Subaru Outback tested – Tough cookie over tough terrain

Excellent Lineartronic gearbox, superb AWD. competitively priced, comfortable, good spec

Poor fuel consumption on 2.5i, dull looks, some overly plasticky interior trim

Image shows the Subaru Outback accelerating in the snow.

Subaru Outback?

Around twelve ago I was working part time at a second-hand car dealership. Occasionally I’d have to take cars to get their yearly MOT test, and on one occasion I was asked to take out a mid-nineties Subaru Legacy Outback. This was my first drive in a Subaru, and also a car with AWD drive.

I clearly remember thinking how assured a drive it was, but also how smooth, quiet and well-specced it was and that’s always stayed with me. so when I found out that Subaru were sending through their top o’ the range Outback 2.5i SE NavPlus for us to have a play with, I was genuinely excited to see how they’d moved forward.

As the name suggests, the Outback was originally designed to be tough and to tackle the toughest of terrain, making its appearance in the first half of the 1990’s. The Outback was based around the Legacy model, but Subaru pumped up the suspension and added plastic trim where necessary to protect bodywork. The new Outback (introduced 2009) continues the trend with the high stance and protective trim, but has it mellowed or lost its purpose? Let’s find out…

Exterior. Butt ugly or beauty?

The Subaru Outback is large car. I parked it next to a Saab 9-5 estate and a newer model Ford Mondeo estate and it dwarfed them in both height, length and width. It is BIG, but in the looks department there’s nothing really stand-outish about it, and apart from being a sizeable beast it looks rather dull I’m afraid.

Photograph show exterior design features of the Subaru Outback including headlamp washers and door-mirror indicators.

The Outback is no bad looker, but nothing reaches out and slaps me in the face to get my attention. There’s just something missing and I’m having trouble placing what that is. The Outback seems to be having an identity crisis. Maybe it would be better low ‘n mean like an Audi RS6, but that would cripple the off-road capability of course. Perhaps it wants to be a bigger – more 4×4-like, but then the Forester is already there.

Design is something Subaru seem to be struggling with overall at the moment. They have the modern, angular XV, the brutish and purposeful WRX STi saloon plus the striking BRZ, but then the overly sedate Outback, Legacy and Forester.

Subaru Outback 2.5i SE NavPlus in the snow.

They need to do what nearly every manufacturer does; decide a more uniform direction and roll it out across every model. So long as their models are striking and good-looking of course. Perhaps they should steal Kia’s chief designer Peter Schreyer. Kia is a prime example of an amazing design turn-around in a short time, and it’s made the brand a thousand times more desirable.

Interior. Neat or nothing special?

Shutting the door of the Outback SE NavPlus with a clunk, there’s a sudden quietness, a serenity. The Outback NavPlus we tested is the top model, and the comfort level has to be applauded. The leather of the driver’s ten-way adjustable electric seat is soft but supportive, and along with the steering wheel, which tilts and is telescopic, it’s easy to get the exact seating position you want.

The surroundings are simplistic in a good way and it’s a good design, not tacky or or cheap-looking, and the interior is actually a very nice place to be. It’s pleasant, roomy and has a definite air of luxury about it. The door card tops where you place your elbow are padded, as is the centre arm rest, and there’s only satin silver highlights instead of tacky fake chrome. Okay, some of the plastics on the dash and other places are way too hard and plasticky for a car of this price or spec, but overall it’s absolutely a relaxing, agreeable place to spend a journey of any length.

Subaru Outback 2.5i SE NavPlus review. Image shows the driver's console and dash.

After receiving the Subaru in January, the cold weather moved in quickly and we had wind chill temperatures around -9˚C, so the two-stage heated seats in the font were tested on a daily basis, and I can report they warmed up nicely. So nicely in fact, that along with the comfort of the seating it was a begrudging exit once it came time to get out of the car and into the blisteringly cold snow.

Before I set off, I connect my iPhone to the sat nav/audio system via Bluetooth, which is a simple two minute job and means access to my full phonebook and songs. Simple steering wheel controls for the audio system and phone gives you more time looking at the road and less at the interior, and that’s always a good thing when you’re flying down the road.

Subaru Outback 2.5i SE NavPlus. Image shows the frontal interior area of the Outback.

Clicking over to the touchscreen satellite navigation, it’s actually a very good system with a well laid out display, easy to understand directions, and features such as a highly accurate bar showing exactly how far from the next slip road you are, layered boxes showing three steps ahead (streets, turn off’s etc) and how far each of them is away, and the selection of a dual screen showing on one side zoomed-in view and other from further out, and both of these can be adjusted to how close or high you want. It’s a good system and I couldn’t find fault with it.

The audio side of the entertainment system is excellent, and includes Dolby Surround plus about a million options of sound adjustment. One gripe I found is that the system’s bass levels are ear-bleedingly deep on any of the pre-sets available, and making tweaks of the equaliser manually is not a simple case of ‘bass, middle, treble’. Unless you want to delve into the manual for two hours trying to work out what’s what, you’re gonna have to do what I did and press buttons almost randomly until it sounds right. I’m no old fart, and I like the speakers in any car set up well, but the Subaru’s settings were unnecessarily complex and I suspect the vast amount of buyers of the Outback are not gonna work out how to do these things in a hurry.

Image shows the rear seating of the Subaru Outback 2.5i SE NavPlus, which are very comfortable.

More features on the entertainment system include the excellent reversing camera which is clear and precise, and there’s also a DVD player too, which has surprisingly good definition. Aside from the speaker set-up point – which does sound immense once you eventually work out how to do it – the package as an entirety comes across as high quality.

The passengers seated in the rear were full of praise about the roominess, leg space and comfort from the adjustable tilting 60/40 split seats. Two alterable and controllable vents facing towards the passengers add to their relaxation, and as long as they’re happy with the temperature you’ve decided on in the front, it’s all good. The rear seats also include a centre armrest housing two cup holders – something most will agree is almost essential on any car now.

I love a good wagon (estate), and as the Subaru Outback has from the very beginning only been available in this guise, it does it rather well. The boot space is massive at 526 litres (VDA method) seats-up, and 1,677 seats flat, and while this falls very slightly short of cars like the Volkswagen Alltrack and Audi A6 allroad quattro, it’s larger than the Mercedes-Benz C-Class Estate, Skoda Octavia Scout, BMW 5-series Touring and the Chevrolet Cruze Station Wagon.

Subaru Outback 2.5i SE NavPlus review. Image shows 6 photo's of the Subaru's boot / trunk area.

I like handy, practical stuff on cars, and a noticeable couple on the Outback include handles in the boot sides that you pull to drop in the rear seats. It’s a very cool feature. Another ridiculously handy thing is an extending plastic hook on the underneath of the boot floor, so when you lift it to get to the tyre inflater etc the catch hooks to the lip where the boot seal sits, holding the floor up. It means less struggling and less stress when you’ve got to repair that flat tyre.

One big negative I’ve got to mention, as it’s bugging me, is the amount of buttons in the centre of the console below the sat nav, which look messy and are unnecessary in some cases. One example; the four controls for ‘DISC, FM, AUX, LW/MW’ can all be selected easily from either the ‘Mode’ button on the steering wheel or via the touchscreen, as can the ‘Seek’ buttons too. So why have them? The heating controls are too far down too, and get I’ve ended pressing the wrong one a stack of times. The heating controls need to be higher up. I know! Get rid of the unneeded button and insert the heater controls there.

Image shows 6 images from the Subaru Outback NavPlus entertainment system, which is excellent.

Even after almost two weeks of testing the Subaru, I was still clicking the wrong flippin’ buttons. Testing and driving a good amount of cars over the years, I can usually get used to where everything is within a couple of hours. Not so here.

Overall, the Outback NavPlus is a great place to be. It’s quiet, relaxing, comfortable and there’s a fairly good level of quality, barring the cheaper plastics on the dashboard that is.

Engine and gearbox

As I’d already tested the Subaru XV with their diesel engine, I was hankering after a play back in a petrol version, so that’s what they sent. The Outback in petrol form comes with Subaru’s ultra-reliable and strong Boxer layout. It’s a 2.5 litre 16 valve injected single overhead cam unit, and the gearbox is available only in the automatic Lineartronic CVT form.

The 2.5 litre engine is non-turbo’d with only 167 PS (165 hp) and 229 Nm (169 lbs ft) of torque. This is not a lot of power by today’s standards and as the Outback also weighs over 1,500 kg’s, I found I had to work it hard to get the response I needed.  A 0 – 62 mph time of 10.4 second is not what I’d call intense. More of a gentle float up to speed really. However, you clearly do not buy the Outback for drag times and racing, so that’s irrelevant to an extent. Once you’re rolling and get past about 4,200 rpm, the engine becomes more eager and motivated, and you’ll get an unexpected – but welcome – wave of power which is easily good enough for overtaking on country lanes and motorways, should you select the correct gear.

On another positive note, the automatic six-speed Lineartronic CVT gearbox is excellent! It is completely smooth and seamless, and in full auto mode around town it wafts along absolutely beautifully.

Image shows the 2.5i petrol Boxer engine in the Subaru Outback.

The paddle shifters mounted on the steering wheel work nicely, giving you a gear in just 90 milliseconds – that is physically faster than you’re able to blink. It doesn’t bang harshly up the gears though, and it’s so fluid a motion that you barely notice it’s happened. As well as using the paddles by clicking the gearstick into manual mode, they can be used in the normal Drive position too. I found this really handy actually, as I’d spy a gap to overtake on a country road and simply pull the downshift paddle to drop the ‘box a couple of cogs and go for it, without have to pull the gear lever into manual.

In manual, if you do for some reason forget you’re in that mode and come coasting up to a junction to a stop, the gearbox will drop it into the gear needed automatically anyway, so no need to worry there. I really enjoyed the Lineartronic ‘box, and it’s just  unfortunate that it’s not available with the diesel engined Outback’s.

Ready to roll? Let’s drive this thing!

Every single time I got into the Subaru Outback and pressed the Start button to fire the super-smooth petrol Boxer into life, I got a prodigious sense of dependability – a feeling of trust. Yes, a modern engine on any new car today will start first time, every time in almost any weather, but that wasn’t it. It’s a far deeper than simply being reliable. If you’ve ever owned a Subaru, you will know exactly what I mean. It’s a Subaru feeling. After 12 days of testing the Outback, I still got that sensation, and I have a hunch that it would be the same for as long as I owned one.

The 2.5i petrol engine is silky and polished, and mated to the seamless Lineratronic ‘box, there’s a distinct air of waftyness as I drive around town, not felt since my old luxuo-barge Mercedes E-Class (built before the Chrysler-era badness kicked in). It’s so easy and relaxing to drive that it’s a pity when you do get to your destination. The Outback strangely de-stresses one, and even a journey consisting of dreary rain drenched roads winding though stop-start traffic pock-marked with the evil that are roadworks, the Subaru seems help you brush off the stress and unwind.

Subaru Outback 2.5i SE NavPlus review. Image shows the Outback being tested in snow.

It’s a nice drive, certainly, but I did find the suspension still bangs a little harshly through pot-holes and and road joins although that’s cushioned by the seats for the most part. Talking of suspension, the Outback is self-levelling at the rear as standard, meaning that even if the boot is rammed full of junk for the yearly trip to the landfill site, or you want to pull a trailer loaded with motorcross bikes, it’s all good.

Pushing the Outback hard around tight, twisting roads, it actually takes up the challenge surprisingly well. The electronic stability control (ESC) constantly monitors the motion of the car to correct oversteer and understeer, and keeps it going exactly where you want it. I personally don’t like too many electronics on cars as it can strip out the joy of driving, but having them on the Outback makes absolute sense. The superb all-wheel-drive (AWD) on the Outback (which we’ll talk about later) makes the car utterly planted in almost any weather and on even the most pitted, damaged roads. It gives a confidence you won’t feel unless you physically drive a Subaru with it.

On motorways, the 2.5i engine puts out enough power to cruise with little effort, but wanting to pull out into the fast lane and get past a few slower cars, I found myself having to drop down to 5th or even 4th gear to do it quick enough, and that’s where an extra thirty horsepower or so would come in handy. There’s more than likely a professional outfit that will re-programme the chip for more bhp, so that’s worth looking at if the car is already out of Subaru’s warranty.

Apart from the tyre noise from Subaru-specific Yokohama Geolandar G95 all-weather tyres being a little too noticeable, the overall experience is a very nice one and the Outback is most definitely a good cruiser.

Subaru Outback 2.5i. Image shows the Outback in the snow countryside

Onto fuel economy though, and this is the certainly the weak point of that 2.5i petrol engine. There is a point here that I should say before continuing about the mpg. Unless the car you are buying is approximately the size and weight of a lettuce leaf, with an engine capacity so small a Scalextrix would rival it, you do not buy a big car with a petrol engine if you’re trying to save money.

Subaru quotes the Outback 2.5i miles per gallon as; Urban: 25 , Extra urban: 42.2, Combined: 33.6. Over 310 miles of round-town and hard use on country roads I averaged 25 mpg. On a 120-mile motorway trip I averaged just 30 mpg. I used the ‘live’ mpg readout on that motorway trip, and I could not get the Subaru to do over 37 mpg at 70 mph, unless I slowed to 60 mph, which is just a stupidly slow speed on a motorway in a modern car. There was barely any wind either, which I would have taken into account. Weirdly, at 80 mph there was very little difference in economy to 70.

Overall, the 2.5i is super-smooth and quiet and will be reliable as heck, plus you get the absolutely top-notch Lineratronic gearbox too. The engine is adequate enough to an extent, but would certainly benefit from more power, and the fuel economy is rather bad too.

If I were buying the Outback personally? I would have the diesel version. It has 120 ft/lb’s more torque, is faster, and returns well over 50 mpg. If fuel prices weren’t an issue? I’d take the 2.5i, simply for the gloss-smooth engine but more because of that awesome automatic Lineratronic ‘box.

AWD and off-road. Stuck or superb?

Test time was in January, and with ice clinging to every panel of the body and the snow starting to settle fast and thick, you suddenly realise that the Outback is definitely one of the most sensible choices of vehicle you could have in these conditions. Let’s make one thing absolutely crystal clear at this point; the Outback 2.5i is absolutely, unquestionably, and in fact indubitably, utterly brilliant on snow-bound roads.

The 2.5i all-wheel-drive (AWD) differs slightly from the diesel version, in that it uses Active torque split AWD, rather than the diesel’s AWD which used a viscous limited slip diff. All you need to know is in that link in the last sentence, or more simply that it’s the amazing technical AWD wizardry that Subaru is renowned for.

Out and about during a testing of the Outback off road (more about that later), we drove on roads covered in ice and packed snow. I followed the Subaru in my trusty 19-year-old Mitsubishi Pajero (Shogun/Montero) 4×4, and was astounded at just how straight and true the Subaru stayed. These were pitted, off-camber and winding country roads, yet while my Mitsubishi gripped excellently, it slipped and slid from side to side on even straight sections. The Outback meanwhile, looked like it was driving on a completely flat, dry road.

The Subaru Outback look way better off-road than on!

The two-way radio’s we use sometimes crackles into life every few minutes, the test driver leaves me unequivocal about just how good the Outback is on these ultra-slippery roads. Compliments fly; ‘amazing’, ‘unbelievable grip’ and ‘crazy traction’ are just a few of the things I’m hearing. Okay, okay, time to swap vehicles so I can see (or feel) for myself what all the hype is about.

He’s right y’know, that other test driver. The road is empty as far as I can see, so I plant my foot to the floor to see what happens, and instantly I see what he means. The Subaru grips like I’m driving some sun-drenched Californian highway, and not the narrow, potholed and snowy country lane in North Yorkshire that I’m actually on. The traction control limits the power I can put down to get the car away with minimal slippage, the torque distribution firing to the individual wheels, and the Outback quickly gains traction, and fires away. Being impressed is way to much of an understatement. I am quite simply staggered.

Subaru Outback 2.5i SE NavPlus being tested in the snow off-road.

Once the car gets going, the AWD system continues to make corrections so quick it’s barely noticeable, keeping the car on the right path. At one point a car comes the other way, but there’s no passing place. I slow and pull the Subaru onto the deep snow at the side of the road, but instead of the car pulling me further into the thick powder (like smashing through deep standing water does in a normal vehicle), the Outback just continues to go exactly where I want it, barely even flinching.

On a steep section of road renowned for cars getting stuck because of hard-packed snow, I deliberately stopped the Outback 2.5i on an uphill, off-camber bend, expecting total slip and zero grip.  Again, the Outback left me stuck for words as it simply powered off from standstill, with absolutely no hesitation. I’ve been up that section of road in a few different full-on 4×4’s now, and they would find it hard to get going again. Impressed? Nope. Blown away, yes

Pulling off the roads and onto a rough legal green lane I’ve been on many times, I stop and check the ground clearance under the Subaru. At 200 mm (7.87″) it’s a decent amount, plus everything underneath is kept tucked away to save it being ripped off, and there’s plastic cladding bolted around the entire car at the bottom. On a note here, they’ve kept this minimal – with enough to be protective – which is good, as some ‘crossover’ vehicles have too much on, making them look daft.

Subaru Outback 2.5i SE NavPlus review. Image shows 3 photo's of the Outback accelerating hard in snow.

The snow-covered green lane stretches out into the distance across beautiful countryside, and in this environment the Subaru suddenly looks very… at home. I know that the 4 inches of slowly-melting snow here hides some nasty delves, deep ruts and frozen clods of mud as hard as iron, just waiting to give the Outback a thoroughly hard time.

I let out other test pilot drive the Subaru, while I lead in my pumped-up ’94 Mitsubishi Pajero should the Outback stray into the foot-deep tracks and get stuck. No chance of that. Whilst I bounce, bang, slither and crab my way down the route, I check my rear view mirror, and the Scooby looks as composed as a Sunday drive to the local cafe for tea and cake. I radio the driver. He laughs at me. He describes the Subaru’s progress as ‘so easy it’s almost boring’.

Image shows the undercarriage of the Subaru Outback. There is easily enough ground clearance to do some good off-roading.

I stop my truck and get out to watch the Outback go by, and it’s like watching it driving on a road. No drama, no issues, no slipping about. No doubt while I’m watching it do this idly, the brains of the computer are firing off a million messages a second to keep the engine harnessed and sending traction to each individual wheel, aiding the Symmetrical AWD system.

To sum up, if you’re specifically looking at buying an estate car with AWD then you’d be wise to take a long, hard look at the Outback, because it is one of, if not the, best all-wheel-drive systems on the market, and has been for a long time.

Price

The Subaru Outback 2.5i SE NavPlus is certainly well-specced and fairly luxurious all told, and it should be as it’s the very top model. Same-specced rivals such as the Volkswagen Passat Alltrack DSG and Audi A4 Allroad Quattro S Tronic cost around £5,000 more, and even the Skoda Estate Outdoor 4×4 DSG comes out a couple of thousand pricier. Admittedly, VW and Audi’s cars will probably have a nicer trim and yes, the Outback’s cheap dash plastics do let it down somewhat, but as an overall package, the Subaru Outback 2.5i SE NavPlus is certainly a great contender for your cash.

Subaru Outback 2.5i SE NavPlus verdict & score

The Outback’s rather dull design will not get your heart pumping, and neither will the 2.5i petrol engine which needs more power. Fuel economy is still an issue. However, it’s beautifully quiet and as it’s Subaru, it’ll be absolutely reliable. The Lineratronic gearbox is praiseworthy too, and one of the highlights of the Outback. Overall the interior is luxurious and highly comfortable with a good amount of boot space. Lastly, that AWD system which I praise so highly, is absolutely one of the best in the business. If only Subaru sold the Diesel model with that superb Lineartonic ‘box, it’d almost be a no-brainer for my money.

 

Exterior  4
Interior (Se NavPlus)  7
Engine (2.5i)  5.5
Gearbox (Lineartronic)  8
Price  7.5
Drive  7.5
AWD & Off-road ability  8.5
Overall Score  7.0 / 10

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Stats ‘n stuff

Model (as tested)  2011> Subaru Outback 2.5i SE NavPlus
Spec includes  All-round power windows, leather upholstery, front heated seats, 10-way electric adjustable driver seat, sat nav/entertainment system with reverse camera, DVD & bluetooth connectivity, electric folding and heated wing mirrors, air conditioning, dual climate-control, hill-start assist, keyless entry & push-button start/stop. See spec sheet for more
Options you should spec  18″ Fiorano allow wheels (£245.00 each)
Price  £32,375 on the road
Engine  Petrol, 2457cc, horizontally-opposed 4 cylinder (Boxer), 16 valves, SOHC, naturally aspriated
Power, Torque, CO2  Power: 167 PS (165 hp) | Torque: 229 Nm (169 lbs ft) | CO2: 194 g/km
Drive, Gears (as tested)  Symmetrical all-wheel-drive (AWD), Lineartronic Continuously Variable Transmission 6-speed
Top Speed, 0 – 60 mph, EuroNCAP  Max speed: 120 mph | 0 – 62 mph (0 – 100 kp/h): 10.2 seconds | 5-Star Euro NCAP rating (not tested yet, but expected rating due to sharing same chassis/body as 5-star Legacy)
Fuel economy (mpg)  Urban: 25.0, Extra Urban: 42.2, Combined: 33.6
Weight (kerb)  1,534 kg
Ground clearance  200 mm (7.87″)
Websites  Subaru UK | Subaru Europe | Subaru Australia | Subaru Canada | Subaru USA | Subaru Global

Check out our other Subaru reviews: Subaru XV

Words: Chris Davies | Tested by: Chris Davies | Photography: Chris Davies, Matthew Davies

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