Considering the glut of luxury-spec, large SUVs currently vying for market space, it is surprising to find a tempting option rise from left field in the form of the 2015 Subaru Outback 3.6R.
It’s not that the Outback nameplate has struggled to find a loyal following down under. On the contrary, the previous model found around 23,000 new homes in Australia, and that was before last year’s big price cut that slashed between $2000 and $10,000 across the seven variant range.
That said, Australians also continue to fuel an insatiable appetite for high-riding SUVs at the expense of the traditional station wagon, which has struggled to find favour even with the outdoorsy lifestyle types.
In 2014 alone, Australians bought almost 353,000 SUVs — about a third of all vehicles sold — and that number could easily climb this year.
The Subaru Outback, though, has somewhat bucked that trend by offering as much (in some cases more) carrying capacity, a suitably high ride height and, perhaps most importantly, car-like drivability with dead-easy ingress and egress (getting in and out).
It’s more of a crossover than a regular wagon, being blessed with a minimum 213mm ground clearance, compared with the Liberty sedan’s 150 millimetres (tellingly, there’s no longer a Liberty wagon).
And like each and every vehicle in Subaru’s line-up, the Outback benefits from constant all-wheel drive, so it’s more than capable of conquering moderately difficult fire trails and off-road tracks to get to those secret surf breaks and out-of-the-way camping spots.
Not surprisingly, Subaru chose not to mess around with the latest Outback’s robust styling. Mind, I’ve never thought of the Outback as a particularly attractive vehicle, though at first glance, this fifth-generation model looks decidedly more polished than the previous iteration.
Subtle changes have been made for the better. There’s less body cladding all over and gone are the flared wheel arches for a more a slightly cleaner profile. However, at the same time the new grille is more pronounced and the roofline is distinctively swept back for a less rugged silhouette.
Our range-topping Outback 3.6R six-cylinder tester wears a price tag from $47,990 plus on-roads, which is a genuine bargain when compared to its predecessor that attracted a $10,000 premium.
It’s also less expensive than all of its main rivals, including the $48,490 Volkswagen Passat Alltrack and the $59,990 Volvo XC70. Czech brand Skoda has two premium crossover contenders: the $50,490 Skoda Superb Elegance TDI 4x4, as well as the newer Scout Premium (based on the Octavia) from $46,290.
Inside, the improvements are far more obvious.
From the moment you slide your behind into the driver’s seat of the top-shelf Outback 3.6R, first impressions are of a superbly comfortable car with premium materials and top-notch build quality.
Highlights include the perforated leather-upholstered front seats with extended seat cushion, (though if I’m being picky, they could do with a smidge more side bolster, given the benefits of its extra-taut chassis — more on that later).
There’s an abundance of soft-touch plastics that share a first-rate look and feel. And they blend perfectly with an array of brushed metal and piano black accents around the dash and centre console.
The large centrally mounted touchscreen is where you’ll find most of the car’s controls, including navigation, phone, audio, apps and settings. The only downside is it’s not a particularly high-resolution unit and there’s a fair amount of reflection in direct light, making it hard to read on occasion.
Thankfully, though, it’s an uncluttered layout with the only traditional dials being those for the climate control air conditioning.
Standard equipment across the entire Outback range is extremely generous (click here for a complete model-by-model inventory) and includes auto-everything, with Premium models adding creature comforts such as a power tailgate, electric sunroof, power-folding heated side mirrors, and smart key with push button start.
Our 3.6R tester adds a few other goodies, including a Harman/Kardon 12-speaker sound system with subwoofer.
Safety-wise, the Outback gets the whole kit and caboodle. There’s a full suite of active and passive technologies across all models, featuring seven airbags (including full-length curtain and driver’s knee airbags), as well as Subaru’s innovative EyeSight system with the added benefit of brake light recognition and front vehicle start alert.
The later feature is particularly useful in stop/start traffic, as it’s able to recognise the car in front pulling away and produces a visual and audible alarm if the Subaru doesn’t move forward.
So, while luxury and features are well and truly covered in the Outback, it’s the exceptional comfort and full-size space that make this cabin such a joy for driver and passengers alike.
There’s room for five large adults with decent rear legroom and plenty of headspace for those longer drives.
Along with the electrically powered tailgate, you also get auto-folding rear seat backs – conveniently activated via levers in the rear cargo bay – an area capable of swallowing at least three surfboards (including a 9-foot mal as tested) along with a stack of other bulky sports gear.
If you need more space, the Outback is trailer-rated to 1800kg of braked towing capacity.
The premium nature and flexible layout of the cabin is mirrored in the Outback’s overall performance dynamics and high level of ride comfort – particularly with the 3.6R variant.
Under the bonnet lies a 3.6-litre naturally aspirated six-cylinder petrol engine producing 191kW at 6000rpm and 350Nm of torque from 4400rpm. There’s still no direct injection, so while there’s decent punch available under a solid throttle load, there’s less low-down torque on tap than you get in the top-spec four-cylinder turbo Forester XT.
While it can’t quite match the fuel economy of the 2.0-litre diesel or smaller 2.5i four-cylinder petrol auto models with claims of 6.3 litres per 100km and 7.3L/100km (combined-cycle) respectively, the Outback 3.6R offers smooth power delivery for effortless driving.
Subaru claims an average fuel consumption of 9.9L/100km, and while that’s likely achievable, you’re more likely to get closer to 12L/100km or above, at least in the suburbs.
For this generation Outback, the engine is mated to Subaru’s proprietary Lineartronic continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), and while I’m yet to be convinced of the benefits they deliver over a conventional automatic, this particular example is very good.
Unlike those we have previously encountered on different makes and models that tend to produce a hideous high-pitch noise under sustained loads, Subaru’s version has been tuned to mirror standard gear ratios up the rev range. It will fool most people into believing it’s a standard six-speed auto, but best of all, it’s quiet and more refined than any other I’ve tested.
Drivers can also switch between several drive modes; Intelligent, for linear power output; Sports, offering the sweet spot between economy and performance; and Sports Sharp that offers the most direct throttle response and fastest acceleration.
We found Intelligent to be perfect in slow stop/start driving offering a smooth take off, while the Sports and Sports Sharp settings provided more excitement when the road opened up.
Drivers can also use the paddleshifters, which I found myself reverting to, more often than not, and mostly in the Sports Sharp mode. It’s the place to be if you want hesitation-free acceleration off the line.
It’s also got a noticeably quicker steering ratio that its predecessor, so the latest Outback feels more agile and drives less like a large car. There’s decent weight and feel to the steering, so there’s a tendency to want to have some fun in the twisty sections. That’s not something that ever came to mind in the previous model.
Where this crossover really shines though, is with its ride quality. All manner of bumps and cracked surfaces are completely anaesthetised by the Outback’s improved front and rear suspension systems. I’d go so far as to say its far more passenger friendly than all but the most luxurious SUVs.
While on this occasion we didn’t get the chance to test the Outback’s metal off-road (we promise we’ll do that soon) but by inheriting the Enhanced Active AWD system and the new X-Mode from the Forester, the vehicle’s all-terrain performance on rough roads should be more than adequate.
Active torque vectoring should also assist with performance on low-traction surfaces by controlling torque to individual wheels.
For those that don’t mind the rugged looks and the Japanese badge, it’s hard to imagine a better all-round vehicle for less than 50 grand.
After a week with the Outback I struggled to find genuine fault with this wagon. It’s got pace, space and all the right kit to fit into almost any lifestyle situation.
Add to that Subaru’s bulletproof reputation for reliability, all-wheel drive capability and superior build quality, and the Outback 3.6R presents a powerful proposition for those that want a little bit more from their family chariot.