SUBARU OUTBACK BIG DRIVE
KICKING UP SOME DIRT IN SUBARU’S LATEST OUTBACK SPORT REVEALS ONE SERIOUS SHORTCOMING AMID THE COMPETENCE
An all-new Outback deserves a dirty weekend, so we head bush for a proper dust-up. Excess cleaning levy may apply
The Outback Sport is capable of far more than most would give it credit for
WE’RE LOST. Not terribly – this isn’t a tragic tale in the style of Burke and Wills, a story of the unforgiving Australian landscape claiming two more scalps – but the fact remains that I don’t really know where we are or how to get to where we need to be. My stress levels would be higher if we didn’t have the latest Subaru Outback Sport at our disposal, a car that has already proven capable of far more than most would give it credit for. If you occasionally – or even frequently – venture off the beaten track and think you need a towering SUV to do so then we have news for you.
The arrival of a new Outback is a big deal. Over the past four years (2017-2020) Subaru Australia has sold 33,756 examples, accounting for almost 20 percent of its sales, so you would hope it hasn’t mucked it up. Subaru has rationalised the range, binning the six-cylinder and diesel models and offering a trio of 2.5-litre boxer-four variants starting at $39,990, rising to $44,490 for the mid-spec Sport we have here and topping out with the $47,790 Touring.
It’s an inescapable fact that prices have increased – the previous Outback 2.5 started at $36,240, rising to $42,640 for the Premium – but the standard equipment list is now an almighty long one, so much so that it’s a bit challenging to know where to start. For starters there is keyless entry and start, dual-zone climate control, eight-way adjustable powered and heated front seats, four USB connections (two front and two rear), a new 11.6-inch portrait-oriented touchscreen infotainment system with smartphone mirroring and auto power windows all round.
The safety equipment list is equally extensive, with airbags galore, autonomous emergency braking and steering, lane centring and departure warning, adaptive cruise control, speed sign recognition with intelligent speed limiter, driver attention warnings, blind spot assist and rear cross-traffic alert. These systems work relatively unobtrusively, though they can be quite insistent that you drive the car as they would like when they do activate, with various flashing lights and beeping noises.
The Sport variant adds black exterior highlights, heated outboard rear seats, auto headlights, a powered tailgate, premium leather steering wheel, satellite navigation, sports pedals, water repellent seat trim and front and side-view cameras. No-one is ever going to put a poster of an Outback on their wall, but in Sport guise it’s a cool-looking thing, at least in the khaki-esque Autumn Green metallic. Combined with the black cladding, wheels (now an inch bigger at 18s) and exterior highlights, it has a somewhat military vibe, like something you would find at Duntroon with Bear Grylls sitting on the bonnet.
We could use some of his skills right now. We’re somewhere in the Wandong Regional Park north of Melbourne and not far from civilisation, but the appropriate direction of travel remains a mystery. Attempts to follow our noses and the sat-nav’s compass have led to ever more overgrown trails and dead ends in the form of ruts that would require more than the Outback’s 213mm of ground clearance (which is pretty good, equal to a BMW X5 and only 26mm less than a Ford Ranger) and roadbiased Bridgestone Turanza tyres.
Earlier off-road attempts revealed Subaru’s soft-roader to be remarkably capable, though. Time and again it scaled hills and
negotiated ruts that we thought were beyond it only for it to scurry through with little fuss. Its biggest shortcoming in the rough stuff is the length of the front and rear overhangs, leading to winceinducing scuffs when either the nose or tail kiss the dirt. The all-wheel-drive system successfully uses its traction control to deal with most issues and even has ‘X-Mode’, which supposedly helps clamber out of snow/dirt or deep snow/mud, but it understandably has its limits, ineffectually spinning an unloaded wheel if it’s waving in the air. A slight suspension lift and set of knobbly tyres would definitely help its bush-bashing ability.
The Outback isn’t intended to be a Jeep Wrangler, though, so it seems reasonable to regard the level of off-road competence it does possess as a bonus. It’s designed to appeal to folk who enjoy the great outdoors, people with what marketers would call “an active lifestyle”. Outbacks will spend most of their lives carrying families to the beach, bush or snow loaded with boards, bikes or skis.
Luggage space is similar to its predecessor, but Subaru has teased out a little more practicality. The rear load bay is 1100mm wide (+20mm), 436mm from floor to cargo cover, and a very precise 1085.5mm long, which extends to 1982.6mm with the 60:40 split-fold rear seats down. The upshot is a claimed 522 litres of luggage space – even with a full-size spare under the seat floor, for which Subaru scores 100 points – which increases to 1267L with the rear seats folded. Regardless of the actual numbers, it’s a sizeable space, with multiple tie-down points, a 12-volt outlet and cubby holes to each side.
It’s equally commodious in the rear seat. There is masses of head, leg, shoulder and foot room in those heated outer rear seats, while even the centre pew would be habitable for short journeys. The pair of USB ports will keep devices charged, there are two drink holders for each outboard seat (though, like those in the front, the door ones aren’t big enough for 1.5L bottles) and airflow from the rear vents has been increased by more than 50 percent.
Up front the driving position is widely adjustable and the materials are all leather-wrapped-this and soft-touch-that – it’s very polished. The Sport’s premium steering wheel is a great size and, though it’s loaded with buttons, all are pretty self-explanatory. The new 11.6-inch infotainment touchscreen is attention-grabbing but also well executed. Retaining physical buttons for the temperature control is a smart move rather than burying it in a sub-menu, and the portrait orientation allows plenty of information to be clearly displayed simultaneously and is particularly handy when using Apple CarPlay.
Lack of reception is rendering Google Maps useless in our current predicament, but the Outback’s onboard nav has enough signal for me to select a waypoint to extricate us. The fact it’s not displaying a physical road isn’t promising, but the distance to destination keeps reducing as we slowly navigate a heavily overgrown bush track, branches scraping the bodywork (sorry Subaru!), mud splashing the sides and rocks pinging the underside. After 15 minutes of slow progress, finally we reach a recognisable road, its smooth gravel coating looking like an interstate freeway to our eyes.
It’s here the Outback really shines. All-wheel drive provides stability and traction, tall tyres lessen the risk of a puncture and long-travel suspension soaks up the majority of bumps and undulations without fuss. Subaru has made a lot of changes under the skin, including a stiffer bodyshell (it’s actually stitched together a different way), while an aluminium bonnet and