Subaru Outback review & buyer's guide
I came away very impressed by the Subaru Outback. Starting with the core strengths, the Outback is just so car-like to drive. That’s super-impressive. Despite its overall size varying just a few inches - one way or the other - against key competitors like the Toyota Kluger, Hyundai Santa Fe, Kia Sorento and even the Ford Territory (dinosaur), the 2016 Subaru Outback simply never feels big and ponderous - it’s good around town and on the freeway, and it always feels stable and secure.
Driving the outback
The Subaru Outback is a good balance of practicality and driving engagement, in a field where driving engagement often doesn’t seem that much of a priority. As the driver, you just tell it what to do; it does that, with reasonable precision. It’s very comfortable, and the driving ergonomics are great - a real cut above like-priced competitors.
Outback feels even more relatively surefooted as conditions deteriorate. This is another Subaru core strength, due to...
For this 2016 Subaru Outback Review I’ve driven all three available powertrains for the Subaru Outback - the two-litre diesel, the 2.5-litre petrol four and the 3.6-litre petrol six. I spent a week in each one, and all three Outbacks were supplied by Subaru Australia from the company’s regular media evaluation fleet. That’s the full extent of Subaru’s involvement in this review. Like all my reviews, Subaru has no say whatsoever in the comment, which is my honest assessment of the Outback. If Subaru happens not to like some of my comments, I’ll add them to the long and distinguished list of carmakers in that impotently disgruntled position.
Another big tick is Subaru’s Symmetrical all-wheel drive. People think this gives you more grip - which is, strictly speaking, bullshit. What it actually gives you is greater predictability when the road is slippery - so you in fact get a more progressive transition from grip to slip - in particular when applying power.
Essentially, all four wheels are driving all the time, and that means, for any given level of overall tractive effort, each wheel is only required to deliver, broadly, half the drive torque, compared with some of those front-drive-only SUV competitors. Result: Less loss of traction from the driving wheels. Symmetrical AWD is also better than many on-demand all-wheel drive systems of competitors, which often take too long to catch up with changes in either the traction underfoot or the driver’s acceleration demands.
Symmetrical AWD is incidentally the fundamental reason why Subaru is a popular mainstream carmaker today - the company used its commitment to Symmetrical all-wheel-drive to differentiate themselves from other Japanese carmakers. Symmetrical AWD is great engineering, and Subaru used that to clamber out of the pool of obscurity and into the motoring mainstream. People in regional Australia - who often drive on (let’s face it) fairly crap dirt roads that haven’t been maintained all that often since the big bang - understand intimately the advantages offered by Symmetrical AWD, and that’s why you see so many Subarus in the bush.
The other huge advantage with Outback is EyeSight - Subaru’s proprietary autonomous safety system, based on two rangefinding stereoscopic cameras mounted up high in the windscreen. There’s some vision of EyeSight in operation and an explanation of it from Subaru Australia’s Managing Director, Nick Senior, in the video report on this page.
EyeSight’s big tricks are that safe-distance-maintaining adaptive cruise control, and automatic emergency braking.
Adaptive cruise (and I know some of you already know this) can sense traffic and slow down for congestion, automatically maintaining a safe following distance, all the while with the cruise control still engaged, which is a pretty cool upgrade if you’ve never actually tried it. Like going from Rosie O’Donnell to Victoria Beckham, kind of thing.
EyeSight also delivers some other pretty effective safety subsystems, and at times driving along, randomly, there can be a bit of EyeSight false alarming going on. (If ‘false-alarming’ is a verb.) Some drivers get somewhat frustrated by that intrusion on their flights of fancy - EyeSight is annoyingly detaining you with advice about something you’ve perhaps already seen and taken into account. Just bear in mind, however, that while the EyeSight system has a proclivity to annoy, it also - importantly - is really designed to save you from that one time when you have failed to identify a serious problem. The actuaries would call that a ‘low probability/high consequence event’.
My take on this is that if a handful of false positive EyeSight interruptions on one’s musings is the price for preventing - one day - the worst day of either your life, or some other poor bastard’s life, then that’s probably a decent, ethical exchange. Also, realistically, if you’re on a long drive and you’ve have six or seven lane-departure EyeSight warning events in the space of 15 minutes - that might be (literally) a wake-up call that you are too fatigued to be driving a car safely.
EyeSight is a brilliant, but somewhat redundantly and trivially annoying system. It’s like wearing a seatbelt - usually pointless, but when you need it, you so profoundly need it.
It’s important to make sure, if you buy a Subaru with EyeSight (it’s standard across the EyeSight range) that you get comprehensive insurance that includes windscreen replacement coverage. This is because re-installing and re-calibrating that EyeSight hardware is not an especially cheap exercise following a broken windscreen.
Pricing - Outback is right on the money
The final big plus in Outback’s arsenal is the price: The range is from just under $40,000 to just over $53,000 - on the road.
That’s a lot less than a Kluger, Santa Fe, Sorento and Territory - and OK there are only five seats on offer. But the overall size is brilliant, there’s a huge cargo space, and the features list is very, very impressive.
Approximate recommended drive-away pricing (correct for NSW, as at June 2016):
Outback 2.5i CVT - $40,355
Outback 2.5i Premium CVT - $46,535
Outback 2.0D manual - $39,840
Outback 2.0D CVT - $42,930
Outback 2.0D Premium manual - $46,535
Outback 2.0D Premium CVT - $49,665
Outback 3.6R - $53,340
Sales: Outback -vs- key competitors
What's hot and what's not. Below: SUV sales for the year to date, May 2016
CONTINUOUSLY VARIABLE TRANSMISSION
On the less-brilliant side - and there certainly is one of those - first and foremost for me is the transmission. It’s a CVT, of which my default setting is: not such a fan. To be fair, Subaru has invested a lot of effort making the CVT in this Outback more responsive and engaging than the first-generation CVTs from many manufacturers. But it’s still not absolutely as good - meaning not as responsive nor as progressive, and maybe not as robust, as a well sorted conventional automatic transmission. Some of this comment is an educated guess.
POOR RELATIVE TOW CAPACITY
In particular, the reservation I have about the CVT in Outback is for heavy-ish towing. When you look at the gross fundamentals of this vehicle, it’s the same size - broadly - as a Santa Fe or Sorento and yet it tows only 1500kg (2.5i), 1700kg (2.0D) or 1800kg (3.6R) against many competitors on 2000kg. It doesn’t even match SUVs the next size down - like the Mazda CX-5 on 1800kg, the diesel Sportage on 1900kg or the manual X-TRAIL on 2000kg.
It appears not to be the Outback’s size, nor the weight, nor the performance of the available engines imposing this relatively low maximum limit on the tow capacity. It’s the transmission - guaranteed.
So, conveniently, to test this, I live on the side of this mountain, and my driveway approximates the north face of the Eiger. (People die getting to the summit, routinely. Usually couriers.) This means, despite the danger of imminent courier death, the K2 driveway is a great place to investigate the low-speed, loaded-up performance of any transmission. So, I’m backing up the Outback up the Matterhorn (driveway) - and that CVT is definitely not happy. I’ve seen ‘happy’ - and this driveway reversing experience is definitely not it. And it’s definitely not doing it as well as a conventional automatic transmission. And I definitely wouldn’t want to be backing a trailer, boat, caravan loaded with dead bodies - whatever - in this situation.
So: If you plan on towing something heavy - meaning close to the limit - say, 1200kg or more - and you plan on doing it regularly, I’d be barking up a different towing tree. I’m not so convinced Outback is the definitive best moderately heavy towing choice available. It also depends how often you intend doing this. If it’s hundreds or thousands of kilometres each year - I am simply not sold on Outback as a robust moderate tow platform. What I’m not saying here - is to avoid Outback for occasional light towing - taking the box trailer to Bomb-makers R Us and coming home with a few hundred litres of kerosene and hydrogen peroxide - all good. Light, infrequent towing … knock yourself out. Heavy towing: not so sure.
Another key area that Subaru really needs to focus on is aesthetics. I usually don’t comment on styling because:
- beauty’s in the eye of the beholder (just look at Amber Heard and Johnny Depp...), and
- people have eyes, and they don’t need to be routinely told how a car actually looks.
However, it’s pretty clear that companies like Hyundai and Kia - thanks to poaching the former Audi style king Peter Schreyer - have stolen some real aesthetic ground from the likes of Toyota and Subaru. Like: Did the roof rails on Outback really have to be that awful and chunky? Really? Would it have been that hard to make the interior as well integrated as a Santa Fe or Sorento?
On the Aural front, do we really need that awful synthesised faux orchestral glissade every time you get inside? Kia does this too - it’s a mistake of 'letting Donald Trump open his trap' proportions. But at least there’s no fake wood in Outback, and the ergonomics - another Subaru strength - are excellent.
The other big criticism here is service interval and cost. Six months and 12,500km. Many other manufacturers have moved to 12 months and 15,000km. Forgive me for being an engineer here - but metallurgy is metallurgy, conditions inside conventional, similar engines really don’t vary that much, and oil technology is constant across the entire automotive industry.
The reason some companies, of which Subaru is one, are resistant to adopting a 12-month service interval is purely commercial. It’s tied to dealer profitability. Double the service interval and you halve the servicing cashflow in dealerships - it’s that simple. Dealers would hate that. In my view, that’s a poor justification for maintaining a hard-to-justify, expensive service interval. (Because the retailers wouldn’t like it.)
There’s no good reason for six-monthly services in terms of available metallurgy or oil technology. So it’s either just a rip-off or inferior engineering. Subaru needs to try harder here because although the price of Outback at all grades is extremely sharp, the service cost is comparatively high - and certainly that’s something for you to consider before taking the decision to buy one.
Choosing the right Outback
There are three engines and they all do a reasonable job getting the Outback from A to B - the 2.5i four-cylinder petrol is the sweet spot for me in this car. In a straight line the 3.6-litre six-cylinder goes a lot better, but I’m not so sure it goes $6500 better. So there’s a value proposition there for you to consider: how fast are you prepared to pay to go?
On the diesel front, I’m a bit underwhelmed by the Outback diesel - it is basically out-gunned by competitors’ two-litre diesels. The Hyundai-Kia 2.0-diesel makes 24 per cent more power and 14 per cent more torque - so I’m not totally sold on the Subaru diesel in terms of being up there with the best on a comparative basis.
If you get out of a bomby old car and drive an Outback diesel it will probably feel quite strong, but if you get out of a Hyundai Tucson or Kia Sportage diesel, it won’t. This is just one reason why you should never test drive a prospective new car against your crappy old car. More advice on How to Test-drive Like a Pro >>
OUTBACK ENGINEs -vs- COMPETITORS
Subaru Outback 2.5i
129 kW @ 5800rpm
235 Nm @ 4000 rpm
Subaru Outback 2.0D
110 kW @ 3600 rpm
350 Nm @ 1600-2800 rpm
Subaru Outback 3.6R
191 kW @ 6000 rpm
350 Nm @ 4400 rpm
Mazda CX-5 2.5petrol SKYACTIV-G
138 kW @ 5700rpm
250 Nm @ 4000 rpm
136 kW @ 4000 rpm
400 Nm @ 1750-2750 rpm
Toyota Kluger 3.5i
201 kW @ 6200 rpm
337 Nm @ 4700 rpm
Nissan X-TRAIL 2.5i petrol
126 kW @ 6000rpm
226 Nm @ 4000 rpm
Mazda CX-5 2.2 biturbo diesel
129 kW @ 4500 rpm
420 Nm @ 2000 rpm
Kia Sorento 3.3i
199 kW @ 6400 rpm
318 Nm @ 5300 rpm
The other burning question is base-spec versus Premium spec. It’s a $6000 question for the diesel and the 2.5 - and of course the 3.6 is available in premium spec only. (There’s no ‘poverty’ 3.6 option.) The base-spec Subaru Outback comes with a great deal of standard equipment - so it’s definitely not a poverty pack either. It’s got a lot of safety equipment in particular - including EyeSight.
If you jump to Premium you add blind spot monitoring, lane change assist and rear cross traffic alert. You also get a sunroof, a bit of extra garnish, upgraded lighting, an auto dimmer on the mirror, power tailgate, proximity key with pushbutton start, leather, eight-way electrically adjustable front seats, the bigger touchscreen, and GPS.
Premium-spec in Outback is significantly nicer, of course, but it’s not as if the base spec is all that ‘third world’ to begin with. I didn’t jump in that 2.5i and think - ahhhh yes - Mogadishu. Smells like Black Hawk Down all over again.
Subaru has an excellent comparison tool for comparing Outback features by model grade >>
As a one-size fits all family five-seat SUV with a solidly practical breadth of ability, and massive cargo volume, it’s hard to fault the Outback. Get the windscreen cover on your insurance, and expect to pay more for a service than your neighbours with Mazdas, Hyundai and Kias. But it will be great to drive. If you don’t need heavy towing or seven seats, an Outback 2.5i Premium is the pick of the litter for me, at about $46 grand, drive away. And if that seems a bit rich, it’s not that much of a compromise to step back to the base 2.5i for about $40,000 - that’s an affordable full-sized five-seat SUV. And if you want to get the lowest possible price, at least, here in Australia - contact me via the red link below. We get great deals across the Subaru Range. Give it a try, if you’re in the market - you could easily save thousands, there’s no face-to-face negotiation with a dealer, and the entire process is completely obligation free.
- More info: Subaru's online facts & marketing fluff on Outback >>