See if you can keep your fingers uncrossed and recite this line: our family will not look at only medium SUV models. Make that pledge, because circa-$50,000 may buy four-cylinder, five-seat and fully loaded versions of that genre, but they are near-without exception slower and smaller than the crossover wagons gathered here.
Subaru’s Outback is about the only traditional wagon in Australia that sells in decent numbers. As ever it takes a slow-selling Liberty sedan, tacks on a boot, raises its suspension and then adds body cladding. And just like that, buyers seem to accept that this crossover appears more SUV than wagon, and the Liberty-like model sells.
Given the decline of large cars, but the popularity of the above Japanese rival, Holden’s greatest chance of success with its new German-import ZB Commodore range could come in the form of the Calais Tourer and Calais V Tourer. The formula is mirrored: body cladding, boosted ground clearance and all-wheel drive benefits.
The model grades tested here are the flagship versions of each, costing either side of $50K and both with 3.6-litre six-cylinder engines. But even from the start, Holden might be getting itself crossed-up against a formidable Subaru crossover range...
Holden Calais V Tourer
Price: $53,990 plus on-road costs
Engine: 235kW/381Nm 3.6-litre V6 | nine-speed automatic
Fuel use claimed: 9.1L/100km | tested: 14.0L/100km
Subaru Outback 3.6R
Price: $49,190 plus on-road costs
Engine: 191kW/350Nm 3.6-litre flat 6cyl | automatic continuously-variable transmission (CVT)
Fuel use claimed: 9.9L/100km | tested: 12.5L/100km
The Outback 2.5i starts at $36,240 plus on-road costs in 2.5-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder petrol specification, moving up to the Outback 2.5i Premium at $42,640 (plus orc). For $2500 and $3000 extra, respectively, the petrol can be swapped out for a 2.0D-badged 2.0-litre turbo-diesel that adds torque, is faster from standstill to 100km/h (10.2 seconds drops to 9.9sec) and uses less fuel (7.3 litres per 100 kilometres drops to 6.3L/100km) on the official combined-cycle fuel consumption test.
That sub-$46K Subaru quartet is quite the range already, but one further step right to the top brings in this Outback 3.6R at $49,190 (plus orc). Basically it gets all the features of the abovementioned 2.5i Premium and 2.0D Premium for a surcharge of $6550 and $3550 respectively. The 3.6-litre six-cylinder is speedier again, with a 7.6sec 0-100km/h, but thirstier with 9.9L/100km official fuel usage. Meanwhile the single kit boost of the ‘six’ over a ‘four’ is an 11-speaker Harman Kardon audio unit.
Holden, by contrast, hasn’t bothered competing with four of the above model grades that sell so well. The Calais Tourer at $45,990 (plus orc) goes straight into bat with a 3.6-litre V6. That said, at least it matches the Outback 2.5i Premium and Outback 2.0D Premium with 18-inch alloy wheels, keyless auto-entry with push button start, electric tailgate, leather seats with front heating and driver electric adjustment, digital radio, satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, autonomous emergency braking (AEB), lane-keep assistance, blind-spot monitor and rear cross-traffic alert.
Both Subarus uniquely add all-speed (not just low-speed) AEB into the mix for less, in addition to an electrically adjustable passenger seat, sunroof, auto up/down high-beam and paddleshifters. Each of those is added into this Calais V Tourer at $53,990 (plus orc), and it further features a panoramic sunroof, head-up display, LED headlights with adaptive-auto high-beam, 360-degree camera, ventilated/massage front seats, and heated rear seats. Plus, no Outback features the front/rear parking sensors, and automatic reverse-park assist standard on both Holden model grades.
Let’s recap the above, just to make a value assessment. Is the Outback 3.6R worth the $3200 over the Calais Tourer?
Given a buyer scores a sunroof, adaptive cruise with full-speed AEB, an electrically adjustable passenger seat, and auto up/down high-beam, we would say ‘yes’ – especially given a sunroof alone can often add $2K.
But, conversely, is this Calais V Tourer worth $4800 more than an Outback 3.6R?
Given the auto high-beam turns adaptive (to block out individual cars and flood the rest of the road with light), which is as handy for the driver as the addition of head-up display, plus the front seats can be cooled and occupants massaged, the rears heated, the camera can show a surround-view of the car, and every Holden can automatically park itself, we’d also be inclined to say ‘yes’.
That is emphatically the case given this Commodore model grade features a stunning eight-speaker Bose audio system – the best we’ve heard from that brand – that comfortably trumps the 11-speaker Harman Kardon unit unique to the 3.6R.
So call it a dead heat on value.
Inside, however, the Japanese-made Subaru eclipses its German-built rival for tightness of fit and plushness of finish. Some switchgear and graphics can be a bit bulbous and cheap, respectively, but plastics and leather quality are first-rate here.
The Holden boasts a much lower and sportier driving position, which may not suit some buyers who love the opposite, and if anything its buttons and dials appear classier and more cohesive than its rival. But there is plenty of buzzing and creaking going on behind the dashboard, including an obvious rattle from the head-up unit.
Both crossover wagons feature superb front seats, but just as the addition of a head-up display causes a rattle in the Calais V, the unique feature of ventilated seats doesn’t really work well enough either. We’ve tried enough premium cars with this feature and the system used here can be barely felt on full fan speed.
The Tourer also lets its adaptive cruise control system dribble down in speed on hills – by 10km/h under the prescribed limit at one point! – before flaring back the automatic and forcing the engine to get back the set limit. Quite simply, it’s poor.
The 3.6R’s adaptive cruise is far better, but it faces another issue; each time a vehicle is detected ahead the system makes an audible ‘beep’ at the driver, and every time a vehicle moves out of its path, it delivers another ‘beep’. So while it’s fine for manufacturers to charge extra for features, they should work better than these do.
At least both 8.0-inch touchscreens work with neat simplicity, and all the expected features including navigation with live traffic, digital radio and smartphone mirroring.
Both also feature twin-rear USB charging points, which is handy for passengers three, four and five back there. The Holden offers more legroom than its rival, roughly the same shoulder space, but less toe space under the front seats and markedly reduced headroom owing to the intrusion of the panoramic sunroof.
The Subaru responds with its airier feel and similarly plush outboard seating, plus the unique feature of a backrest that can recline. However, its centre position is oddly overly hard and the bench itself lacks the side support of its rival. Take your pick from the above virtues, because there isn’t much in it in the second row.
In the all-important boot area, though, the Calais V snatches back a clear lead. Its 560-litre boot is 48L-larger than its 512L-rated rival, and is the most obvious place where the German puts its increased body length (5004mm versus 4820mm) to best use. It gets a much longer loading area than the model from Japan, plus nicer carpeted finish, a smarter cargo cover and even a 12-volt outlet perfect for camping.
However, for those heading out back, the Outback offers a full-size spare tyre mounted on an 18-inch alloy wheel, trumping the space-saver of its foe. And that’s a perfect segue to the suitability of each of these models off the beaten track…
ON AND OFF ROAD
Side-by-side and the Subaru towers over the Holden. Its 1675mm body height reaches 150mm further up than its rival, and ground clearance of 213mm is roughly double the leverage over its rival.
For climbing over anything, then, the Outback has it all over its rival. It also emphasises its advantage with a demonstrably plusher suspension tune that soaks up patchy and sodden dirt roads at speed with aplomb.
Despite also riding on 18-inch tyres, and employing a comfort-based ‘Tour’ suspension tune, the Calais V is seemingly always tense on or off the road, with ride quality that is restless and busy yet never harsh.
A previously tested Commodore RS four-cylinder liftback, complete with a sports suspension tune but also on 18s, proved more supple than this Tourer – likely owing to the front-wheel drive four’s 1535kg kerb weight, a staggering 237kg under this all-wheel drive V6’s 1772kg mass as-tested here. And even its 3.6R rival is 59kg lighter.
Meanwhile, a similarly priced Commodore VXR on adaptive suspension likewise proves less jittery on 20s, and so it creates a slightly odd identity crisis for the new ZB-generation large car where some sportier versions ride better than a ‘Calais’.
It does become obvious, though, that Holden engineers sought to deliver engaging handling and superb body control across the entire range. The fixed suspension tune here feels keyed into the road surface, and overtly more tied down and dynamic than its Subaru equivalent. It also delivers lighter, sweeter steering, and all in all if the dirt road is fairly flat, it encourages quicker driving because it feels more secure. The Tourer’s ABS also pulled up perfectly quick and straight on dirt, too – whereas its rival could waver slightly.
The Subaru wafts over wrinkled terrain with ease, with a suspension tune best described as excelling to about the 80 per cent mark. For another 10 per cent, it can feel a touch too floaty and soggy, while at the other 10 per cent it isn’t plush enough. The steering is also quite good, but it can be needlessly firm and occasionally ‘sticky’ – as though it doesn’t want to self-correct.
And as with its chassis, the ‘boxer’ 3.6-litre naturally aspirated flat six-cylinder engine and automatic continuously-variable transmission (CVT) are a slower pairing than its rival. Foot flat in a straight line, and it never feels overly brisk, although the sound it makes is distantly charming and the CVT is brilliantly alert and intuitive.
In short, there’s less performance, but the whole drivetrain feels beautifully calibrated and it delivered real-world economy not far off its claim – 12.0L/100km across a mix of dense urban traffic, and light freeway and dirt-road touring, including hilly terrain.
The opposite is true for with the Calais’ 3.6-litre naturally aspirated V6 engine. In a straight line, it revs keenly and crisply, sharply slicing through the automatic’s nine ratios and feeling much quicker as a result. However, while its peak 381Nm of torque isn’t produced until 5200rpm, the nine-speed is seemingly calibrated for the Commodore 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder that makes 350Nm at just 3000rpm.
Where the auto keeps the engine surfing the low- and mid-range of the tachometer in Holden’s turbo four, which is appropriate for the engine, it also uses its nine gears only to slink to the tallest possible one in the V6, which is ill-suited to the engine. The result is a torque ‘hole’ that is regularly felt through a doughy accelerator pedal and, as aforementioned, an adaptive cruise control that struggles then panics.
Driveability in the lighter turbo-four is as brilliant is it is ordinary in the heavier V6. The result is woeful fuel usage of 14.0L/100km in the same conditions, well over its 9.1L/100km claim. Where its Australian-built VF Series II predecessor used a same-sized and similarly powerful engine, its six-speed auto was smarter and it at least had a 71-litre fuel tank – this ZB generation has a 61L tank for a poor 450km range.
It’s a shame because the Calais V Tourer is brilliant when using the paddleshifters in the auto’s manual mode, plying perfectly into a fantastic ‘Twinster’ all-wheel drive system. Although typically front-driven, the system can portion 50 per cent of drive to the back wheels then vary torque to either side.
The soaked conditions of our test played into its hands ideally, allowing the Holden to feel decidedly rear-wheel driven like Australian-made Commodores have always been. Along with the superb steering and electronic stability control (ESC) tune, as well as brilliantly grippy Continental ContiSport Contact5 SUV tyres, it simply feels tighter than any V6-engined Commodore Sportwagon before it.
The only issue is, the locally tuned Outback 3.6R also displayed surprisingly excellent handling in concert with its Bridgestone Dueller Sport tyres – Duellers are typically terrible, but the Sport designation proves its worth. Sure, it’s softer than its rival and displays more bodyroll, but although its Active Torque Split permanent all-wheel drive system shows an obvious front-bias out of wet corners, it works. The chassis feels balanced, not pushy, and the six-cylinder taps into that in a way the ‘fours’ can’t.
With both offering a three-year warranty, the only issue for the Subaru is its six-month servicing intervals and $2711 cost over three years or 75,000km – whereas the Holden offers 12-month but 12,000km intervals for just $817 over the same time period, or $1894 should 72,000km come up first.
There’s a fair whack of irony to end this comparison test. Quite simply, Holden needs to make its superb 2.0-litre turbo-petrol four-cylinder (and probably the as-yet untested diesel of the same capacity and cylinder count) available in the Tourer. Either that, or improve the V6/auto/throttle/cruise control relationship of this model.
The non-turbo petrol and ordinary turbo-diesel offered by Subaru would also be sitting ducks for the Holden equivalents, yet in another crippling blow the six-cylinder 3.6R is by far the best Outback to drive in the range and it bests its V6 rival here.
The Calais V certainly hits higher highs, with more technology – albeit with patchy results – a bigger boot, superior steering and handling, and faster straight-line performance. However, it also falls to those drivability lows, and with firm ride quality and low ground clearance, it doesn’t play the touring/off-road card as well as it could.
A consummate all-rounder, the Outback 3.6R doesn’t thrill or excite, nor dip and disappoint. While the can’t quite be said of the four-cylinder versions, this six-cylinder has the sweetness to meld ideally with the supple chassis. Cross our hearts, though, because we promise that either of these crossovers are smarter than SUVs.
Subaru Outback 3.6R – 4.0 stars
Holden Calais V Tourer – 3.5 stars
- Interested in buying Subaru Outback? Visit our Subaru Outback showroom for more information.
- Interested in buying Holden Calais? Visit our Holden showroom for more information.