The Subaru Outback diesel finally gets an automatic transmission, but is the CVT a smooth operator?
The Subaru Outback is the default choice for those that want a spacious, very capable, all-wheel-drive Japanese wagon with solid build quality. Subaru’s undeniable reputation for durability and reliability is an added bonus.
For a few years now the Subaru Outback has been available with a diesel engine but only ever offered with a manual transmission. Now, for the first time, it will be released as a diesel automatic proposition, addressing the biggest hole in the company’s lineup.
From the outside the Subaru Outback has never been a looker, but having spent more than three months with our long term Outback test car last year, we can safely say what it lacks in looks, in makes up for in pretty much everything else.
The exterior of the new automatic diesel is identical to the manual diesel variant, with the same bonnet scoop carried over, helping to guide air onto the intercooler for the turbo-diesel engine.
To keep things simple, there are only two variants of the diesel Outback range. The base model starts from $42,490 and comes with 17-inch alloy wheels, a full complement of safety features (including a reversing camera) that give it a maximum five-star ANCAP safety rating, Bluetooth phone connectivity and audio streaming, satellite navigation and dual-zone air-conditioning. The combination is enough to make the entry-level Outback an attractive buy for the price.
However, just $3000 more will get you the Premium spec level which adds an electric sunroof, electro-luminescent gauges and colour LCD information display, full leather seat trim, power driver’s seat with memory function and rear air conditioning vents – the latter a must if you plan on putting kids in the back. Subaru expects the $45,490 Premium model to take the majority of sales for private buyers.
The Outback is a very spacious car, so much so that we managed to fit two weeks worth of travelling gear (for two adults and a baby) into the back, with room to spare. The front seats are comfortable both in standard and leather trim while the rear can easily accommodate two large adults or three when required. Isofix child seat anchors also feature.
The electric park brake has moved from its original position above the driver’s right knee to the traditional place between driver and passenger, while cabin noise has been reduced by a claimed 6.5 per cent.
The interior is covered in hard but decent-quality plastics that, while making the cabin feel a touch cheap, offer a high level of durability. Our biggest issue with the 2012 model has also been rectified with the updated 2013 model’s satellite navigation and infotainment system finally able to be properly connected to a smartphone for both Bluetooth audio streaming and telephone connectivity in one go. The system itself uses a bright and easy to read seven-inch screen that, though reasonable, lacks the high-resolution picture display of screens found in some competitors.
The party piece of this model, though, is of course the automatic transmission. We say automatic to avoid confusion but in reality the Outback diesel auto employs a continuously variable transmission (CVT) instead of a regular torque-converter automatic gearbox.
What’s a CVT? A more detailed explanation can be found here, but briefly, it means that it has a single gear that expands and retracts as required. But does it work with a diesel?
For starters, the Subaru combination of a diesel and a CVT is rare. The interesting aspect here is how Subaru has implemented the CVT system with the diesel powerplant.
In regular driving situations the CVT will act like a normal CVT. It will sit in the right rev band and stay there without any attempts to feel like a ‘regular’ gearbox with individual gears. It can sound odd as it increases speed without ‘changing gears’ but if you plant the accelerator past 65 percent, it will go into what Subaru calls ‘step shift control’ – creating seven artificial gears and stepping through them as it accelerates. This makes it feel exactly like a traditional gearbox, but also effectively defeats the benefits of a progressively ‘shifting’ CVT.
The 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel has a power output of 110kW and delivers 350Nm of torque. Despite weighing a rather hefty 1600kg, the CVT and diesel engine combine for an official fuel economy figure of just 6.5 litres per 100km – better than a CVT-equipped petrol-engined Toyota Corolla at 6.6L/100km.
The benefit of a diesel, apart from fuel economy, is pulling power. The Outback is by no means underdone, though it doesn’t have the torque surge you might expect of a diesel. It has the same torque output as diesel engines from the Germans (Volkswagen Passat Alltrack and Skoda Octavia Scout) but teamed with the CVT, it feels sluggish when overtaking at highway speeds.
Driving at 90km/h and flattening the accelerator for an overtaking manoeuvre might leave you a little unimpressed as the Outback diesel CVT tends to take its time to gain speed. It’s unlikely to be an issue for most (and still provides more punch than the 2.5-litre petrol), but if you’re expecting amazing power delivery across the rev range then the 3.6-litre six-cylinder engine might be the go.
On road the Outback is very compliant, absorbing the bumps without bouncing around and is well suited to country roads and, of course, city roads. Steering has been retuned for the MY13 update and is now more precise than before and though there’s not much feedback coming through the wheel, it’s light and well suited to the application.
We drove our automatic diesel Subaru Outback test car through multiple dirt and loose surface roads around the outskirts of Wagga Wagga and Gundagai and found it behaved well, settling easily. If you push a lot, it does tend to get a little sideways at times but the car’s many electronic safety features will quickly jump to your aid and get the car back in shape. With a 213mm ground clearance, it’s also capable of some basic off-roading when called upon.
Overall the Subaru Outback diesel automatic is destined to do well. It offers a very competent package for a reasonable price. It’s best compared against its already mentioned German rivals and the more traditional large SUVs such as the Hyundai Santa Fe, Kia Sorento and the ageing and soon to be replaced Nissan Pathfinder and Toyota Kluger.
Subaru offers a three-year unlimited kilometer warranty and there is no extra cost for metallic paint. The Outback does miss out on capped-priced servicing, however, which is offered by some of its competitors.