Subaru is a pioneer of high-riding vehicles. Back in 1996, it launched the Outback nameplate into Australia. A year later, the much-loved Forester made its debut – arguably old testament for what's come to be our SUV-dominated marketplace.
As some brands morph nameplates to adorn SUVs and others invent new ones, the Outback remains as classical as they come. The new sixth-generation car is still the same high-riding wagon it always was, and in fact even looks awfully similar to the previous, fifth-generation car.
So, what's new?
You have to look past the skin. Sure, it won't appeal to those who manage their appearance like their social media accounts, but getting past the superficial does reveal a lot. Subaru's latest modular architecture sits underneath, which is largely credited with giving current models on the platform (Impreza, XV) newfound levels of comfort and rigidity.
The brand also claims the Outback's 2.5-litre naturally aspirated engine is 90 per cent new, too, despite looking awfully similar on paper. Performance is up 9kW and 10Nm, to 138kW and 245Nm in total.
All-wheel drive is standard across the range as expected, with power provided to all four wheels via a CVT transmission that mimics an eight-speed auto.
For this review, we're behind the wheel of the mid-tier 2021 Subaru Outback Sport model. Priced from $44,490, it sits between the plainly named Outback for $39,990 and Outback Touring for $47,790. As all those prices are before on-roads, expect to pay around $49,000 drive-away for our car. There are no boxes to tick in terms of extra equipment, and picking between the six colours on offer costs no extra.
|2021 Subaru Outback Sport|
|Engine||2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol 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||8.2L/100km|
|ANCAP safety rating||Not tested|
|Warranty||Five years/unlimited km|
|Main competitors||Toyota RAV4, Subaru Forester, Volkswagen Passat Alltrack, Jeep Cherokee|
|Price as tested (excluding on-road costs)||From $44,490|
While officially the Outback is classed as a large SUV, positioning it as a competitor to main seven-seat SUVs like the Toyota Kluger, Mazda CX-9 or Hyundai Santa Fe, it's price and positioning see it more likely to compared to slightly smaller five-seat medium SUVs. Subaru's own Forester, the Jeep Cherokee (and its promise of off-road adventure), and the perennial favourite, Toyota RAV4 chief among them.
What's appealing about its exterior design is how it alludes to its spaciousness inside. At nearly 4.9m long by 1.6m high, it wears rectangular, space-conducive proportions.
Jumping inside, it's much easier to see what's new. Dominating the dashboard is a portrait-orientated 11.6-inch centre screen that handles everything from smartphone connectivity to the cabin's climate-control system. It's an easy-to-use system that's powered by a smart interface. One example of cleverness is one-touch access to the vehicle's advanced safety assist systems. Another is its portrait-style Apple CarPlay capability.
The only real consequential downfall with the new set-up is the removal of physical climate-control buttons. If you wish to adjust fan temperature, fan position or air recirculation, you'll have to tap a few times, which can be distracting while driving. Not all is digital thankfully, as physical buttons for temperature adjustment and the demister do remain.
Fitted above the large screen is a small red light that seemingly looks three-dimensional or like it's hovering. Why it looks odd is because it forms part of the infrared LED and camera-based driver monitor system that first scans your face, then actively monitors it.
Its purpose is to prevent fatigue and distractions. If you turn your head, the car will let you know. If you begin to show facial signals of tiredness, it'll also ping you with a warning.
With the high-tech wizardry assessed, the rest on offer is rather simple. Subaru persists in using regular dials over a digital gauge cluster, which may support your old-fashioned assumptions.
Storage is excellent thanks to a deep, USB port-equipped storage area in front of the gearshifter, a pair of large cupholders with more phone storage, and divided armrest console with a dual storage solution. In the doors you'll find a pair of well-designed bottle holders that allow for one to sit upright, instead of diagonally like most others.
Seat trim in the Outback Sport is a 'water repellent' type of grey-coloured vinyl. It's supple and textural enough as to not feel cheap, but does feel like the lovechild of spandex and neoprene. I'm sure it'll divide opinion, so if there's a better half involved in the decision-making process, be sure to point out the material. The other surfaces in the cabin feel quality, with green stitching breaking up the larger black sections of dashboard.
The second row feels as spacious as the front. Behind my own driving position (183cm tall), I was gifted a few centimetres of knee room, great foot room, and plenty of space around my head and shoulders. Tall glass with neat quarter windows brings in extra light to help habitability, as does the fact both outbound seats are heated in the second row, like the first.
There's enough width to fit three child seats across, if you pick wisely. A quick trial with two Britax seats and a third Infasecure booster saw the Outback just about gobble them up. You'll find plentiful space regardless of whether the support seat is forward- or rearward-mounted, leaving adults in the front free to adjust their seat accordingly. Also consider the second row of the Outback capsule-proof.
Three adults will find the experience comfortable enough also. Rounding out the back is the segment standard of two air vents and two USB ports.
Behind the passenger cabin sits a 522L boot area that's extendable to 1267L with the second row of seating folded. It's big, although not huge for the large SUV class it sits in when compared to other models in five-seat mode. More important, however, is a low and wide aperture making the Outback suitable for heavy and awkward items. Other bonuses include multiple tie-down rings, seat-folding levers, and a full-size spare wheel.
On the road, Subaru's high-riding wagon remains pleasant. It wears soft suspension enabling it to waft over all larger faults in the road without getting upset. Continual sections of broken roads will see it become unsettled, but that's just a tiny downside that comes with its cushy suspension tune. Another noteworthy and topical point is that Subaru's engineers have built in 213mm of ground clearance, which is enough to see you up basic fire trails or into a rural property.
What strikes as most interesting is the Outback's ability at pace. Likely the product of its low roof line, and in turn lower centre of gravity, but it's worth acknowledging the way it moves when driven briskly. Compared to the old car, the platform itself feels far tauter; something indicated by its composure during events on off-camber surfaces.
If you're finding yourself on fast, flowing roads during the school holidays, or more generally due to where you live, then the Outback will make for an ideal touring partner.
Steering is well calibrated but light, so judge that through your own lens. Visibility is good thanks to a large glasshouse, and its seats are comfy enough to spend multiple hours with.
A question many current Outback and Forester owners likely have is whether the 2.5-litre is enough to replace their older 3.6-litre flat-six or turbocharged car. If performance were high on your hierarchy for some reason, be it for continual right-lane overtaking on country roads, then this engine will not delight. If you ended up with either high-performance driveline by chance, or found yourself growing to like the performance on offer, then you'll easily adjust to what the current car offers.
It's peppy enough around suburban and inner-metro areas to get the job done, albeit with some liberal use of the pedal and tacho. The continual improvements that Subaru has made with its CVT see this current gearbox become its best effort so far, feeling smooth, quiet and, believe it or not, rather direct-feeling.
Pleasingly, I not once felt any inherent stretchiness or burdensome behaviour. It's also equipped with X-Mode; a system that features various traction-control profiles for mud, snow and sand, should you wish to try your hand at light off-roading.
Fuel consumption was showing 10.0L/100km in dense traffic situations, and later settled to 8.2L/100km with a handful of freeway runs added in. The official claimed figure is 7.3L/100km, so consider the result a fair one.
The Subaru Outback remains a great choice for those with a penchant for getaways. It'll do all of that and remain a mighty fine steed for school runs and weekend sport.
On top of family credentials, the owner will get to enjoy one of the better-driving SUVs at this price point – especially if touring and light off-roading are part of their repertoire.