Australian buyers have been bashing down the doors at dealers, rushing madly to secure the keys (or keyless fobs) to large SUVs over the past decade without so much as a backward glance. The harsh reality, though, is most of those buyers don’t really need a large SUV.
Remember, ‘want’ is vastly different to ‘need’ and these two all-wheel-drive wagons illustrate the flexibility that can be had, not to mention the vastly superior car-like driving experience, by making a more considered, sensible decision.
For many years, Subaru effectively had this segment all to itself in Australia. There were various pretenders to the throne over the years, but the concept of a useful AWD wagon, with bulletproof reliability and genuine dirt road chops was pretty much a one-horse race. The 2016 Subaru Outback 3.6R certainly benefits from decades of ingrained legacy around the now legendary robustness of the Brumby and the Leone, especially in rural areas.
Perception can often be key, especially in relation to an emotional purchase like a family vehicle and Subaru has well and truly earned its reputation in Australia. Now though, Volkswagen stakes its claim for some of that cross-country territory with 2016 Volkswagen Passat Alltrack – and with pricing so close to that of the Outback, it’s a seriously tough decision.
Pricing and equipment
Despite the Passat Alltrack proudly representing the Euro brigade (and thus commonly inflated sticker prices), the pricing for these two vehicles is very similar – in fact, there’s only an $800 difference in the starting stickers. The Passat kicks off from $49,240 plus on-road costs, while the Outback starts from $48,490 plus on-road costs. There’s a little bit more to that equation though than just numbers as you’ll see in a moment.
Simplifying things for potential Passat buyers is a one-model grade range, with one option package costing $3500. You can see the details of that option package in our Volkswagen Passat Alltrack pricing and specification breakdown. The 2.0-litre turbocharged diesel engine (and accompanying DSG) is it though so far as engine choices. It certainly makes the buying process simple, but on the flip side, it has the potential to alienate buyers looking for more than one engine (or transmission) option.
There’s absolutely no doubt the Outback is the better-equipped of the two in standard specification, especially at 3.6R level as tested here – and that’s where the $800 price difference starts to look even less than it should be.
The Outback misses out on Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, but does get an otherwise excellent infotainment and audio system, as well as other luxury features like fully electric seats, an expansive sunroof and paddle shifters – the VW misses out on those bits (it has part-electric seats, though).
The variety of model grades tells part of the story, but if you think the 3.6R as tested here is a little on the expensive side, fear not. The most attractive aspect of the Subaru Outback range is its broad spread of model grades, not to mention pricing. It means there’s going to be a much wider range of buyers who can opt in to Outback ownership depending on their budget constraints – a real positive for Subaru. Read our full pricing and specification guide for the Subaru Outback.
While spending $49,240 plus on road costs is your only window into Passat Alltrack ownership, it’s worth noting that you can get into a base petrol Outback from as little as $35,990 plus on roads, or a base diesel manual from $36,490 plus on-road costs. We selected the 3.6R for this comparison, because it is the best ‘money no consideration’ engine option in the Outback range, but you can still save a heap of money and get into a more affordable Outback, which remains an 8 out of 10 SUV.
Despite the Euro prestige and build quality that comes with the Passat then, it’s a tight victory to the Outback in the pricing and specification war, such is the raft of standard equipment coupled to a base-price $800 saving.
Engines and technical details
One engine, one transmission – that’s the sum total of it for the Passat Alltrack. The 2.0-litre turbo diesel is quiet, refined and efficient, with power and torque outputs of 140kW at 3500-4000rpm and 400Nm at 1750-3000rpm. Gone are the days where a 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine was scoffed at for being too diminutive. The Passat’s is indeed a punchy little unit.
A six-speed dual-clutch (DSG) is the transmission of choice for VW, and the Passat’s ADR fuel claim is an impressive 5.4L/100km. Following our lengthy freeway run back to Sydney from the snow country, the Passat had used an indicated 7.1L/100km. That figure went up slightly into the mid-sevens after another few days of running around town in heavier traffic.
The Subaru Outback is powered by a 3.6-litre, flat-six petrol engine and – surprise, surprise – the best example of a continuously variable transmission (CVT) automatic we’ve tested in any platform. We still hate ourselves a little for liking it so much in fact. The six-cylinder churns out 191kW at 6000rpm and 350Nm at 4400rpm, while using an ADR-claimed 9.9L/100km. Approaching Sydney, the Outback’s indicated fuel use had dropped down to a hard-to-believe 9.1L/100km. After a few days of grinding Sydney traffic, that figure had crept back up to 10.2L/100km.
Let’s take a quick look at theoretical touring ranges. The Passat can carry 70 litres of diesel, so if we work off the ADR fuel figure with a 50km safety margin, we get a range of a whopping 1246km. The Outback fuel tank measures in at 60 litres (91RON is acceptable), meaning it can cover only 556km using the same calculations. More than 500 kays behind the wheel is certainly long enough to require a fuel stop and a leg stretch, but the Passat will give owners more control over where they fill up and how much they pay.
The kerb weights provide an interesting comparison too. The Passat weighs in at 1671 kilograms while the Outback tips the scales at an only slightly heavier 1702kg. Looking at the two vehicles side by side, you could reasonably expect the Outback to be a little heavier than that – it sits a lot higher from the ground and has a lot taller body.
The Passat can tow 2200kg braked, while the Outback can haul 1800kg. Interesting then for critics who would have claimed the Passat isn’t manly enough for their towing needs. It definitely is in this comparison. Surprisingly, though, the Outback’s minimum turning circle of 11 metres neat, trumps the Passat’s 11.4 metres – a feature you’ll appreciate if you’re moving around town a lot.
Pouring over these specifications, it’s still very much neck and neck. The Passat’s diesel engine and proper touring range will suit buyers wanting to cover long distances as efficiently as possible, while the Outback’s excellent petrol engine and surprising CVT make a strong case around town. The differences in tow rating are interesting but will anyone tow 2200kg with a Passat? Tell us what you think in the comments section below.
In the cabin
Apple CarPlay/Android Auto was the stuff of dreams not too long ago, now we effectively demand it in every new car. There’s good reason for it, and the seamless integration of your smartphone into the infotainment system of the new Passat Alltrack delivers an immediate interior bonus over the Outback.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the Outback’s system, and the audio clarity (from the 12-speaker harman/kardon sound system with sub-woofer) is excellent, but tether your smartphone into the Passat and you have an accessible and easy to use media centre. Aside from one or two weird initial connection glitches, it otherwise worked seamlessly too.
Both vehicles have clear screens, satellite navigation that works well, and better than average audio systems (the VW has a home-brand eight-speaker system). Both also have well laid-out, easy to understand control centres too. The real difference is in the seating position and seating comfort offered by the Outback. It’s higher ride height means you feel like you’re a little more on top of the action with a more comprehensive forward view, and the seats are softer and more comfortable than those in the Passat.
It’s hard to cop partly manual seat adjustment in the Passat, against the fully electric front seats in the Outback though, especially at this price point. Both vehicles offer plenty of storage and cup/bottle holders, while the USB input in the Passat in the armrest centre console means you can hide your phone away, out of sight once it is connected.
The second row is, as expected, comfortable for adults in both these vehicles – and if you have kids, both have top-tether and ISOFIX child-seat anchor points. With the second row in use, the Passat offers up 639 litres of storage in the rear, while the Outback gives you 512 litres. Fold the second rows down and that expands to 1769 litres for the Passat and 1801 litres for the Outback. Take a look at the photos to see how easily both accommodated my full-sized mountain bike for our test. There’s plenty of storage room.
Both vehicles are equipped as standard with a luggage cover, but the two-piece unit in the Passat adds an extra layer of complexity and seems a little unnecessary. Removing it to load the bike in was a bit more complex, and we then had to store two long covers rather than just the one.
The reality for these kinds of vehicles is families spending long periods of time within the confines of the cabin. They need to be comfortable certainly, but they also need to be functional, and both deliver on those fronts. The Outback is the more comfortable of the two though, and therefore wins the interior battle.
The Passat immediately gets off to a solid start thanks largely to its excellent Continental tyres measuring 245/45/R18, with the Bridgestone-shod Outback standing no chance of matching the Passat once you start to build some speed. The Outback runs 18-inch rims like the Passat, but wears narrower and taller 225/60/R18 tyres. Tyres make the world of difference on- or off-road and you’d almost certainly have to opt for better rubber at the first change if you buy the Outback – we would anyway.
The Passat has a sharpness and deftness of control that the Outback never matches around town. The solid punch of the torque from the diesel engine, available so low in the rev range, means you can crank the Passat up to speed (60km/h, 80km/h or 100km/h) from a standstill with ease. Typical of modern diesel engines, the Passat’s 2.0-litre is powerful while never seeming to work too hard – and around town especially – that’s a tangible benefit.
Onto the DSG, which we enjoyed out of the city confines, but still had a few issues with at low speed around town. DSGs really are confounding gearboxes, all things considered. Often, they work their best when you coax them to full rev redline shifts, but how often can you really drive like that in the city? Further, how often do you want to drive like that anyway? At low speed, the Passat’s DSG still exhibited some of the jerkiness and hesitation we’ve seen from other VW ‘boxes and isn’t anywhere near as smooth as the CVT backing the Outback’s engine.
Wind the wick up a bit and push the Passat Alltrack into some corners and the wagon comes into its own. It’s almost like the Passat wants to be driven a littler harder, pushed a little further and made to work for its living. The AWD system results in excellent grip, assured road holding and near perfect balance, while the directness of the controls – especially the steering – encourage you to have a bit of fun.
It’s this fact alone (genuine driving enjoyment) that blows large SUVs out of the water, the pure driving experience delivered by the Passat can’t be matched by any of the usual large SUV brigade.
The real surprise around town comes from the Subaru’s CVT. It is, by any measure, the best example of a CVT we’ve ever tested. The artificial ‘step’ changes feel similar to a conventional automatic, there’s none of the slipping clutch sensation we’ve felt with every other CVT and there’s no rev flaring and annoying engine noise.
If CVTs can be tuned this well, we could almost live with them. Paired to the powerful petrol engine, the CVT seems the perfect match. The combo is beautifully quiet and smooth at any speed, something you’ll appreciate on longer drives out of the city. At freeway speeds, it seemingly results in exceptional fuel economy from such a large engine too, another bonus. The Outback does feel like it needs to be worked hard to really get moving though. Where the Passat is effortless at any speed, the Outback needs to sing closer to its redline to hustle.
We appreciated the useful lane departure systems, adaptive cruise control (radar-based in the VW and camera-based in the Subaru) and accuracy of the cruise control, whether on long ascents or descents. It makes for a much more pleasurable driving experience.
If you prefer a driver’s car, the Passat is the clear winner on road, while those who covet comfort and bump absorption will be drawn to the Outback. It can hammer over speed humps and potholed roads without ever losing a skerrick of composure. While we love a pure driver’s car, the reality of the daily commute mounts a compelling argument for comfort over performance.
Volkswagen has equipped the Passat with a road-biased suspension tune (not to mention wider cross section tyres with a lower profile), so it’s fair to say we expect it to ride a little firmer once we leave the bitumen and that theory is borne out. The Passat still feels more nimble, a little sharper, a little faster to respond to steering and throttle inputs especially at speed, and it’s a whole heap of fun on the marbled surfaces we traversed.
It’s just not quite as comfortable as the Outback and if dirt roads in National Parks are something you like to drive on often, you’ll definitely appreciate the ride comfort offered by the Outback.
Where the Passat excels on-road thanks to it’s decidedly car-focused drive experience, the Outback comes into its own as soon as you head off the beaten path. In fact, the Outback’s ability on-road is perhaps even more impressive given how strongly it performs on rubbish, loose surfaces. The softer suspension tune, higher tyre sidewalls and general suspension compliance ensure the Outback eats up rutted dirt roads.
The Bridgestone Dueler Sport tyres aren’t great and the Outback slides around a little at speed, but that’s easily fixed and the tyres aren’t a deal breaker anyway.
The Outback’s ESC is much more niggly than the Passat’s and it cuts in to kill your fun more regularly and more noticeably on loose gravel and dirt. You do have to try hard to unhinge the Outback enough that the ESC needs to come into play though, thanks to the inherent quality and stability of the Subaru AWD system.
Both these wagons benefit from clever AWD systems that really do work in the real world, providing a solid, surefooted platform but the Outback wins in the ground clearance race with 213mm minimum clearance against the Passat’s 174mm. Neither vehicle let too much dust in, and both recirculating AC systems worked well in thick dust too.
With only $800 separating these two combatants, every single aspect of this comparison is a tightly-fought tussle – not just the price. The Passat is decidedly more car-like on-road, but the Outback is better off-road. The Outback gets more standard equipment, but the Passat has a more premium-feeling interior. The Passat’s diesel, as expected, is genuinely fuel efficient and flexible, but the Outback surprises with its sub-10L/100km return over a solid week of testing.
Splitting these two is therefore a difficult task. There’s no doubt it’s a serious case of fence-sitting to claim the Passat gets bragging rights around town, while the Outback is the better long-haul, road trip tourer. There will be no splinters in this test though as there can be only one winner.
That’s why both Matt and I agreed that if it was our money going down, we’d both pick the Subaru Outback – just. Overall, it’s an 8.5/10 for the Outback and an 8.0/10 for the Passat. Both vehicles really do have their strong points, but the Subaru ekes out the win here thanks to a compelling blend of ability, practicality and value.
The Outback’s combination of an efficient petrol engine, surprisingly competent CVT and all-round flexibility makes it the go-to high-riding family wagon. We claimed at the start of this review that buyers have been rushing to large SUVs in record numbers without needing to, and the Outback is the best evidence of why they should be taking a good look at other segments.
A solid few days in the Snowy Mountains with the Outback has proven its long-haul credentials, go anywhere ability and overall comfort, but it also excels around town as the family truckster. If you’re in the market for a real-world family SUV, take a good hard look at these two. You just might realise you don’t need a full-size 4WD after all.