The large-SUV segment is an interesting one, with everything from FWD wagons and rugged 4WDs to the much more car-like 2021 Subaru Outback vying for buyers’ attention. While vehicles in this segment ideally need to be a jack-of-all-trades as part of the brief, few suit the urban dweller as comprehensively as the Subaru Outback.
Segments change, though, and as such the Outback has started to feel its age a little of late. Especially inside the cabin, where infotainment and ergonomics are constantly shifting – usually for the better. It’s always been a strong value equation, but buyers also value the system that forms the basis of their interaction with the car. This new Outback, then, needs to step that game up significantly in order to be best equipped to take the fight up to the segment leaders.
Subarus have a solid reputation in this country – and for good reason. They are safe, reliable, feature a quality AWD system, and they have traditionally been enjoyable to drive. It’s why so many people we speak to are onto their third or fourth Subaru. In fact, it’s often a challenge to talk them out of buying another one.
On the subject of buying, the pricing proposition is compelling. Full details are in our pricing and spec guide, and while we have the range-topper as our launch tester, you can get into the Outback from $39,990 before on-road costs. That gets you the base Outback AWD, while the Outback AWD Touring we’re testing here starts from $47,790 before on-road costs.
The Sport model grade sits between the two, and if you get the Touring, you also get plenty of standard kit. Nappa leather-accented seat trim is standard, along with dual-mode memory driver’s seat, auto-folding side mirrors with memory, a heated steering wheel, power sunroof, nine-speaker Harman Kardon audio system with sub, gloss alloy wheels, and silver roof rails with integrated, stowable cross bars.
Across the range, the Outback gets a new 11.6-inch portrait infotainment touchscreen, auto LED headlights, 18-inch alloy wheels, auto stop/start and a full suite of Subaru’s safety tech. The Outback even has a passenger seat cushion airbag, which in the event of a frontal crash pushes up on the front section of the seat base, and prevents the front passenger’s waist from moving forward or sliding beneath the seatbelt.
|2021 Subaru Outback Touring|
|Engine||2.5-litre petrol four-cylinder boxer|
|Power and torque||138kW at 5800rpm, 245Nm at 3400–4600rpm|
|Drive type||All-wheel drive|
|Fuel claim combined (ADR)||7.3L/100km|
|Fuel use on test||7.9L/100km|
|ANCAP safety rating||N/A|
|Warranty||Five years/unlimited km|
|Main competitors||Mazda CX-9/Toyota Kluger/Kia Sorento/Hyundai Santa Fe|
|Price as tested (excluding on-road costs)||From $47,790|
Subaru tells us that the engine is '90 per cent new', which means there’s been plenty of work put in to make changes – you’d assume to efficiency and refinement. The 2.5-litre is indeed smooth, quiet and a joy to drive, generating an easy 138kW and 245Nm. Interestingly, the six-cylinder petrol engine is gone, as is the four-cylinder turbo-diesel we used to get on the outgoing model.
The smoothness that we noticed also related to real-world efficiency. Against an ADR claim of 7.3L/100km, we saw 7.9L/100km on our 150km urban/freeway loop, while around town solely in heavy traffic you’ll see a number in the low nines. The Outback gets stop/start, which felt a little harsh some of the time and jarred with the otherwise smooth drive experience. I found myself turning it off frequently, but that’s something I tend to do in most vehicles once I’ve assessed how it works initially.
AWD is, of course standard, as is the CVT transmission, which is another noteworthy point of the Outback drive experience. With eight ‘steps’ that do their best to mimic the way a conventional automatic shifts, it exhibits none of the nastiness we associate with older CVTs. Yes, they have come a long way, and we should expect that in a developmental sense, but it’s worth noting that a CVT – when executed properly – no longer strips any of the enjoyment out of the drive experience.
Given the exterior effectively looks the same, it’s inside the cabin where you most notice the changes – especially the infotainment screen. We loved the portrait layout, which mimics the way we look at our smartphones already, and as such is more intuitive than you might think. Especially when you connect your smartphone via Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Should you choose not to, the native satellite navigation works well enough, and the general controls are all easy to access.
Taking into account my propensity to want to turn stop/start off, I’d prefer a specific switch rather than having to access the menu system. I am aware, however, that most owners won’t want to deactivate the system, so it’s certainly not a big issue. While there are plenty of controls to get your head around, they are all neatly arranged and self-explanatory.
Subaru cabins are almost always comfortable and insulated, and the new Outback is no exception here. The seats themselves are excellent, with more than enough adjustment to ensure you can get into a comfortable driving position. You can drop yourself down into the cabin should you wish to, but you still feel like you’re high-riding, with expansive forward visibility and an airy feel from the front two seats.
The sunroof aids that sense of airiness, and while you might expect it to eat into second-row head space, there’s more than enough room for six-footers back there even with tall occupants up front. That goes for foot, knee and shoulder room, too. The Outback is a proper long-haul tourer for four adults.
The second-row seats fold snappily via a switch next to the headrest and open up a luggage space that goes from 522L to 1782L when the seats are folded down. The electric tailgate isn’t lightning fast, but it’s nowhere near as tardy as some either. In short, you can head off on a weekend away for four with more than enough room for luggage. If two of you want to go snowboarding or load the mountain bikes in, there’s room for that, too.
The ride quality is exceptional. Across the CarAdvice test team, we were universally impressed with the quality of the Outback’s bump absorption, ability to settle quickly when it does take a big hit, and all-round balance even when you push on. The chubby 225/60/R18 Bridgestone Alenza tyres help, but it’s a lot more than just the choice of rubber. There’s a competence and quality to the suspension that lifts the Outback beyond the abilities of most of the large-SUV segment as a driver’s tool. There’s also a full-size spare ensuring the Outback lives up to its name in terms of a touring vehicle.
Turn-in is sharp, the Outback stays balanced through corners, and grip is excellent as well, even on slippery, wet roads. AWD might not provide the selling point of advantage that it once did – who would have thought in the early days that FWD SUVs would even exist? – but in the case of the Outback, it’s a crucial part of the balance and ability.
Overall, the reasons that the Outback appealed haven’t changed. Yes, the market is tougher and harder than ever, and the competition is fierce. There’s no arguing that fact. The Subaru Outback, though, maintains its head-of-class position in terms of driving dynamics and passenger-car-like levels of response and balance. The updates inside the cabin have brought it forward, too, which is exactly what they needed to do.
It’s not perfect, but it’s very, very good. If I were buying a large SUV, the Outback would be on the short list. Given so few large SUVs ever head properly off-road, there’s a lot to be said for the qualities of one that performs as well on-road as the Outback does.