I always have omens that it is time to replace cars. Some are more blatant, and when the dealership advised that they were unlikely to cover the $8000 transmission repair cost on the Toyota Kluger, exactly 2000kms out of warranty, (bought new and serviced loyally with them), I knew it was time regardless of warranty outcomes. The dealer wasn't even willing to arrange a lift for me (it was out of hours for the “courtesy” shuttle). In a fog of dismay, at the prospect of being desperately carless for the fortnight repair time, I happened to find myself walking past a Subaru dealership on the way back to work.
Within 30 minutes, with full disclosure on the Kluger status, I had a pre-agreed trade in price, contract signed on a new Subaru Outback Diesel, and a free courtesy car until I could collect the repaired Kluger and arrange the swap. I think they were pretty keen to promote the new Subaru due to less than flattering style reviews, and the just released first diesel boxer engine in the world. I was intellectually interested in the principle of the boxer engine, with horizontal cylinders meaning a lower centre of gravity creating better handling, the added benefits of all wheel drive, combined with considerable torque from the diesel.
First the bad experience - the manual diesel around town was tiresome. It was very slow off at the lights with the turbo lag. Quick response lane changing was off the cards. The electronic handbrake button was a disaster on Brisbane's steep hills in traffic as it frequently wouldn't release at the right time and caused you to stall trying to co-ordinate the revs and the clutch. The car certainly had “character” around town.
But in terms of country driving, the Subaru was a revelation. On the drive up to the farm every weekend there is a long banked curve of broken bitumen that the Kluger would feel unsafe at 80kmh; the Outback was settled at 110kmh and no remarks from the “co-pilot / backseat driver” about driving too fast. The handling / ride comfort balance was superb.
One trip on Boxing Day, due to a string of highway accidents, our usual 2 hour trip turned into an 11 hour gridlock ordeal. You know a car's cabin is comfortable when you survive a summer trip like that without passengers yelling at each other!
In terms of economy we consistently achieved 5.8 L/100 km economy between tanks, and the 390 Nms of torque available at highway speed rpms provided for effortless swift and safe overtaking.
We were heading to North Stradbroke Island for a week's holiday. I had learnt to drive on the island's beach as a 12 year old in my Dads Series II Land Rover, before the beach got crazy. In that era the beach vehicles were slow and mostly old Land Rovers, and VW beetle beach choppers. Part of the fun was actually helping each other get unbogged, or waiting for the tide to go down, usually with a stubby in hand, with all the time in the world.
I booked the Subaru Outback on a tag along tour, where we followed a Landcruiser around the island dunes. I had talked to the tour leader and we were both interested to see how frequently I got stuck. He had the snatch strap ready and we had already attached a u-bolt to the Subaru recovery point.
On the tracks over the middle of the island, it is obvious that Subaru tuck everything up and the 212mmm ground clearance was exceptional at traversing ruts. The AWD combined with the electronic “diff lock” kept all wheels planted and surefooted. The real test came at the beach exit at Point Lookout, which was long, steep, and with very deep soft sand and ruts. I let the tyres down to 20psi and I approached in second gear at 1800rpm (maximum torque with some rpms spare) and stayed up high in the soft sand above the ruts to prevent bottoming out. The thing pulled through like a tractor. We tried again, and each time the Subaru would effortlessly arrive at the top of the dune victorious.
The Subaru Outback is a remarkably capable vehicle, but at that moment I felt thwarted and nostalgic for a different era of standing around, stubbies in hand, enjoying the challenge of unbogging a 4WD with friends and strangers lending a hand, on a beautiful beach…with all the time in the world.