2013 SUBARU OUTBACK DIESEL AUTOMATIC REVIEW
What's hot: Lots of room, robust feel and good ground clearance
What's not: More steady than swift, won't win a beauty contest
X-Factor: The style, space and dynamics of a larger wagon with the versatility of a lighter-duty four-by-four.
Model classification: Large SUV
Price: 2.0D CVT: $42,490 (MLP) | 2.0D Premium CVT: $45,490 (MLP)
Engine/transmission: 2.0 litre DOHC diesel/ 'seven-speed' Lineartonic CVT (with manual mode)
Fuel consumption l/100km listed: 6.5 | tested: 7.8 (lighter duty); 10.0 (high-speed run)
Wait long enough, and you'll be back in fashion again. Like Subaru's Outback SUV.
It's more a wagon - well it is a wagon, always has been - but it's classified an SUV since someone decided that anything that sat up high and could call on all-wheel-drive, even if only for some models, deserved the words 'sports-utility' as a genre prefix.
So it is an SUV, kind-of, because it's all-wheel-drive, and it sits up higher: that's all it takes.
But now the SUV market is splitting. There are still the big square-rigged heavy-duty 'trucks', like the Landcruiser, the Nissan Patrol and various Jeeps, but there are increasing numbers of SUVs that look like a slightly raised wagon-thing.
It's like the market has had an epiphany, like: "Hey Subaru, you were right all along... now we're all gonna make AWD wagon-things just like you've done for the past 30 years."
Sure, the Outback might not be the last thing in style (it's a bit Harry High-pants), but it's now at the leading edge of a gathering trend. Funny that.
And with an understressed diesel and 'seven-speed' CVT under the bonnet, it's a very appealing crossover wagon with more than a little off-road versatility.
It's also pretty good buying - the Outback 2.0D is one of the cheapest in the large SUV segment (hard to believe that's where it's slotted).
Straight off the bat, it's a better buy and more robust purchase than the VW Passat Alltrack, it can take the game to the CX-5 and Territory diesels, and you'd easily rate it over an up-specced Captiva.
Nothing to report here. Look around and you'll see a typical Outback interior.
The new model comes in only two spec grades, just $3k apart. The lower-specced Outback 2.0D gets high-quality cloth trim, the 2.0D Premium gets leather.
I like a Subaru interior; no nonsense, most things in their place, simply designed, quiet and comfortable.
There is a certainly an air of quality and solidity to the Outback 2.0D, but, everything in black, it might be a bit cheerless and funereal for some tastes.
It looks like it can take a fair pounding though, and, aside from the thin cheap-feeling metal gearshift-surround, all materials have an appealing feel and the fit is first class.
There is also long list of standard features at the price. Both spec-levels come with Bluetooth (and audio streaming), standard sat-nav and reverse camera, climate control air-con, electric parking brake, foglights, height and reach-adjustable steering, iPod/MP3/CD six-speaker audio with USB and aux-in, map lights and cargo lights, and a host of other features.
The Premium also gets a sunroof, electroluminescent guages, rear air-vents and an electrically adjustable captain's chair, but, otherwise, they're entirely the same car - even down to the 17-inch alloys.
At the price, each, both the 2.0D and 2.0D Premium, is well-kitted.
ON THE ROAD
On start-up, cold, there's a fair old racket typical of a Subaru boxer engine, just louder in this Outback because it's a diesel.
It soon disappears as things begin to warm though, and, once on road, it's particularly quiet.
The 2.0 litre turbo-charged diesel under the bonnet of the Outback is very well-matched in this case to the 'seven-speed' (virtual ratios) CVT.
There is an understressed feel to the diesel - it's redlined at a relatively low (by modern standards) 4500rpm - and, when driven in full auto mode, the CVT seamlessly keeps things in the 'meat' of its torque-band.
Some CVT automatics are simply awful - this one isn't. You'd hardly pick it as a CVT.
Drive the Outback diesel hard and it switches from variable mode to 'stepped gears', rattling off gear changes like a conventional 'cog' automatic.
We mucked around with the paddles in manual mode but found, as we often do with other cars, that the Outback CVT's adaptive logic operates fine without driver intervention.
Its 'downshift control' has the transmission changing down into corners to put the right gear underfoot on exit (it sharpens up when being driven quickly); similarly, it downshifts automatically on inclines.
You can also use the paddles in full auto mode if you really want to kick-down quickly, but the transmission then defaults to 'drive' when you've finished playing with them.
Both power and torque from the diesel are adequate; 110kW and 350Nm won't have it barrelling off the line like a rugby back but it's quick enough when overtaking and ample for family drivers.
When pulling out of a slow corner, or accelerating from 60kmh to 100kmh it can feel a tad doughy, but, once rolling at highway speed, the Outback diesel is swift and effortless.
It will see in the old ton, 160km/h, without breaking into a sweat and sit there equally effortlessly (but we don't know anyone who'd want to do that).
Being essentially a wagon, it's a MUCH better drive on the highway than its more upright SUV competitors.
I'd put it ahead of the Santa Fe for relaxed comfortable driving, though it doesn't have the diesel grunt of the Hyundai, and it's also more composed than the CX-5 (but which also has a more willing diesel).
Over each, the Outback 2.0D feels the more classy transport. Its long wheelbase and better inherent balance gives it a more settled and comfortable highway feel.
The suspension, struts up front and double wishbone rear, provides an elastic but progressively firm feel with the road. It is quite well-sorted and, though running on 'full-size' rubber (not low profiles), the Outback 2.0D corners pretty well.
Being higher, there is a tendency to push wide at speed, but it's all well-controlled and, as we found, can be hustled along on both tarmac and dirt in a most un-SUV-like way.
OFF THE ROAD
Our test route took in some long gravel sections of road, but nothing that approximated an off-road workout.
It was unfazed though by corrugations and its high ground clearance (relative to the Passat Alltrack and other more 'wagon-like' SUVs) would let the Outback in and out of some pretty marginal tracks.
Interestingly, Subaru has rural buyers - stock and station agents and the like - in its sights for its Outback sales.
Unlike the Alltrack and, say, Audi Allroad, this is a car that has been engineered to run every other day to Tibooburra and back, without complaint.
It does feel very robust and understressed.
The front end has been strengthened, the CVT has a reinforced transmission case and has been strenthened internally to handle the torque loads of the diesel, and the engine is a lazier understressed unit (redlined quite a bit lower than similar light modern diesels).
On the face of it, the Outback 2.0D feels engineered to last.
It has to be said Subaru has been off the pace for a few years. But that's changing: the XV is a good thing, the new Forester much improved (and one of the best in its segment), and now this - the 2.0D Outback CVT.
It's not quite 'there', a few more ergs under the bonnet wouldn't go astray, but it's a very robust family wagon at a very good price.
And besides feeling bullet-proof, on and off-road, it also feels classier from the wheel than most of its SUV competitors - it feels a more expensive car than its sticker price suggests.
Put it on a dirt road and it will swallow corrugations and larger washouts with ease (that ground clearance gives it a lot more versatility than most), and its equally adept on the highway.
It surprised me, I haven't driven the larger Subarus for a while. As an all-rounder wagon, it's hard to think of a better buy right now than Subaru's Outback 2.0D CVT.