The 2015 Subaru Outback Reviewed, Return to Form

In Car Reviews, Subaru by Neil Lyndon

How great to borrow a new Subaru that marks an authentic return to form for that honourable company.


The new Outlander is genuinely impressive, good to drive, practically handy and quirkily individual – all the ingredients of a classic Subaru. Hooray!

 

Boy! It’s been a while. In the 1990s, Subaru’s Turbo Imprezas and Foresters were close to the top of my list of favourite cars. I loved their combination of outrageous performance, value for money and idiosyncratic engineering. There was a direct, tangible connection between the Subarus that won the World Rally Championship for Colin McRae and the madly fast, four-wheel drive Imprezas – with their scintillating power-to-weight balance and their needle-fine handling – that you could buy from the showroom for about £20,000. It didn’t matter that a Forester had the aesthetic appeal of a brick outhouse: it also had ludicrous levels of ability on and off road. I very nearly bought one.

Then, throughout the early 2000s, Subaru got becalmed in doldrums. Captivating new models from Subaru became as rare as knockout new cars from Saab. A succession of cosmetic revisions blunted and blurred Subaru’s scintillating engineering innovations. The ubiquitous spread of stylish new crossover SUVS made the Forester look redundant. Subaru tried to get into fields where they didn’t belong – most embarrassingly with the Tribeca MPV. They lost their way – not least because, in Britain, they were led by a succession of chief executives who didn’t seem to have a clue where they should be going (the one who was in charge when the Tribeca was introduced didn’t know how to pronounce it).

It got painful. Subarus became so lacking in desirability that it was impossible to praise them in print. Some time in the mid-2000s, the then head of the Press Office wrote telling me that they couldn’t take any more “lacerating reviews” from me and that I would no longer be welcome on their launches nor to borrow their cars. I replied that I wouldn’t lose any sleep living without Subarus until they produced a car that deserved interest.

And – 10 years later – here it is! The new Outback is so good that many times during its week on loan to me, I found myself thinking “This wouldn’t be a bad buy for us.” Anybody like us with a family and living in a remote rural spot with occasional 4×4 requirements – anybody thinking of buying a Skoda Octavia Scout or a Volvo XC70 for their estate car capacities and off-road capabilities – really ought to take the new Outback into consideration. It has got all the qualities of those very desirable cars and, additionally, it has a rarity value they can’t match.

It’s an extremely big crossover, more like an estate than an SUV. Very tall and long, like a Mondeo hatchback in profile, the Outback has the near perpendicular rear of an estate or SUV. A huge powered tailgate opens into a boot area with 559 litres of capacity. During my week with the Outback, I had to shift a dining table with folding leaves. After collapsing the rear row of seats, the table slid onto the Outback’s load platform with many inches to spare. Meanwhile, there’s almost as much space inside for passengers as in a Skoda Superb.

One of the ways in which Subaru most conspicuously lost the plot in the 2000s was in the poverty of their interiors. While every other major manufacturer was responding to the challenge laid down by Audi in setting the benchmark for cool, functional interiors with high-grade materials, Subaru continued with  such depressing interiors – fitted with sludgy plastics and dreary fabrics – that you could feel like opening your veins rather than sit inside.

The interior of the Outback is not exactly a temple of joy but it’s a positive lift to the spirits compared with its predecessors. Brushed metals surround the air conditioning controls and piano black acrylics frame the 7.0-inch touchscreen factory-fit infotainment and sat nav system. These may not be sensational advances but at least they show willing – as does the intelligible, restrained arrangement of controls on the leather-bound steering-wheel. The secondary stalks for lights and indicators seem so ancient that they might have seen service on Boadicea’s chariot but, as a whole, the interior of the Outback is a moderately classy place to be.

It’s in motion, however, that the Outback truly shows its class. The interior designers may not be on the cutting edge but the engineers for this car are back to Subaru’s best.

There are two engines available in the UK – a pair of horizontally-opposed four-cylinder ‘Boxer’ engines, fitted deep in the engine bay to ensure a low centre of gravity for improved handling, despite the car’s raised ground clearance. Buyers can choose between a 2.0-litre turbo-diesel, producing 150 PS and 350 Nm torque, or a naturally-aspirated 2.5-litre petrol unit, with power and torque outputs of 175 PS and 235 Nm, respectively.

Diesel engines will be offered with either a six-speed manual transmission or Subaru’s Lineartronic (CVT) transmission; the 2.5-litre petrol engine which I borrowed is sold exclusively with Lineartronic. Power from the 2.5-litre engine has increased from 167 PS to 175 PS, and torque output has grown 2.6 per cent to 235 Nm. Despite these gains, fuel economy has improved significantly to 40.7 mpg on the combined cycle and with CO2 emissions of 161 g/km, down from 175 g/km.

It’s a stonking set up. Acceleration from 0-62 mph in 10.2 seconds and top speed of 130 mph are not, on the face of it, startling figures and the Outback’s handling is not exactly nimble but all-wheel drive together with torque vectoring give this very large car exceptionally positive, secure handling with an unusual absence of body roll so you can make really rapid, comfortable progress on country roads.

Batteries of electronic aids are fitted, including hill descent assist and X-Mode for off-road driving. The insistent, shrill lane departure warnings might get on your nerves but that is only one of a package of safety supports, along with Pre-collision Braking, Pre-collision Throttle Management, Adaptive Cruise Control, Sway Warning, Pre-collision Steering Assist and Lead Vehicle Start Alert. You barely need to switch on your brain.

Amazingly, all this kits comes as standard in the Premium trim level on the Outback I borrowed, along with sliding roof and powered tailgate. All that for £31495 – and a measure of exclusivity that BMW and Audi can now only dream of – seems like a pretty good deal.

Hoo-bloody-ray.

About the Author
Neil Lyndon

Neil Lyndon

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Neil Lyndon has been a journalist, broadcaster and writer on the UK's national stage for 40 years, writing for every "quality" newspaper on Fleet Street. He started writing about cars and motorbikes for The Sunday Times in the 1980s and was Motoring Correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph for 20 years, having previously written a column on motorbikes for Esquire. He is also recognised as a leading commentator on gender politics, having published No More Sex War in 1992 - the first ever critique of feminism from a radical, egalitarian point of view.

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