First Drive - Subaru Outback 2.0D SE Premium Lineartronic

Andrew narrowly avoids planting a Subaru Outback in a riverbank. From the river.

Andrew narrowly avoids planting a Subaru Outback in a riverbank. From the river.

Following on from our conversations and promises in Episode 75 of the News Show, we felt we should do a very quick write-up of the car with which we spent most of the day, the Outback 2.0D SE Premium Lineartronic.

The Car

The Outback is perhaps the most traditional Subaru on sale here in the UK. It's mid-to-large estate car that sits slightly higher than necessary for pure road use and on tall sidewall tyres that mean the alloys wheels won't get scuffed or damaged too easily.

The Looks

Subarus, in my mind, tend to flip-flop between being "handsome but unadventurous" and "goodness, that's challenging" aesthetics-wise. Thanks fully we're currently in one of the handsome phases and the Outback is an unassuming but good looking car. The contrasting bumpers that were so obvious on earlier Legacy Outbacks have now gone, so in paler tones it looks a little slab-sided but darker hues suit it much better. I know it's a matter of personal opinion, but I much preferred the Dark Grey Metallic of our on-road car to the Ice Silver of our off-road car.

Either way, you're never going to look out of place in an Outback. This is a car that will look equally at home pulling up to the front steps of Gleneagles as pulling a trailer load of branches to the tip. The only thing an Outback says about you is "I am not a rap star".

The Inside

We had custody of the SE Premium trim levels, so the inside was equipped with all of the creature comforts that you'd expect. Dual-zone climate control, electric memory front seats, USB ports aplenty and leather seats all come as standard. The plastics are a step or two above what one would expect if you're familiar with older Subaru and remain, qualitatively, significantly better than those found in either the Forester or the WRX STi that we've also driven.

The front seats are spacious, the driving position square-on to the steering wheel and there is a multiplicity of storage and cubby holes for phones, drinks, tissues, ice scrapers and all the usual in-car paraphernalia without which we're unable to travel these days. The rear seats are wide, with sufficient room for three on the lightly-sculped bench but, with the central armrest folded down, will support outer passengers even whilst off-road.

The Controls

From the driver's seat all of the controls fall readily to hand, with the primary contact points leather-covered on all Outback models. The button-festooned steering wheel is smaller that you'd expect for a car of this size, but shared across almost the entire Subaru range so that decision starts to make sense - it's the same strategy followed by Jaguar.

Controls for the adaptive cruise control and stereo are on the steering wheel rather than additional stalks, which is good. The navigation and in-car entertainment are controlled through a touch screen surrounded by six touch-sensitive "buttons" in the fascia. These all cover a large area and have a corresponding indent, so it's possible to find them without having to concentrate or take your eyes off the road for too long. The navigation system and the menus for vehicle settings were quick to respond, easy to find and browse through without having to resort to the user manual.

The Drive

Alan's description of  how CVT works, was fine, but here's the official Subaru description...

Driving any car with a CVT gearbox takes a little getting acclimatisation. There's a pause between opening the throttle hard, and any actual motion and a wide open throttle can result in some uncouth noises from the engine bay whilst it tries to sort out a balance of peak power, peak torque and appropriate gearing. Avoid foot-mashing though and driving a CVT can be curiously satisfying and not dissimilar to an EV. I particularly like the way that light-to-medium throttle openings on flat roads result in the car accelerating as if drawn along by an elastic thread. A warning, though, this may lead to some unintentionally rapid progress!

Cornering is uneventful, with the four-wheel drive system helping the Outback grip like a rabid limpet and the low centre of gravity meaning there's little roll. I imagine that the stability systems would be there to help in extremis, but I'd hate to be in a situation where they were necessary. The ride is also good, with the high tyre sidewalls and compliant suspension on the long wheelbase soaking up the appalling lanes of Rutland and Northamptonshire. The electrically-assisted (when is it socially acceptable to stop pointing this out?) steering is direct and well weighted, masking the nuances of feedback but, for me, communicating how the car was coping with the damp, slippery road conditions.

The engine in the cars we drove was a two-litre turbo diesel putting out 150PS and 350 Nm of torque. Whilst it was audible from outside the car, it was near-silent on anything other than full throttle from the interior, and there was no vibration through the pedals or steering. Predictably for a Subaru, the engine was a longitudinally-mounted, four-cylinder Boxer unit.

The car we used for the off-road part of our day was shod in the same road-biased tyres as our on-road car. Despite this handicap on a course covered in clay the day after heavy rain had caused flooding across much of eastern England, the symmetrical four-wheel drive, with the X-Mode electronic brain controlling the differentials and the hill descent control all worked together to stop us getting stuck on the relatively impressive off-road course. I was particularly impressed with its performance on wet, slippery grass slopes - terrain that's notoriously trickier than impressive looking, axle-twisting moguls!

The Technology

Whilst it's fun to play in the mud with X-Mode, the technological highlight of the day was undoubtedly the Eyesight system. This uses two forward-facing cameras to look ahead an recognise both lane markings for Lane Departure Warning, but also vehicles and obstacles in the road ahead so the car can provide adaptive cruise control from a standstill, useful in heavy traffic, as well as the accident avoidance demonstrated in the attached video. Eyesight also combines with the parking sensors to stop you driving into obstacles from a standstill if it thinks you'd selected Drive rather than Reverse and vice versa. 

The Conclusion

The completeness of the package provided by the Outback surprised both Andrew and I. Where we perhaps came to the day expecting to drive a vehicle with an impressive transmission but that was otherwise off-the-pace we found that our preconceptions were misplaced. The Eyesight, in particular, was a surprise in both how effective and comprehensive it was.

The Subaru Outback costs from £30,995 on the road. The Outback 2.0D SE Premium Lineartronic costs from £32,995 on the road.