The most significant part of the Subaru Outback’s mid-life facelift isn’t the restyled nose, standard-fit gunmetal alloys, or clearer cabin instrumentation. For the first time, Subaru is offering a diesel Outback mated with an automatic gearbox, creating the 2.0D SX Lineartronic model that’s expected to mop up around three-quarters of all British sales. We’ve driven it to see one of the world’s original ‘crossover’ vehicles can make a case for itself in this new UK-friendly guise.
What’s the Subaru Outback Lineartronic’s revolutionary new drivetrain?
Subaru’s ‘world-first’ is a pretty niche one: this is the only car to team a horizontally-opposed diesel Boxer engine with a CVT (Continuously Variable Transmission). This car is essentially an Outback 2.0 D SE with the CVT added, all for £31,495 – a £1424 premium. It loses by 3mpg and 11g/km of CO2 to its more efficient manual-shift twin: Subaru claims a realistic-looking 44.8mpg, and 166g/km.
What’s that diesel boxer engine like?
Hardly distinguishable from the myriad 2.0-litre diesels offered by seemingly every manufacturer from Audi to Vauxhall. It’s a revs smoothly up to 2500rpm and is gruff beyond that, but with all 258lb ft available from 1800-2400rpm, why take the rev needle past the vertical? The CVT, something we’re usually far from fans of, is the best of a bad bunch too. Unlike Toyota’s CVTs, there’s no obvious whining from the transmission, and though it does tend to leave the engine revving perhaps 500rpm higher than you’d expect around town, the ample torque is always accessible.
Plus, fuel economy doesn’t suffer despite the Boxer revving away under the bonnet. In a mixture of urban pootling and fast motorway cruising, our test car averaged an impressive 41.1mpg – impressively, only 3.7mpg shy of Subaru’s claim.
Is there anything I can do to liven up the driving experience?
Subaru’s gamely fitted some nasty plastic shift paddles to the steering wheel to allow stepped ‘gear changes’ from the CVT, but like the gear selector’s manual mode, they’re best left alone. The Outback isn’t a sports utility vehicle, and doesn’t pretend to be either. You get permanent all-wheel drive, a lofty 200mm of ground clearance, and high-sidewalled tyres for unflappable all-season ability, rather than any semblance of driver engagement. Subaru claims the compact Boxer engine is mounted lower in the car than a conventional in-line four would be, giving a lower centre of gravity, but from the driver’s chair there’s little sense of this as you sway through the bends.
Like we found with the Forester SUV, it’s appealing to drive a car so downright honest and unashamed about being a workhorse. It’s comfortable too – suspension revisions have improved the medium and high-speed ride, making this family hauler a non-fatiguing long distance proposition.
What’s the down side?
Predictably, it’s the uninspiring cabin. It’s had a go at the wannabe premium shtick, with new trim finishes, and leather seat bolsters for the (furnace-warm) heated front chairs, but even against the ancient Volvo XC70, this is a dated design, marred by unyielding materials built to be abused, not appreciated. No complaints about the space inside: the 526L/1677L boot offers near-Audi A6 Allroad capacity for sub-Audi A4 Allroad money, but it’s the uninviting throwback dashboard that’s where Subaru really needs to improve.
Mind you, at £31,495 as tested, the Subaru makes a better case on value grounds. An equivalent drivetrain Volvo XC70 comes in at £35,670, the aforementioned A4 Allroad S-tronic also pricier at £33,270. Stick a £400 set of winter tyres on come autumn and the Outback will keep plodding on long after every ‘lifestyle crossover’ had been flummoxed by a steep driveway, we’d wager.
It’s no surprise Subaru expects this 2.0D SX Lineartronic (and breathe) Outback to be the range’s top-seller: it’s well-equipped (apart from the conspicuous absence of satellite navigation) supremely practical, and unruffled to drive. Though its lack of styling, cabin and dynamic finesse do grate, its underlying unflappable nature and all-weather unstoppablity makes sense in a country flattened by stiff breezes and annually immobilised by picture-postcard snowfall.