The Subaru Outback may be relatively overlooked in the UK, but it’s basically a good car – it’s capable on and off-road, and dependable – and the diesel is now available with a Lineartronic (CVT) transmission.
The Subaru Outback has been around since 1994. Although you don’t see many in the UK, around the world the Outback is known for its Land Rover-like off-road ability, whilst being more car-like to drive on road. Although the latest Outback has been around for a while, you can now buy a diesel Outback with a Lineartronic transmission. On the face of it, this is an automatic, although it’s actually a Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT). We’re normally not fans of CVTs, but this new Subaru system is one of the best in the business.
Let’s start with engineering, as this is one of the core strengths of Subaru. The base of this Outback, like all other Subaru SUVs, consists of a Boxer engine with ‘symmetrical’ four-wheel drive (ie. meaning that the engine is longitudinally-mounted). After many years of petrol Boxer engines, Subaru introduced the Boxer diesel in 2008. Fitted with this engine, the Outback diesel at the time was the most economical 4×4 that you could buy, although very few people were aware of this.
Now Subaru has introduced a ‘Lineartronic’ CVT transmission for the Outback diesel. Most CVTs are characterised by lots of revs when accelerating, despite little improvement in forward progress – which is not a pleasant experience – however there’s none of that with Subaru’s system.
In terms of design, we don’t think that the Outback has moved forward from the previous generation model, and compared to cars such as the Evoque, there’s little modern styling flair.
It’s a similar story inside – once again, the interior doesn’t really seem to have moved the game on from the last Outback, and compared to cars from other manufacturers, it’s way behind in terms of design, materials and technology. The view from the rear seats in particular is especially drab. If Subaru wants to sell more cars in the UK, it has to catch up with the perceived interior quality of rivals.
However the Outback is spacious, both for passengers, and for luggage and/or dogs in the boot.
If the styling of the Outback isn’t to everyone’s tastes, the driving experience is better – at least for those who like the Subaru-style driving experience.
The Outback was tested on some of our favourite driving roads – and off-road routes – in North Wales. The concept of the Outback is excellent for such environments – it has sufficient ground clearance (200mm) for off-road driving, but a low centre of gravity thanks to the Boxer engine, and a relatively low roofline for an SUV. Subaru’s all-wheel drive system is also one of the best in the business, and the Outback is fitted with tyres that can cope with tarmac, mud and snow – something that all manufacturers of 4x4s need to learn from. So the Outback provides secure traction in UK winters, yet you don’t have the bulk of many SUVs.
Due to chassis similarities, the Outback still has some Subaru Impreza genes, and these are evident when driving it on twisting Welsh B-roads. It’s a lot more of a driver’s car than you would imagine a 4×4 with a CVT would ever be. The height and centre of gravity of most Land Rover products means that they can’t match the handling of the Subaru.
The CVT is a thankful improvement over the systems used by other Japanese manufacturers. You can change the 7-speed CVT manually using steering wheel-mounted paddles – and it actually changes gear in reality rather than just being simulated, like a Lexus. The CVT is easy to live with and is probably better than the manual, which isn’t the smoothest shifting of transmissions. However it should be noted that rivals have some very good, and efficient, automatics.
When the tarmac road runs out, the Outback can cope with most things that the North Wales environment can throw at it – including deep snow (we found what must have been the last remaining snow in the UK). However the length of the front and rear overhangs ultimately limit the extent of off-road adventures.
An area in which the Outback has progressed compared to the last model is refinement. Although it’s still not the class-leader, this latest version now feels much more refined, thanks to less mechanical intrusion, which, combined with a good driving position and a decent ride over most surfaces, makes for comfortable progress.
There’s very little of the latest technology in the car: there’s no satnav, although there’s a very small information screen complete with old fashioned-looking graphics. This also acts as a screen for the reversing camera, which is quite small and dark, and there are no reversing sensors – which is unusual for a car in this class.
We couldn’t work out how to Bluetooth a phone to the car – the process wasn’t user-friendly at all, which isn’t good.
Although the interior ergonomics are generally good, the position of the hazard warning switch right in front of the gearlever isn’t ideal as you can put the hazards on inadvertently when moving the gear lever into Park.
The idea of the CVT is that it’s a more cost-effective engineering solution to the fuel economy and emissions challenge than a conventional automatic ‘box. Subaru has engineered its CVT to drive more like a conventional auto than a CVT, which is great news. The bad good news is that this Outback is still LESS economical than the 2008 Outback Diesel. We can’t think of any other new car that has been launched that has worse economy and emissions than the previous model. This hasn’t been helped by the car growing in size – and therefore weight – presumably to satisfy the demands of the American market, a territory that is much more important to Subaru in terms of sales volumes than the UK (Subaru set all-time sales records in 2013 in its major markets including the US, Canada and Australia, with 118,000 Outbacks being sold in the US in 2013).
However, the Outback supported what we’ve found with other Subarus – because it doesn’t have lots of green tech such as stop-start, the official economy figure isn’t great, but the real-life economy figure is closer to the official figure than most rivals. The official combined fuel economy figure for the Outback is 44.8mpg (the figure for the previous generation Outback diesel manual was 48.7mpg). The best we achieved with the Outback, with careful B-road driving, was 54.3mpg. At a constant 70mph on the motorway we managed 49.5mpg. With normal driving on A and B roads the Outback returned 44.1mpg. Around town we recorded 40.2mpg. The worst we achieved was 36.9mpg. Overall the Outback averaged 41.2 mpg.
So although the official fuel economy is worse than the previous model, in real-life driving the Outback was marginally more economical than the new Evoque 9-speed auto, even though the official figures say otherwise.
The emissions of the Outback are 166g/km CO2 – if this figure was just 1g/km lower, this would take the Outback down an entire VED band from H to G. And the Benefit-in-Kind tax rate is high, at 29%.
This Outback 2.0D SX Lineartronic costs £31,495. It’s essentially a good car, but at this price buyers are likely to overlook it for rivals that have better known badges and which are more fashionable design statements.
The only Outback currently available in the UK is the Diesel SX, with the main choice being between manual or Lineartronic transmissions – the latter commanding a £1,000 premium over the manual. The manual version is more economical than the CVT, with an official combined fuel economy of 47.9mpg (still worse than the 48.7mpg of the previous Outback diesel manual).
The Outback didn’t come with a spare wheel. In its place was a tyre repair kit. For a car that’s designed to spend at least some of its time ‘in the outback’, this is not good. On our Forester test, a sharp rock on an otherwise non-challenging gravel track pierced the tyre sidewall. Luckily that had a space-saver spare – even though a space saver is pretty useless when off-road. A sidewall with a hole in it is something that can’t be repaired by a tyre repair kit, and the AA or RAC aren’t likely to come and rescue you half way up a mountain.
The Outback proved to be an enjoyable car to pilot progressively across North Wales – yes, amazingly even with a CVT transmission. It also had no problems when faced with off-road routes. It’s also very spacious and was also reasonably economical in real-life driving. Very few other cars could provide such a good driving experience on Welsh B-roads and then cope with driving through a foot of snow.
On the downside, there are plenty of SUVs out there that seem to have had more care taken in the area of their design, and the interior is still a long way behind rivals, in terms of design, materials and technology.
Could we live with this car? Yes. But only because our priorities are that cars must be good to drive, fit for purpose if they have off-road intentions, and efficient for the type of car. If we were more concerned about huge touch screens – as many car buyers are – then we wouldn’t get past the showroom door to even road test the car. And Subaru needs to do some work in the area of marketing to communicate that this CVT is not like the CVTs found in other Japanese products.
But the biggest issue is that this Outback hasn’t moved the game on sufficiently from the previous model. In our view it doesn’t look as good, the interior is not a sufficient leap forward, and critically, it’s less economical than the previous model. Over recent years most manufacturers have been announcing that their new models are, for instance, 25% more efficient than the outgoing model. In comparison, Subaru has introduced a new model that is less efficient. However, in its defence, the real-life economy of the Outback is better than many rivals.
So the Subaru Outback 2.0D SX Lineartronic, like most Subarus, is a car for people who live in the countryside and genuinely need 4×4 ability, rather than for urban dwellers who want a 4×4 fashion statement and the latest technology. It’s awarded a Green-Car-Guide rating of 7 out of 10.