BEYOND THE TRADITIONAL heavy-duty 4WDs, there remains a collection of all-wheel-drive wagons agile enough for day-to-day use in the city, while still allowing a reasonably large van to be hitched up for your big trip. The Subaru Outback is one such vehicle. Here we test the most powerful model: the boxer six-cylinder 3.6R. This is the top of the range Outback, with 2.5L petrol and 2L diesel models also available in the range.
The Outback 3.6R Premium is one of the more feature-laden Subarus money can buy, with a well-stocked larder of goodies: leather interior; sat-nav; sunroof; keyless locking and push-button start; alloy wheels; rear-view camera; cruise control; self-levelling rear suspension; stability control; seven airbags; dual-zone air-conditioning; and DataDot security marking. The drive-away price of $61,029 buys you a very well-finished premium vehicle.
Subaru may not have the same cache as luxury brands like BMW and Audi, but it carries off an impressive feel of luxury and quality at this level of specification.
The exterior styling is an acquired taste – Subaru has become more adventurous in some of its designs in the last decade or so – but few will be offended by the cabin presentation.
Simple and neatly executed controls and instruments face the driver. The seats are comfortable and leg, shoulder and headroom are ample for most in the front and back, although the sunroof does impede on headroom for taller occupants. Vision from the driver’s seat is very good to the front and sides, with relatively thin roof pillars and large side mirrors. Vision over the shoulder is better than many contemporary wagons but many will likely rely on the rear camera to see what’s really going on behind.
ENGINE AND TRANSMISSION
The 3.6L six-cylinder engine features a horizontally-opposed cylinder design, well-known last century in the Volkswagen Beetle. Beyond the shared basic design principle, the Subaru engine is far removed from the Beetle; it is a water-cooled, fuel-injected multi-valve engine with variable valve timing, making it entirely contemporary.
Even more modern is the vehicle’s SI-drive feature, which allows the driver three different driving modes, each offering differing performance characteristics from the engine and transmission.
The five-speed automatic is conventional, although it has paddle shift controls on the steering wheel for those who want more control over gear selection. The 3.6R must run on a minimum of 95RON (premium) fuel.
The all-wheel-drive system is a manufacturer trademark in this market, and like all Subarus it is an all-weather traction aid rather than any indication of rock-hopping capabilities.
Purists may prefer the characteristic boxer throb of this engine design, but it has been surgically removed from the 3.6L. It is instead a smooth and generally quiet engine, albeit with a slight cam-belt whine.
Put your foot down, though, and the Subaru responds well – few will complain about the performance, or the wonderfully purposeful engine note as it sings for its supper at higher revs. If better response is preferred over optimum economy, the SI-drive controller on the centre console gives drivers the option at a flick of the switch. The automatic transmission has a well-picked spread of ratios and is smooth in operation.
The Outback’s suspension is firm and well controlled, with its front-end MacPherson strut and rear wishbone. The vehicle is not let down so much by its chassis as it is by its tyres. In semi-spirited driving – when you’re in a hurry, but not a race – the tyres squeal and lose grip on corners. However, this is not extraordinary for the SUV class. In fact, while the Outback has better dynamics than many medium SUVs, its tyre grip is typical for the class.
That’s not to say the Outback is not a good point-to-point tourer. On the contrary, it gets the job done very well, with precise steering and a controlled ride and relatively little body roll considering its tall stance on the road.
The Outback 3.6R achieves a combined urban/rural fuel consumption average of 10.3L/100km, according to Subaru, with our vehicle achieving 15.2L/100km on test while towing a single-axle 1200kg caravan.
This is quite good for a six-cylinder vehicle and is a figure we’ve achieved with some four-cylinder petrol vehicles towing the same van.
There are not many SUV wagons on the smaller, lighter end of the ‘medium’ market that can haul a van as easily as the Outback. While we had a relatively light van and ball weight on test (1200kg and 130kg, respectively), the Subaru felt as if it could handle more behind it.
The rear of the vehicle did not drop much with the load imposed on the towball. Stability was excellent, with adequate engine braking downhills, while engine performance was very good – not many hills could slow the Outback.
THE BOTTOM LINE
There are better heavy-duty tow vehicles, and the slightly larger Ford Territory, for example, would outshine the Outback in towing capacity and dynamics.
However, the more nimble Outback punches above its weight as a light to medium-weight tow vehicle, and among the premium-priced Japanese middle-weights, the Outback 3.6R is one of the better tow vehicles available.
Source: Caravan World Mar 2011.