The new Subaru Outback is more refined, better equipped and more affordable than its predecessor. Are there any chinks in its armour? Matt Campbell finds out.
The 2015 Subaru Outback has arrived in Australia ahead of going on sale in January packed with lower pricing and more equipment.
What has long been a rugged looking wagon-bodied version of the Subaru Liberty is now designed to be a more independent offering, one that the Japanese brand claims will better compete with plenty of well-known large SUVs on the market.
Those vehicles include the Ford Territory, Holden Captiva and Toyota Kluger, all of which offer buyers the option of seven seats – the Outback doesn’t have that. But Subaru says the new model will also appeal to buyers who may have looked at other wagons such as the Mazda 6 and Holden Commodore.
That’s because Subaru has just lopped $10,000 off the price of its six-cylinder petrol wagon, the Outback 3.6R – the car Subaru thinks is the most fitting model for Australia. And after our first drive of that particular variant at the brand’s launch of the new Outback this week in Gippsland, Victoria, we think he could be on to something.
Let’s get some perspective: the previous horizontally opposed six-cylinder Outback was always a very niche car, sitting at the top of the range with an unrealistic $57,990 plus on-road costs price tag. Now, at $47,990 plus on-roads, it’s sitting in a different position, offering plenty of new equipment and more safety gear than similarly priced wagon rivals like the Holden Calais Sportwagon.
You can read more about the specification levels of the 2015 Subaru Outback here, but suffice to say, the 3.6R is packed with goodies. Subaru claims it has added $3500 of extra value (in the form of items such as a harman/kardon stereo system, plus other new items including a powered tailgate, new touchscreen media unit and updated EyeSight forward collision safety system).
Indeed, the car feels more luxurious from the moment you slide into the seat. The 3.6R gets standard leather trim with front seat heating (but no seat cooling) and electric adjustment, while soft, supple leather also covers the arm rests on the doors and centre console lid.
There are soft plastics covering the upper and lower dashboard and the tops of the door trims, while a sunroof shines a little light on the situation on all models with the Premium suffix and above.
There are a few reminders of the previous-generation Outback, including the perforated leather backing on the door trims and the squarish door pockets, but otherwise it feels much more pleasant.
That ambience is further enhanced by the new media screen that adorns the piano black-trimmed centre console.
It is a crisp, clear display unit with hard buttons to the side that allow for simple menu navigation, while the interface itself has swipe, pinch and double-tap functionality that makes it work similarly to a smartphone. It’s not the quickest in terms of reaction time, nor are the graphics as dazzling as they could be, but it’s a huge improvement on the existing system which was clunky and confusing. It is supplemented by a pair of USB inputs, and, in a first for the Outback, voice control.
Storage is excellent throughout the cabin, and dual-zone climate control is standard on all models (tick, Subaru), as are rear-seat air-vents (tick, tick!).
That ventilation keeps things comfortable in the back seat, which offers excellent head-room and exceptional knee-room. Only foot space is slightly confined due to the prominent seat base that sticks out from under the squab and means you need to sit with your feet further forward than you might otherwise find comfortable.
The Outback has three Isofix child seat anchor points, though the company persists with a rattly (in the case of our pre-production test car) roof-mounted middle seatbelt.
On the topic of safety, the Outback is – as the company claims – the safest vehicle it has ever built. It recently scored the maximum five-star ANCAP crash test rating (with a score of 35.99 out of 37), and all petrol models have the aforementioned EyeSight collision prevention tech (diesels miss out due to ECU calibration challenges).
The boot space of the Outback has always been competitive due to its wagon body shape, and the new-generation model is no different – it has 512 litres of space with the seats up (they drop 60:40 to a relatively flat load area) and the boot floor hides a full-size alloy spare wheel.
We didn’t need a spare (thankfully!) despite tackling some rugged terrain on our drive, where we had the chance to use the X-Mode off-road driving setting that regulates the braking and throttle response for smoother progress. It works in tandem with the hill descent control function, and unlike other examples we’ve tested in the past, there was no graunchy, unsophisticated downhill squabbling from the 18-inch tyres.
It felt surefooted and compliant over slippery gravel, too, even at speed. That has a lot to do with the way the new Outback drives, with a great amount of road feel offered to the driver’s hands through the steering wheel and the base of the seat (which is otherwise a little flat and somewhat unsupportive).
On sealed tarmac, it became even clearer that the new Outback is considerably more mature and well versed at cornering and on-road stability. Where the old model felt wobbly and unwieldy through twisty corners, the new model is more progressive in its reaction, and the (range-wide) addition of a torque vectoring function that mildly brakes the inside wheel to cancel out understeer means it feels more agile than ever before.
The ride quality is also improved, with the suspension settling quickly after hitting large bumps, but it can be somewhat jittery over corrugations. It does feel heavier – in fact, it is heavier, by a full 100 kilograms in 3.6R guise (now 1702kg) – through the bends, but the body-roll and side-to-side weight shift is well controlled.
For those who wish to tow on their adventures in the great outdoors, the 3.6R model has the best hauling capability (750 kilograms unbraked/1800kg braked). The 2.0D has a 1700kg braked towing capacity, while the base petrol four-cylinder has 1500kg braked towing capacity.
The 3.6-litre horizontally opposed ‘boxer’ engine has been tweaked for more efficiency, though it retains the same peak power output of 191kW (at 6000rpm) and torque remains stable at 350Nm (at 4400rpm).
The power delivery of this engine has always been smooth, albeit with a slight warble under hard throttle, though the new model appears to have ironed that out to make it even more buttery under throttle. What was most surprising, though, was how quiet it is inside the cabin – the petrol V6 is barely audible to those inside.
What is somewhat more noticeable, however, is the continuously variable transmission (CVT) automatic’s artificial stepped gearchanges. While the previous ‘box was a slurry five-speed auto, the new automatic feels more definitive in its progress, though we noted the ‘shifts’ could be a little hard in some instances.
We also had a chance to sample the 2.0D Premium turbo diesel four-cylinder ‘boxer’ engine, mated to a similar CVT auto.
This engine has never been a world-beater – not when its power (110kW at 3600rpm) and torque (350Nm between 1600-2800rpm) figures remain stable in a world where Hyundai and Kia have a 2.2-litre unit producing 145kW and 436Nm.
While it is a refined (and surprisingly quiet) diesel four-cylinder with little low-rev rumble or hard acceleration harshness noticeable in the cockpit, it feels breathless at lower speeds and there is a frustrating amount of lag under sudden throttle input.
It does make for a decent cruiser, but there’s certainly a lack of punch that may find some drivers wishing for more.
Speaking of buyers, the Outback is covered by a three-year, unlimited kilometre warranty, as well as Subaru’s lifetime capped-price service program. That setup isn’t the most affordable ownership experience, with services due every six months or 12,500, whichever comes first. Average pricing for the first five years (or 125,000km) works out to be $859 per annum. Buy the 3.6R and you’re looking at an average of $1032 per year - well above some rivals.
The 2015 Subaru Outback is a vast improvement over its predecessor, and one that packs more equipment, better refinement and more attractive prices. There are still some bugbears – mainly that diesel engine’s lack of push, and its servicing costs – but there’s plenty to like about this majorly refreshed family wagon.