A quiet storm has been brewing in the countryside. With customers torn between life long brand loyalty and the ever increasing cost of fuel Subaru’s dealerships have been fielding increasingly desperate calls for diesel powered models. It’s not quite reached the stage of lines of wax-jacketed folk with placards outside Subaru HQ but it’s not been far off.
Like flat caps, black Labradors and funny accents, mud-splattered Subaru estate cars are an essential feature of rural life in the UK but the firm’s steadfast refusal to build a more fuel-efficient diesel engine has been costing it dear. After dismal sales last year something had to be done and finally the pleas from European markets for oil-burning Subarus seem finally to have reached the firm’s Japanese homeland. Welcome then the Legacy Sports Tourer and Outback 2.0TD.
What took them so long?
Stubbornly eccentric to the last, Subaru has gone its own way with its first diesel powerplant too. Boxer engines have been the firm’s trademark since the Subaru 1000 of 1966. And the configuration has been retained for the new diesel, making it the first flat-four oil-burner ever seen in a passenger car. While it debuts in the Legacy, diesel versions of the Impreza and forthcoming new Forester will follow.
As such this engine will underpin what Subaru hopes will be a reversal in fortune for its European sales, currently hovering around the 75,000 mark. So the pressure is on the new diesel engine to deliver the target of 25,000 extra sales. And when production reaches full swing in 2009 Subaru UK expects 85 percent of Legacy sales to be accounted for by the diesel.
What’s so special about it?
Subaru remains loyal to boxer engines, citing the lower centre of gravity and shorter cylinder block as key advantages. The opposing forces also mean the traditional diesel vibrations are effectively cancelled out without the need for balancer shafts.
And by moving the turbo to the bottom of the engine and attaching the catalytic converter directly to it Subaru claims both improved responsiveness and a faster warm up time. Indeed, one engineer we spoke with reckoned the cat reaches working temperature around 20 percent faster than other diesels.
Based around the architecture of the 2.0-litre petrol engine, the diesel motor has a shorter crankshaft, square bore and stroke and beefed up chain drive for the camshafts. Solenoid rather than piezo injectors may seem retrograde but Subaru claims a cost advantage and is satisfied with the engine’s output and emissions as it stands.
So much for the techie stuff, how does it drive?
Very nicely indeed. Say what you like about Subaru’s styling quirks and plasticky interiors, when it comes to the mechanical stuff the company has its head screwed on. It’s only the fact that its two biggest markets – Japan and the US – have no demand for diesels that have prevented it from offering one in the past.
Subaru's diesel is an extremely impressive first attempt. We’ll get onto the stats in a moment but from the first turn of the key the engine impresses with its smoothness. From outside it’s unmistakably a diesel but from the driver’s seat it flatters to deceive, revving smoothly and without a trace of clatter or vibration. And this from a test car showing barely 1000 miles on the odometer.
On the move there’s the barest hint of flat-four throb – equal length exhaust headers mean no Scooby burble – overlayed with the techie sounding whine of the variable vane turbo.
What are the numbers?
Subaru has identified the Ford 2.0 TDCI and ubiquitous VW group 2.0 PD engines as the benchmarks in the class and against these measures its new engine comes up strongly. The boxer delivers 148bhp and 258lb ft of torque, the latter from 1800rpm. CO2 is a competitive 151g/km and the official combined fuel consumption 49.6mpg, comparing favourably with the 42.7mpg and 177g/km of the Passat 2.0 TDI 140 4Motion.
Compared with Subaru’s traditionally thirsty petrol engines figures like these are nothing short of a revelation and the good news continues when you look at the performance stats. A 8.5-second 0-60mph is a whole second faster than the existing 2.0 petrol, which does just 31.4mpg over the combined cycle and emits 212g/km of CO2.
So it goes OK then?
The linear power delivery may disappoint diesel fans – there’s no sudden rush of torque all coming at once and as a result it initially feels a little weedier than the numbers suggest. Against accepted wisdom you need to dial a few revs up to make decent progress but unlike most diesels the Subaru boxer is happy to spin up to its redline.
Handling wise the switch to electric power steering has robbed feel and the wheel feels very light in your hands. There’s also a lot of roll when you pile into the corners but grip levels are predictably high, if not somewhere you’re likely to want to explore.
The flipside is that the Legacy is very comfy and eats up bumpy lanes with aplomb. And if you need some token off-road ability the jacked up Outback version is just the ticket.
Green wellies with green consciences...
Starting at £19,995 for the Sports Tourer 2.0TD R it’s good value too. For that you get xenon lights, powered memory seats, dual zone climate control and cruise as standard, the £21,995 RE getting leather, among other upgrades. Meanwhile the Outback starts at £21,495 for the R. That’s pretty keen pricing, given the spec and huge 1649-litre boot (459 litres with the seats up).
The lack of a six-speed gearbox or automatic option seems short sighted though and, while better than most Subarus, the Legacy fails to match its equivalents for quality feel inside. Neither are likely to dent demand among Subaru’s core audience but in the quest for mass appeal may be more of an issue.
If you’re thinking we’re impressed by Subaru’s first diesel you’d be right. With competitive fuel consumption and CO2 the Legacy and Outback have broadened their appeal beyond the green-wellied hardcore on whose shoulders the firm’s continued existence has rested.
This is Subaru playing to its strengths by using its engineering talents to come up with a genuine alternative to the mainstream. Characterful, refined, frugal and with the classic Subaru pillars of dependability and four-wheel drive security the diesel Legacy deserves to do well. It’s not going to offer a serious challenge to the mainstream but its talents should be enough to win over enough new customers to guarantee the firm’s future.
And if the diesel is great in the Legacy we can’t wait to see how it transforms the Impreza. A diesel WRX? Watch this space…