and lower dash as it not only looks fantastic but gives this modern new interior a funky fun feel. Kudos to any manufacturer for breaking conventionality and avoiding fifty mundane shades of drab, dull and boring. With the rest of the interior finished in a tasteful combination of gloss black panelling, subtle metal highlight surrounds and soft touch materials everywhere it counts, Subaru has given this new Outback a more refined and upmarket look and feel, commensurate with the status that the flagship Outlook holds in the Subaru range.
And there’s no way you can miss the wow factor! For those who want to impress passengers with the ultimate show piece, Subaru has nailed it! Front and centre is a huge 11.6” 1920 x 1080 high-definition display. Plus, it’s not in landscape mode—that is so yesterday. This monster literally covers the depth of the dash in portrait orientation and looks remarkably like a smart phone. With both Android Auto and Apple Car Play you can perform all standard phone functions, including voice or tap control for AC functionality, audio, GPS, or select various vehicle drive modes. It’s both responsive and has large easy to see icons that can be arrange to your own liking.
However, the graphical user interface isn’t as intuitive as competitor offerings, and it takes a while to familiarise yourself with the layout and menu options. What I did like was constant AC controls displayed at the base of the screen for quick and easy access, rather than having to muddle through menus. The system will also accommodate driver profile details so it will recognise the driver and configure settings to your own individual tastes which is handy with multiple drivers. You can even enter important dates and information as reminders – so no excuse to miss your wedding anniversary or partner’s birthday ever again!
For convenience, you can opt to use rotary dials for tuning and volume settings with large manual toggle switches for controlling cabin temperature.
Sadly the 6-speaker audio is a little lack lustre and disappointing given the look and feel Subaru have achieved with the rest of the cabin. Picky? Yeah, but with a great looking bottle of wine, you hope the contents would be equivalent.
I’ve always been a fan of vehicles with wide opening doors, not only is it easier to get in and out yourself, but it removes the challenges of seating an elderly mother in-law. Mum and Dad will also appreciate the extra clearance when loading up the kids. Once seated, rear accommodation is pretty good, with a wider width, and plenty of leg, head, and foot room for both adults and tall teens. But the youngest will still need to be relegated to the middle seat, because Grandad won’t thank you after a long drive and a numb bottom. A nice touch is the second row also enjoys heating for those colder mornings with rear console vents for AC cooling on the warmer days. Connectivity? Yep, via four USB ports, 2 up front and 2 in the back for phones, run-flat-quick game consoles or for charging a myriad of accessories plus a 12v socket in the glovebox and one in the rear allowing you to run a small cooler or car fridge for drinks and snacks.
From a clever functionality standpoint, I really appreciated the wisdom of the interior designers who came up with dual rear seat release handles, allowing you to flip and fold the rear seats in one easy action from either just inside the rear doors or from the rear cargo area.
Speaking of cargo, the rear has a decent 522L with second row seating in place and jumps to a respectable 1,267L with second row folded. The Sport also has the nice touch of a power assist tail gate door, with auto sensor inside the Subaru rear badge allowing you to swipe over it to open the back if your hands are full of grocery bags. But wait, there’s more… tap the cargo cover downward and the blind will retract for easy loading. I love clever design.
With 138 kW of power and 235 Newton metres pulling capability the Outback will allow you to haul a decent camper trailer or smaller van up to 2,000kgs. The heart of our Outback Sport was the 2.5L horizontally opposed 4-cylinder boxer engine. Don’t hold your breath, there’s no turbo option this time around. Naturally aspirated, the 2.5L is free revving and smooth and works in happy unison with the stronger-built Constantly Variable Transmission (CVT). It’s well-mannered and would never dare do anything that might catch you off guard. The large majority of commuters who want to get from A to B with a minimum of fuss or effort will love it. But for the petrol heads amongst us, that illustrious Subaru badge of honour proudly mounted centre stage of the Sport’s menacing black front grille only confirms build quality. The 2.5L didn’t provide any taste of that special Subaru sauce that paints a dumb smirk on a motoring enthusiast’s face.
This is a relaxed power plant that gets on with the task at hand without a fuss. It’s nice to drive, easy to live with and a perfect choice to deliver acceptable and adequate performance, whilst minimising any disruption to the comfortable serenity of the cabin as you go about your daily commute. Unless you engage the manual paddle shifters for a pseudo 8-speed auto and grant the 2.5 a little freedom from the efficiency-focused transmission. Only then can you induce that classic boxer growl.
Driving around town in stop-start traffic or performing mundane weekend duties, the CVT does give the Outback a different if not unique driving experience. Initially, pending throttle input, it can give the impression of a howling engine that is slow to respond with a ratio variation, despite the steady increase in road speed. I’ll admit I’m not a fan of CVT. But, young Jedi, spend some time with the Sport learn its quirks and adjust your own driving habits to exploit its capability and it’s surprisingly good.
Subaru is no stranger to CVT design and calibration, unlike many competitors who are still relatively new to the technology. Over the years, Subaru has pretty much got CVT sorted; its compact size and efficiency make it the ideal combination for Subaru’s clever Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive (AWD) system. Pull the gear lever back and to the side to engage manual mode, and the CVT does a pretty fine job of impersonating a traditional auto in the way it shifts promptly to paddle lever input.
But what’s the point of having an Outback Sport if you don’t allow yourself a regular mini-break to enjoy what this vehicle offers while exploring lessor-used winding gravel tracks or picturesque forestry trails as you criss-cross the south-west between restaurants, boutique wineries and maybe even a little bit of beach work on firmer sand.
As you leave work drama and tension behind, you can begin to relax, dial up your favourite audio track and enjoy the winding country roads as the Outback glides along. It’s here that you begin to appreciate what Subaru have achieved. The suspension is comfortable, comprising MacPherson strut up front and double wishbone at the rear for sufficient suppleness to absorb most small to moderate road surface irregularities. But it’s not so soft as to compromise cornering confidence or stability, thanks to Subaru’s global platform framework improving rigidity and minimising body roll.
The quiet cabin is well insulated to minimise the intrusion of vibration and noise, improving the overall comfort for driver and passengers alike. Steering feel and response is nicely weighted and provides a smooth and predictable turn in to corners. Should the need arise, the front and rear disc brakes can apply an assertive bite on the front and rear rotors to rein in the Outback’s forward momentum.
With 213mm of ground clearance, and Subaru’s impressive symmetrical all-wheel drive, the Outback offers improvements in vehicle control and stability over slippery surfaces as compared to a conventional two-wheel drive. Bring up the dual mode X-Mode and you can choose an enhancement mode to optimise the Outback’s AWD system.
The first is snow/dirt mode –perfect for harder, slippery surfaces, it uses traction control via breaking to minimise wheel spin/slippage and redirect torque to the wheel with greater grip to maintain stability and forward momentum.
The second is for deep snow and mud. This time, traction control is turned off with improved torque delivery in situations where wheels can sink into softer surfaces and get stuck. In these conditions the system will allow additional wheel slippage to assist in maintaining momentum.
How effective are these systems? Having two kangaroos suddenly appear out of the bushes and bound across the road, mid-corner on ball-bearing gravel, certainly got my attention. Thankfully, the Sports active torque vectoring, in conjunction with the vehicle’s dynamic control system, allowed me to both maintain control and avoid our furry national emblem.
Taking the time to look through the Outback’s list of included electronic safety systems and I’d need to write another article to cover the who’s who of high-tech computerised bodyguard features including Subaru’s vehicle EyeSight, Driver Monitoring System and vision assist. To Subaru’s credit, not only have they put significant investment into occupant safety for their customers’ protection, but they have also included it right across the entire model range.
The more I drove the Outback Sport, the more it felt like a comfortable pair of jeans. So, with little left to do, other than take some long winding roads back home, I engaged manual mode and pulled on the paddle shifters to give the CVT a break from its computational hopscotch and working fervently to pre-empt the best ratio for my every driving demand. Stretching the 2.5L’s legs with the tacho and speedo harmonising like the synchronised needles of two metronomes, I decided the Outback Sport is a vehicle that has delivered on its design brief.
It’s a nicely balanced all-rounder that will happily provide a comfortable, reliable A to B mode of transport for those who don’t want any unnecessary fuss or effort when driving. Yet it can also meet the requirements of a modern active family with the capability and practicality to enjoy a weekend adventure. Clean or dirty the Outback Sport looks good, no matter where it’s parked, so once the daily duties are finished, all you need do is plan your next weekend getaway.
Engine: 2.5 litre Direct Injection 4 cylinder petrol
Transmission: Lineartronic Continuously Variable
ANCAP Safety rating 5 Stars.