Subaru Outback: Integrity, quality and safety shine through

Subaru's outstanding Outback wows William Scholes - and not just with its excellent safety features

William Scholes
25 October, 2017 10:00

I don't know if you've ever had the chance to shut the door to a safe - you know, the sort of thing a shop or church might keep in its office.

If you have, then closing the driver's door on a Subaru Outback will feel pretty familiar, writes William Scholes.

Its reassuring heft, well oiled precision and the sense that something strong and imperturbable is swinging irresistibly on its arc are among the similarities.

But the clincher, for me, is the sound the Subaru's door makes in the split-second before it fully shuts. It's a gentle phutt noise, and it sounds just like the rush of air being expelled from a safe in the moment before its door slams shut.

I can't think of another car that conveys its integrity and solidity as fluently as the Outback does from that simple, everyday action of closing the door. It is the inconsequential made consequential.

Of course, you don't need to put your shoulder behind the Subaru's door and drive it home like you're scrummaging against the All Blacks forwards; it's no more difficult to operate than any other door.

I can't think of another car that conveys its integrity and solidity as fluently as the Outback does from that simple, everyday action of closing the door. It is the inconsequential made consequential.

That being said, after a couple of weeks of getting used to the Outback, my eight-year-old son developed 'Subaru arm' - he couldn't stop slamming the door of the Vauxhall test car which replaced the Outback with such vigour that it felt like it might come out the other side...

I don't normally spend so long waxing about the qualities of a door - a door is a door is a door, surely - but after a longer time than is usually afforded by these tests to get acquainted with the Subaru, it became just one of the attributes that signal that this car is a high quality, superbly engineered product.

But apart from all that, what exactly is an Outback? It's a large 'crossover' estate - neither a regular estate car nor a full-fat SUV, but somewhere in between.

Subaru pioneered this type of car. It is an effective proposition, albeit one that could be overlooked in this SUV-obsessed age.

The Outback doesn't have quite the height or boxy bodywork that we would traditionally associate with an SUV, instead packing some proper off-road hardware - it sports Subaru's trademark symmetrical all-wheel-drive system - beneath a rugged-looking estate bodyshell.

The ride height is somewhere between an SUV and a 'normal' estate car. This means the Outback gains enough elevation to give it decent clearance - 200mm - and departure angles for off-road use, but not so much that it becomes too roly-poly and soft to drive, like SUVs tend to be.

Others have followed Subaru's recipe, notably Volvo with its XC70 and now V90 Cross Country and Audi with its A4 and A6 allroad models. Mercedes-Benz has now dipped its tyres in this territory too, with the E-Class All-Terrain, and Volkswagen's Passat Alltrack and the Skoda Octavia Scout fulfil a similar role.

Fine cars as those rivals are, none has the bespoke feel of the Subaru; where they are gentrified versions of estate cars, the Outback is shot through with rugged purpose and intent.

 Subaru Outback

Key to this is Subaru's unique combination of a 'boxer' configuration engine and the symmetrical permanent all-wheel-drive system that this makes possible. It is an arrangement of unusual engineering purity and gives the cars an uncommonly well-balanced feel from the driver's seat.

The advantages of four-wheel-drive are well known - extra grip and better safety among them - but the boxer engine is less common.

 Subaru's trademark symmetrical all-wheel-drive system is key to the Outback's inherent balance

Subaru and Porsche are its greatest exponents. Where most engines' pistons move up and down - known as an in-line configuration - or at an angle, as in a V-engine, the pistons in a boxer, or 'flat', engine are horizontally opposed, punching and counter-punching each other.

It's an inherently smooth and well balanced layout and because it is flat where other engine types are tall, it lowers the car's centre of gravity - a virtuous circle which improves stability, handling, driver confidence and, ultimately, safety.

Put these mechanicals in the Outback's stiff and immensely strong bodyshell and you have the ingredients for a car that feels simply invincible.

It means the Subaru has a rare sort of feel-good factor - not necessarily because of how it looks, the noise it makes, how fast it goes or the gadgets it has on board, but because the engineering within - like those doors - radiates a special sort of assuredness.

For some would-be buyers, the fact that much of what makes the Outback such an excellent car is essentially hidden from plain sight will be a negative.

But those who appreciate that beauty is truly more than skin deep will find much to admire about the Subaru.

Yes, it's got a large boot and big, comfortable seats. The back seats recline, too. There's an excellent stereo, clear dashboard and switches and stalks that feel like they will still be operating as good as new for many years to come.

The Subaru has a rare sort of feel-good factor because the engineering within radiates a special sort of assuredness

There are smart, practical touches for a car like this, too, like the wide step on the side sill to help you load bikes or surfboards on to a roof rack.

You can have your Outback with either a 2.5-litre petrol or 2.0-litre diesel engine; the diesel can be had with either a six-speed manual or Subaru's 'Lineartronic' CVT automatic gearbox. Lineartronic is the only gearbox option for the petrol car.

The test car was a diesel Lineartronic. Normally, a 148bhp power output wouldn't be too much to get excited about in a large, 1.7 tonne estate car, but the Outback managed the trick of feeling far more fleet of foot than those numbers would suggest.

We've observed before that Subaru's Lineartronic doesn't seem to have the same tendency to whine as CVTs found in other makers' cars - it behaves much like a very good automatic gearbox, which is intended as a compliment - and in combination with the diesel engine, it helps make the Outback a very satisfying companion.

 The Subaru Outback has a large, comfortable cabin.

And because of its unusual engineering layout, the Outback is as adept at loping along the motorway, relaxed and comfortable, as it is at cornering at frankly surprising speeds with real deftness.

It is a combination that feels particularly well suited to the breadth of surfaces and environments that Northern Ireland drivers encounter.

There is a single well appointed SE Premium trim level, featuring a sunroof, 18-inch alloy wheels, leather seats, power adjustable heated seats, LED headlamps, power-operated tailgate, keyless entry, an excellent stereo with Subaru's 'Starlink' infotainment system, torque vectoring and a raft of safety features. Subaru gives its cars a five-year warranty.

The petrol Lineartronic and diesel manual cost the same £32,995, with the diesel Lineartronic priced at £34,995.

For me, that represents excellent value for money for such a resolutely well put together and satisfying car.

But there's another reason the Outback is worth serious consideration: safety.

The Subaru's body strength, four-wheel-drive and inherent agility mean it is already a safe car, as its five-star Euro Ncap rating and multiple top crash-test ratings around the world attest.

EyeSight, Subaru's driver assist technology, is among the very best. And I should know, because it helped me avoid what could have been a nasty incident...

But the safest cars these days are not just those which are loaded with airbags to help you when you have had an accident; they are those which help prevent an accident from happening in the first place and which constantly help keep the driver aware of what is going on around them.

On this front, Subaru's driver assist technology, which it calls EyeSight, is among the very best. And I should know, because it helped me avoid what could have been a nasty incident...

EyeSight uses two stereo cameras, mounted either side of the rear-view mirror, to capture 3D colour images of the road ahead.

The system uses this information to determine the shape, speed and distance of what it sees, and can tell the difference between cars, lorries, motorbikes, bicycles and pedestrians. It can even identify brake lights.

If it reckons that a dangerous situation may be about to develop, the car alerts the driver - and can apply the brakes on its own to avoid an accident.

And if the car detects an obstacle directly in front but you select 'drive' from the Lineartronic transmission instead of 'reverse', it will cut the throttle to avoid a frontal impact. Pre-collision steering assist helps the driver make a sharp turn to avoid a crash.

The EyeSight package also includes adaptive cruise control, lane sway and lane departure warning.

 The Subaru EyeSight driver assist system uses stereo colour cameras, mounted either side of the rear-view mirror

Another feature I enjoyed in the stop-start of Belfast rush hour was what Subaru calls 'lead vehicle start alert'; you've come to a standstill behind another car on the Westlink, and when it moves on, the Outback lets you know. Sounds simple, but it's really useful.

Add to all of EyeSight's 'extra pair of eyes on the road' technology such as high beam assist, rear vehicle detection, blind spot monitoring, lane change assist and rear cross traffic alert and you have the full suite of safety kit.

It all came together to help me on the M1 one morning. A car joining the motorway at the Sprucefield on-slip shot across the white line, swerving from its filter lane all the way over to the overtaking lane, where I was merrily minding my own business.

EyeSight knew what was going on somewhere just beyond my peripheral vision, though, and alerted me with a buzzer; I was able to apply the brakes before the lane-swerver could get too close, and a potential collision was averted.

It was an episode that helped prove the value of such 'driver assist' systems.

But you just know that being a Subaru driver assist system, EyeSight is something out of the ordinary - just like the rest of the Outback.

A Subaru might not be the obvious choice or the first car that comes to mind - more's the pity - but perhaps it should be.

I am not often able to recommend a car without reservation, but the Subaru Outback falls easily in that category. It is a vehicle of real depth, integrity and character. And it's safer than a safe.


Subaru Outback 2.0D SE Premium Lineartronic

Price: £34,995. As tested £35,545, with metallic paint £550

Engine and transmission: 2.0-litre four-cylinder 'boxer' diesel turbo, CVT automatic, four-wheel-drive; 148bhp, 258lb.ft

Performance: Top speed 124mph, 0-62mph in 9.9 seconds

Fuel consumption and CO2: 46.3mpg (combined), 38.8mpg (real world), 159g/km

Car tax: £500 in first year, then £140 annually

Benefit in kind: 33 per cent

Euro Ncap safety rating: Five stars (85/87/70/73), 2014

 Subaru Outback

25 October, 2017 10:00 Motors