Sunny days at the beach, camping trips at the weekend, making new paths to new destinations. Not quite what you’d expect a humble station wagon to do, yet for years Aussie families did just that with trusty and rugged Kingswoods and Falcons.
Fast-forward to the present and times have changed. SUVs roam the land promising go-anywhere capability (often without actually delivering it), commanding visibility, and added versatility.
There might still be life in old-fashioned wagons yet. At least, there seems to be once they’ve put on their hiking boots, as is the case with Holden’s new Calais-V Tourer and Subaru’s well known and loved Outback.
Both are almost traditional wagons in terms of form factor, but with SUV flourishes including black bumper cladding, raised ride height, and all-wheel-drive traction leading to an impression of greater capability.
If the idea of a mainstream SUV isn’t your cup of tea, but something about the format of a high-riding wagon keeps you coming back for a second and third look, perhaps one of this pair could help solve your quandary.
Pricing and specs
Straight off the bat, the Calais-V Tourer and Outback 3.6R aren’t a perfect pricing match. Holden asks a higher $53,990 plus on-road costs for its flagship all-roader compared to Subaru’s $49,140 before ORCs.
As both top their respective ranges, they've become the focus of our comparison. Holden also offers a lower-spec Calais Tourer (sans -V suffix) from $45,990, which is a little closer to Subaru’s list price. But looking at advertised offers, the two range-toppers appear to be almost neck and neck when it comes to transaction prices, though there is a little wiggle room in each direction.
Both cars are powered by 3.6-litre naturally aspirated six-cylinder petrol engines. The Subaru six is the brand’s trademark horizontally opposed configuration, while Holden uses a more common V6 layout. More on that later, though.
In the Outback, you’ll find an equipment list that incorporates dual-zone climate control, leather seats with electric adjustment, seat heating and driver’s memory up front, a front sunroof, proximity key with push-button start, a powered tailgate, auto lights, adaptive cruise control, auto wipers, auto dimming mirror, steering-responsive LED headlights and 18-inch alloy wheels.
Jump in the Calais-V Tourer and that list is repeated, with a few variations, like a panoramic roof, seat ventilation for the front seats, massage function for the driver’s seat, heated rear seats, remote engine start, head-up display, partial TFT instrument cluster, wireless phone charging, hands-free tailgate operation, and adaptive LED Matrix headlights. Not bad justification for the Calais-V’s bulkier price tag.
If you were to opt for a non ‘V’ Calais Tourer instead, you’d find items like LED headlights, seat memory, head-up display, digital instruments, massaging and memory seats, seat ventilation, and a few other small details missing from the equipment list.
|Model||Holden Calais||Subaru Outback|
|Apple CarPlay / Android Auto||Y/Y||Y/Y|
|Model||Holden Calais||Subaru Outback|
|Seats||Leather, heated, ventilated||Leather, heated|
Despite a similar aesthetic on the outside, take a seat inside these two and there are some stark stylistic differences. Crucially, however, the most important factor – space – is plentiful no matter which model you choose.
With Holden’s Commodore range coming from former GM Europe division, Opel, the look and feel of interior trimmings has a decidedly European flavour, while the Subaru is skewed towards American tastes, as that’s where its market strength lies.
That means bigger, chunkier controls, and a more solid and upright dash design in the Subaru against the sleeker, low-line Commodore. Both carry over from their respective low-riding Liberty and Commodore range mates with only minor detail differences.
Above and in all sets: Commodore top, Outback bottom
For general comfort, Subaru edges Holden out with bigger, broader seats that tend to fit a variety of shapes and sizes better, although the more tailored fit of the Calais front seats and the wider scope of adjustability certainly aren’t without their positives.
Head to the back seat and the Outback edges out the Calais again, this time thanks to a much more generous window area that creates a more airy feel for rear passengers, along with an adjustable backrest to allow more tailored comfort.
Young travellers in the rear of the Calais will find the high-set window line takes up outward visibility, while taller adults might find the upright backrest tiresome on long hauls. Limited head room won’t pass the approval of tall passengers either, while broad-shouldered passengers are sure to note the narrow-feeling rear bench.
Both feature rear face-level vent outlets, but the Calais tips in extra rear-seat heating and a sunroof that extends over the rear seats, although how Holden brought it to market without a proper blockout blind is a true mystery.
Down to the details and Subaru keeps collecting points with a much simpler and larger climate-control panel against the Commodore’s small controls and harder to reach panel. The same goes for the Outback’s navigation, which gives a clearer map view, whereas the Calais crams in so many on-screen menus that the map itself is reduced to a letterbox-like slit.
Holden gets the gong for presentation in most respects, though. Neither car generates much excitement with basic black covering every single surface, but a softer, more integrated form factor makes the Calais-V look and feel more modern, as does a richer mix of soft-touch surfaces.
The implementation of Holden’s head-up display atop the dash looks like an afterthought and clashes with the otherwise smooth styling, but at least it’s there, unlike the Outback that does without.
On the all-important infotainment front, both cars go in to battle with 8.0-inch touchscreens, and include satellite navigation plus Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. Subaru still packs in a CD-player, but Holden counters with DAB+ digital radio instead.
When it comes time to pack in your gear, the Calais will pack in 560 litres' worth of gear to the rear seats against the Outback’s 512 litres. Drop the rear row (with in-boot releases included in both cars) and the more swoopily shaped Calais grows to a maximum of 1665 litres, with the squarer Outback overtaking it at 1801 litres.
The Tourer boasts a slightly lower boot floor for ease of loading, and packs in extra bag hooks, though none are as easy to latch a bag onto as those in the Subaru.
The Outback also sensibly includes integrated underfloor storage for its cargo blind, but the Calais doesn’t. Conversely, the Calais allows you to slide the cargo blind up the D-pillars without fully retracting it – a feature the Outback has no answer for.
The Outback does have one last party trick – more of an exterior feature than an interior one, though. The roof rails you see might look like part of the tough guy aesthetic, but can be folded out into fully functional roof-racks and folded back again when not in use. Holden’s roof carrier options, meanwhile, require you to splash an extra $400 on accessory roof-racks.
|Model||Holden Calais||Subaru Outback|
|Towing capacity, braked||2100kg||1800kg|
|Towing capacity, unbraked||750kg||750kg|
On the surface, this pair of six-cylinder all-wheel-drive wagons might look like they’ll have a lot in common, but dig a little deeper and there are some interesting points of difference.
The first and most obvious is the engine configuration. Holden uses a more common V6 compared to Subaru and its brand-defining horizontally opposed or flat-six layout. Realistically that’s not so important – from a daily driver perspective, there’s little to put one format ahead of the other.
Analysing outputs reveals that Holden boasts bigger figures with 235kW at 6800rpm and 381Nm at a fairly high 5200rpm, while Subaru manages 191kW at 6000rpm and 350Nm at 4400rpm from the 3.6-litre capacity.
The automatic transmissions in each car are fairly different too. The Commodore employs a more traditional torque converter automatic with nine forward ratios, while the Outback uses a continuously variable transmission, or CVT, which means stepless ratio changes.
Finally, the all-wheel-drive systems of each car also vary in their technical specifications, with Subaru using a constant all-wheel-drive format that ensures torque is delivered to each axle at all times (with a variable ratio split), whereas Holden uses a ‘predictive’ on-demand system.
Holden’s Twinster all-wheel-drive system (which uses a clutch pack in place of a traditional rear differential) usually functions like a regular front-drive system, but over a variety of loose surfaces it was hard to catch Holden’s system napping.
There was an occasional (and rare) circumstance where the Calais would let the front push wide before the rear caught up to conditions. Conversely, the Outback had a much more planted and evenly balanced traction, particularly on gravel and sandy surfaces.
Put through a cycle of city/highway/rural driving, there are some differences between the two, but generally neither one is off-putting at all.
Subaru’s is certainly the more easygoing powertrain. The big H6 engine delivers enough instant grunt to shift the Outback around easily, and Subaru’s excellent work on the CVT auto makes it smooth and quiet around town, with the ability to emulate a traditional auto when driven hard.
Holden’s big six still tries to match the effortless nature of its forebears, but needs to rev to feel in any way frisky. It’ll do so when pushed hard, but requires a concentrated effort (and some space to stretch its legs), which doesn't always work in daily commute situations.
There’s certainly a more familiar feel from the attached nine-speed automatic, which rarely dithers into the wrong gear, although does tend to err on the side of early shifts to keep engine speeds down, then requiring a downshift (or two at times) more frequently to keep pace in rolling traffic.
The Calais also carries a more open set of pipes. Get the engine spinning in its lively zone and there’s plenty of exhaust blare, with a fair dose more noise across the board in most situations. The Outback remains more hushed and only really becomes vocal right at the peak of its rev range.
Both vehicles wear five-star ANCAP ratings. Subaru’s comes based on 2015 assessment criteria and local crash testing specific to the Outback (four-cylinder) compared to Holden’s, which was rated under 2017 rules but using a left-hand-drive Opel Insignia diesel hatch crashed in Europe – not the taller, heavier V6 Tourer.
Looking at included safety kit, the Calais-V Tourer includes six airbags, front and rear outboard seatbelt pretensioners, 360-degree cameras, front and rear park sensors, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning and lane-keep assist, plus autonomous emergency braking with forward collision warning and pedestrian detection.
In the Outback 3.6R, the safety roll call includes seven airbags (the extra one being a driver’s knee bag), front seatbelt pretensioners, a multi-view camera, blind-spot monitoring including lane-change assist, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-departure warning, and Subaru’s take on AEB called pre-collision braking.
Both vehicles include electronic stability and traction control, but only the Outback adds a dedicated stability-control X-mode for use on low-grip surfaces, while Holden omits any kind of off-road or rugged road modes for its supposed all-surface wagon. Three top tether and two ISOFIX child seat mounts are also included in each.
|Model||Holden Calais||Subaru Outback|
|Engine||3.6-litre V6||3.6-litre H6|
|Transmission||9-speed auto||CVT auto|
Ride and handling
First things first, as all-paw wagons with increased SUV-like capability, there’s a glaring difference between these two cars and you’ll pick it immediately in side-by-side images.
Ground clearance measures a fairly healthy 213mm underneath the Outback, whereas the Calais-V Tourer stops the tape at a much lower 146mm of under-car clearance.
While neither one pretends to be a hardcore off-roader, the difference means an Outback can easily clear the kinds of lumps and bumps you’ll find on ungroomed surfaces, while the Calais Tourer can still catch its low front chin on more severe carpark wheel stops.
The longer-legged ride of the Outback not only grants it superior ability should you journey off-road, but with more travel to play with, the Outback tends to be more forgiving over on-road imperfections too.
City streets and the selection of access covers, tarmac joins, and ‘traffic calming’ devices they bring with them tend to roll under the Outback more smoothly, while the Calais Tourer and its lower stance feels its way through most surface changes in a more pronounced manner.
Escape the confines of the city and open-road touring between the two is much closer. Over rural highways, comfort levels become much more evenly matched, with the difference splitting down to ambient noise with more tyre roar from the Holden, but more pronounced wind noise in the Subaru.
The Tourer also manages to outpoint the Outback on more demanding roads with a sharper-handling package and weightier, more 'feelsome' steering that offers more weight and feedback, should that be important to you.
Either way, once the tarmac gives way to gravel, both cars felt settled and secure.
On rare occasions, the Commodore’s all-wheel-drive system could take a moment to catch up, pushing the nose wide and letting the rear wander more than the Subaru, which proved far more neutral at the limits on gravel roads.
When it comes to ongoing maintenance costs, Holden not only wins this category, but does so by a country mile… Maybe even two.
Holden outlines scheduled maintenance costs for the first seven years of ownership (having binned its previous lifetime capped-price program), while Subaru details only the first three years, so for comparative purposes those are the figures you’ll see here.
Holden also includes scheduled items like brake fluid, which some brands apply extra charges for, but doesn’t include or quote for replacement of air and cabin filters. Service intervals are set at 12-month or 12,000km intervals, whichever occurs first.
After a free inspection, Holden will charge $259 for the first service, $299 for the second and $259 for the third, ringing up a total of $817 in known charges to the end of three years.
Outback owners will need to return to a Subaru dealer every six months or up to 12,500km, along with a 5000km first service and a complimentary inspection after a month. If you’re considering purchasing an Outback, you may want to sit down for what comes next.
The 5000km service is priced at $253.19, the six-month/12,500km service is $343.45, and the 12-month/25,000km service is another $343.45, making the Subaru more expensive after one year than the Calais-V would be after three.
The schedule continues with charges of $429.97, $562.24, $345.98 and $433.14, bringing the three-year total to a whopping $2711.42, although Subaru’s schedule means there are no extra surprise charges with pricing listed as all-inclusive for scheduled parts and fluids.
Holden has also recently joined numerous other automotive brands with a five-year/unlimited-kilometre new car warranty, whereas Subaru sticks with a three-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty.
Looking at fuel consumption, Holden claims 9.1L/100km on the combined cycle test, which breaks down to 12.3L/100km city or 7.3L/100km highway. On test, our city driving came back at 22.4L/100km and highway driving returned 9.0L/100km.
The Outback registers an official 9.9L/100km mixed-cycle claim with a 14.2L/100km city test and 7.5L/100km highway figure. In the real world, the Subaru actually outperformed the Calais, though, (by a slim margin) with 19.3L/100km in town and 8.4L/100km on the open road.
If these were simply wagons – plain, traditional, sedan-based load luggers – the results might have been very different. In fact, in a recent head-to-head between the four-cylinder Liberty sedan and Commodore hatch, the Holden edged out the Subaru.
In this instance, however, taking into account the adventure-driven dual-purpose lives these wagon utility vehicles (WUV, is that a thing now?) claim to be capable of living, favour swings towards the Outback.
As something of an automotive Swiss Army knife, the Outback 3.6R can be part urban, part regional, with no fear of turning its tyres away from neatly groomed surfaces, with enough space, comfort and practicality to keep the family happy too.
The Calais-V Tourer, on the other hand, is simply a station wagon, and a pretty good one too. But without even mild off-road capabilities apart from the inclusion of all-wheel drive, and a slightly less versatile and practical interior – despite a longer list of standard features – it comes off second best in this instance.
There’s the ugly side of Subaru too, of course, with far more expensive servicing. But on the basis of list price alone, the more affordable Outback could potentially cover its own maintenance costs in terms of purchase-price savings.
At the end of the day, though, the Outback still shines. The Calais-V certainly tries hard, but it’s not quite the Outback challenger it deserves to be, instead coming across as more of a sporty all-wheel-drive wagon with extra body cladding.
Subaru’s reputation for building sturdy and capable wagons that skew towards rough ’n’ tumble capability holds true in the Outback, with no real penalty even if it just so happens that you never go any further off-road than the odd gravel carpark.