Three years ago, the small yet stalwart coterie of Subaru enthusiasts previously seduced by the amusing meld of hose-down and hoe-down that are early iterations of the Forester and Outback were somewhat startled to find their brand loyalty rewarded by something called the XV; a car so patently confused as to its own identity that I should not be surprised to see psychiatric consultation ranking marginally higher than fuel in a list of running costs. No wonder it has risen without trace.
All of which would have little bearing on this fifth generation Outback were it not for the fact that Subaru immediately confirmed an ongoing predilection for the button-backed Chesterfield by introducing it (and I paraphrase) thus: ‘Given the six key attributes most valued by Outback customers – reliability, utility, driving performance, its low profile, its cargo capacity and all-wheel drive – Subaru has determined to become the number one brand in… automotive safety.’
You’d have thought that a notably competent and durable all-wheel drive system allied to working brakes would be sufficient to slake the safety thirst of most Subaru drivers, but it seems the Americans, Canadians and Australians that constitute the vast majority of buyers cannot now cope on a daily basis without the ‘EyeSight’ automatic emergency braking system.
It worked with brutal efficiency under painstakingly crafted test conditions, but chose the moment I tried it for real to disengage, leaving one Slovenian van driver a whisker away from a stout punt up the luggage and me – hare celebrating the arrival of March under my shirt – wide awake in the wet patch…
Subaru Outback: the essential briefing
Moving on, key attribute-specific work constitutes something of a mixed bag. With a fixed 200mm ground clearance, the mildly restyled low profile remains; a model range priced from £27,995 to £32,995 leaving the Outback jostling for position with the similarly-hiked likes of Volvo’s XC70, the Audi A4 Allroad and, imminently, VW’s next Passat Alltrack, or perhaps the occasional Skoda Octavia Scout or Hyundai Santa Fe.
On board, a welcome and substantial upturn in instrument panel quality chunks brushed metal and piano black around a new multimedia system boasting a big-buttoned, dad-friendly and acceptably intuitive touchscreen. Standard equipment levels are pleasingly generous, but it’s superior comfort and cavernous accommodation that ultimately set the Outback cabin apart. The driving position’s great, and rear-seat comfort and space truly exceptional.
Two four-cylinder Boxer engines are available in the UK, a more economical 148bhp 2.0-litre turbodiesel now joined by a naturally aspirated 221bhp 2.5-litre petrol unit. The diesel may be mated to either a six-speed manual gearbox (sadly unavailable for selection at launch) or Subaru’s Lineartronic CVT transmission, the 2.5 petrol engine is shackled to the latter alone.
Allied to a whopping 67% increase in body rigidity (the predecessor clearly fabricated exclusively from knotted bootlace liquorice and warm blancmange), undercarriage tweaks include a revised suspension geometry, new dampers and a quicker steering rack.
What’s it like to drive?
In the context of the diesel powertrain, set to be the best seller in Subaru’s pifflingly small UK market, the upshot is a perfect example of the confused thinking under discussion.
Despite the presence of 258lb ft of torque, persuading a 148bhp powerplant to shift 1689kg with any alacrity is something of an ask at the best of times. When mated to a CVT transmission, it comes under the Fat Chance category. Admirable though efforts to introduce a more ‘stepped’ feel to power delivery may be, the gearbox thoroughly emasculates the engine.
If you’re prepared to put up with the wince of abattoir-aping noises off, 62mph can be conjured in a relatively humdrum 9.9 seconds, but more staid progress that plays to the oleaginous strengths of CVT is a far more appealing aural proposition, and very much in keeping with the interior comfort and space on offer.
Trouble is, said schmooze potential is then entirely unhinged by a significantly over-tough ride which would struggle to settle if armed with a waterbed and a side-order of Temazepam.
Although the steering’s tidy, body control is pretty good and there’s stacks of grip from the permanent four-wheel-drive system, you’re left in the invidious position of not wishing to drive at speeds the chassis merits for fear of involuntarily turning the engine bay up to 11, and not enjoying the stately cruise at which the Outlander should excel because the ride’s far too tough.
Clearly then, the groundswell of goodwill propping up Subaru in the UK might be taxed a tad less by a conventional transmission and a more cosseting ride.