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The Skoda Octavia Scout arrived in March aiming to steal a slice of the all-terrain, all-wheel-drive premium wagon pie from Subaru Outback. A niche pie that the Outback has and continues to own in Australia, as demonstrated by recent record-breaking sales – despite the less-than-threatening opposition presented by rivals such as, well, Skoda’s own Superb 4×4 Outdoor.

On size, space, diesel engine stats and broader spec, the 4×4 Outdoor, launched mid-2014, sits neatly in the same large-car segment as Outback while offering marginally more interior and luggage space. The ideal challenger, right? Not after the fifth-gen Outback arrived in December, complete with huge pricing cuts that left the big $52,690 Czech a whopping $17,200 more expensive than the base Outback 2.0D. Even against that top-spec Premium oiler ($43,490) tested here, the 4×4 Outdoor, a lacklustre 6.5/10 prospect, faces an insurmountable challenge.

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The latest Scout range, however, arrived in March with its own massive price drop. And if you’re after the torque and frugality of a small turbo diesel, the tree-topping 135TDI version tested here, at $41,390, undercuts its direct Subaru rival, the 2.0D Premium, by $2100.

Both have 2.0-litre diesel engines and all-wheel drive, the Scout scoring 8.5 out of ten in review and the oiler Outback earning an 8.0 in our comparison test against Ford Territory TS. Game on, then… if you factor in that the Scout is, technically, a segment smaller than the Outback. Something many buyers shopping for a soft-roading wagon most certainly do consider.

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However, the new-gen Scout has grown enough in size – marginally everywhere, though crucially around 10cm in length and wheelbase – to make differences in categorisation mostly a non-issue. Whip out the measuring tape and the Skoda is just 130mm shorter than the (4815mm) Outback and just 26mm narrower (1814mm to 1840mm). Ostensibly, as a broad snapshot, the updated Scout is the same size as the last-generation Outback, whereas the new Outback has grown further.

It’s grown to the extent that Subaru (now) refers to the Outback as an SUV, which arguably has more to do with Subaru no longer offering a Liberty wagon sans grey plastic accoutrements and a jacked up ride height, than it does about body style and format. A bit of clever marketing, that – it implies superior roominess and practicality that undoubtedly sways many buyers away from conventional wagon stock.

Design and styling

Side by side, the Outback makes the grander statement, which has as much to do with the larger wheels (18 inches versus 17s on the Skoda), taller tyres (60 versus 50 series) and higher ground clearance (213mm versus 171mm) as it does body size.

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From the moment you open the driver’s door – or any door for that matter – the Subaru feels chunkier and weightier, more robust even, than the more elegantly screwed-together Skoda. It’s a trait some buyers will favour, others won’t.

Once inside, the Outback is roomier, but by a much closer degree than the differences in their exterior dimensions suggest. The Skoda packages its interior more cleverly, maximising cabin space. A fine example of this is in luggage space, where the Skoda’s generous 588 litres is superior to the Outback’s 512L with the rear seats up, though the Subaru provides a larger 1801L cargo area to the Scout’s 1718L once the rear split-fold seats are stowed.

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Equipment

Despite all the price slashing, the two wagon protagonists are loaded with equipment. Both feature 8.0-inch touchscreen displays, sat-nav, Bluetooth and audio streaming, audio control, USB/AUX/SD card facilities, cruise control, dual-zone climate control, reversing cameras, heated/electric-folding mirrors and electric powered tailgates.

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Subaru gets sunroof and rear privacy glass as standard.

Both offer powered driver and front passenger seats with heating and driver’s side lumber adjustment, but the Scout’s seating is superior, more contoured and supportive in both two rows and finished in a blend of more supple leather and Alcantara than the Subaru’s more plastic-y hide. You also sit higher in the Subaru, for a slightly more SUV-like view of the world, though both cars offer excellent all-round visibility.

The Czech wagon feels the more premium offering. While the Subaru has a simpler, more stripped back ambience, the Skoda is more Germanic in richness, colourisation and textures, its fit and finish a little cleaner. That said, the Subaru’s choice of materials abound, including a judicious use of leather on the doors and centre console, which are anything but low-rent.

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The Outback’s ‘big and simple’ theme extends to the look and usability of the infotainment and central stack controls, though its multifunction steering wheel is festooned with more buttons than the Skoda, which is equally intuitive and straightforward with its user interface, but has more enticing metallic details and is a little slicker in control and switchgear operation.

The longer Subaru cabin affords exceptional rear knee and legroom, while the Skoda is narrower for shoulder room in both rows and doesn’t quite match the Outback for headroom. That’s the relative take. In isolation, the Scout is comfortable and commodious in both rows and is suitably accommodating for long-hauling four adults or most family units. Both wagons offer ample oddment storage, rear air vents and both ISOFIX and conventional child seat mounting points.

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Both offer quick-release levers to remotely drop their 60:40 split-fold seats from their electric tailgates, but the higher floor of the Subaru provides a more pleasing load height – though it does lacks the sheer depth of the Skoda’s cargo area.

The Subaru boasts a five-star ANCAP rating, the Scout is unrated (though the regular Octavia range, for what it’s worth, is a five-star proposition). That said, the Skoda offers nine airbags to the Subaru’s seven. You have to tick the $3300 Tech Pack box to option-up advanced features such as lane assist and automatic parking assist in the Skoda (though adaptive cruise with low speed emergency braking available in other Scout variants isn’t offered in the Tech Pack on the 135TDI). That’s no disadvantage, as the Subaru’s rather exceptional active safety suite, EyeSight, isn’t available on diesel-engined versions of the Outback. So far, so even.

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Power and engine

The Subaru flat four’s outputs of 110kW and 350Nm aren’t headlining, even by usually modest 2.0-litre turbo-diesel standards. And while Skoda does offer a similar workmanlike engine in Scout – 110kW and 340Nm – it’s reserved for the entry ($32,990) 110TDI manual variant.

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This 135TDI spec Scout gets – as its name suggests – a far superior 135kW ‘high-output’ 2.0-litre oiler which also produces a rather useful extra 30Nm of torque over the Subaru’s boxer. The Outback’s engine also has a quite narrow 2000rpm operating range: a full 350Nm arrives at 1600rpm and peak power gives up the ghost at anything beyond 3600rpm. The Scout doesn’t improve things much, though: its sweet spot between peak torque and power spread is between 1750rpm and 4000rpm, but its 380Nm is on tap across a broader rpm range.

Calibration of the Subaru’s CVT unit has a canny knack of keeping the narrow-focused boxer engine on boil – specifically, it rarely ventures far from 2000rpm. There’s no lag in the transmission’s operation, so, while there’s a short pause in the diesel’s call to arms off idle, the powertrain is both quite responsive off the mark and very driveable on the move. In short, the transmission, complete with convincing faux ‘gear changes’, really makes the engine shine.

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No such plaudits for the Scout’s six-speed dual-clutch ‘DSG’ automated gearbox, which jolts and thuds during light-throttle urban driving as it attempts to keep the diesel in its operating range. Worst yet is the alarming pause off the mark before the Scout lunges forward under torque, making low-speed bumper-to-bumper driving an experience of frustrated concentration. It’s yet another example that peaky engines and dual-clutch transmissions are still unhappy marriages in applications where a good old stall-convertor auto – or the often much-maligned CVT – would offer superior refinement and everyday driveability.

Both engines are rattly, which seems to remain a common trait among small-capacity diesel engines regardless of maker, though it’s the Outback that does the most convincing Massey Ferguson impression.

The Outback feels noticeably more wieldy and slightly more cumbersome on the road than the Skoda. Some of that is sheer size and some of it is due to its considerable 1723kg kerb weight, though its only around 90kg heavier than the Scout. Indeed, the Czech wagon also boasts a more favourable 5.3L/100km combined consumption claim to the 6.3L figure of the Japanese ‘SUV’…though during our test cycle – mostly on-road urban driving with a smattering of light off-road – both wagons returned consumption figures in low eights.

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The Subaru’s steering is a little lazier to respond to inputs and, generally, it’s slightly less connected to on-road surfaces, much of which can be attributed to the Outback’s all-rounder Bridgestone Dueller H/P rubber against the Scout’s grippy, tarmac-focused Continental SportContact 3 tyres. That said, the Outback has more than ample road-holding adhesion for how owners will tend to drive them day to day.

And for everyday liveability, the more compliant on-road ride quality of the Subaru will no doubt appeal to a great many buyers more than the quite firmly suspended Skoda, though the slightly fidgety-riding Scout is anything but harsh and fatiguing.

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That said, the Skoda’s more compact size makes it much easier to negotiate the confines of the urban landscape, particularly when parking – it’s less tasking to steer and easier to judge its extremities when manoeuvring, and has a noticeably smaller turning circle that its Japanese rival.

Off road

An excursion across a lumpy trail comprised of dirt, mud and gravel typifies the soft-roading challenges these wagons are likely to encounter.

The Skoda offers Normal, Sport, Eco and Individual settings via its drive mode selector, though none of them are specifically tailored to off-road use nor alter the all-wheel drive’s characteristics. Instead, the Skoda’s fifth-generation Haldex all-wheel drive system, which automatically adapts to the terrain thrown at it, acquitted itself well. The Electronic Diff Lock, which applies braking to any free spinning wheel on either axle, seems to work a treat over deeper ruts and undulations.

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That said, the main limiting factors in how far off the beaten track the Scout might sensibly venture are its modest ground clearance – thankfully plastic under-body protection is fitted as standard – and the meagre tractive abilities of its road-oriented rubber.

Subaru’s Active Torque Split all-wheel drive, which reacts to surface changes in real time, is quite handy when left to its won devices. But activate X-mode – which recalibrates engine/transmission/AWD/limited-slip differential for off-road use at speeds of up to 40km/h plus hill descent control up to 20km/h – and the Outback is noticeably more tenacious at tackling the rough stuff. It’s no LandCruiser in its sense of off-road focus, though it does encourage a little more adventure and confidence during flights of dirty fancy.

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Want to tow? You could be forgiven for thinking that the Outback trailer-dragging prowess is measurably superior to the Scout’s, but it’s not the case: unbraked, both wagons are good for hauling 750kg, while it’s the Skoda that offers a marginally higher 1800kg braked trailer rating against the Subaru’s 1700kg.

 

Warranty

Both the Outback and the Scout are covered by a fairly rudimentary three-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty. Each comes inclusive of 24-hour roadside assist, though the Subaru scheme is for 12 months while the Skoda extends its assistance for the duration of the warranty.

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For the Scout, the first six servicing intervals occur every 15,000kms or every 12 months, whichever comes first, with six years of capped pricing ranging from $385 (first service) to $900 (60,000km). Additional costs include brake fluid ($125) ever 12 months and Haldex AWD oil ($131) every 24 months.

The Outback, though, caps pricing on servicing for six intervals, but because each interval is just six months or 12,500kms apart, whichever comes first, the scheme extends for a total of three years or 75,000kms. Service intervals cost between $304.89 (first service) and $547.94 (24 months/50,000kms).

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The Skoda comes in a choice of seven colours and two wheels styles, though the cabin is only offered in a classy if predictable dark grey scheme. You can have you Subaru’s interior finished in a choice of ivory or black and its paintwork in nine different hues, though you are stuck with its one fetching rim design.

 

Conclusion

It’s not difficult to see why Subaru’s Outback breed is something of perfect storm, really: the confidence of the brand’s hard-fought reputation in Australia, the lure of SUV-isms (sans the large-car stigma) without another Subaru substitute in sight, the promise of family-swallowing spaciousness and fit-for-sunburnt-country off-roadability, whether you need it now or might do some fair-weather driving someday.

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The Outback is such safe and familiar territory, pure and simple, underpinned by absolutely outstanding value. And its wide-ranging appeal is proven as safety in (sales) numbers. If that sounds like you all over then read no further. With the 2.0D Premium, you’re on an absolute winner… though not necessarily the winner of this comparison test.

As a value proposition, the Scout 4×4 135TDI is a match for the top-dog oiler Outback. It just doesn’t pitch the brand cache, SUV-ness, commodiousness or beaten track-ability so assertively. None of which makes the Skoda a less valid purchasing choice than the Subaru –  just one that’s a little shrewder and more inspired.

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Crucially, while the perception may well be that the smaller Skoda offers inferior practicality at swallowing families or ‘getaway’ gear for recreation, it doesn’t demand real-world compromise.

That the more Euro-flavoured wagon is a little more city-friendly, though no less practical, makes it perhaps the shrewder choice for urbanites never planning to set a tyre off road.

Click the Photos tab for more images by Christian Barbeitos.



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