Modesty with strength after our excess

Wed, Feb 9, 2011, 00:00

Never a firm to follow fashion trends, Subaru has produced a powerful, well-stocked crossover that merits the attention of a long-disinterested Irish market

IN CASE YOU’VE missed the coronation, among the landed gentry – or aspiring landed gentry – it’s worth noting that the crossover is now King. The SUV, once only a pariah to eco-conscious Birkenstock owners, has now been consigned to the long list of folly practised when we thought we were alchemists to the world. These days it’s like waving your wallet around a homeless shelter.

The beauty of the crossover is that it looks like an estate after a dose of steroids. These vehicles carry the “don’t mess with me” message that’s screamed from the bulbous nose of an SUV, but in a more tacit, less menacing way. The rule of thumb is that if you need to criss-cross brackish water to get to work then get yourself a proper off-roader like the Toyota Land Cruiser or Land Rover Defender. If you need to tow a load and find yourself in a field more than once a year then a crossover may be the car for you.

Don’t be mistaken: these aren’t the pretend SUVs that litter mainstream forecourts these days. There’s a host of these charlatans that claim to be crossovers but they’ve got the formula the wrong way around

In their case they look like a rugged SUV but have all the ability of a family hatchback. A true crossover looks like a slightly more muscular estate but can put up a decent fight against many of the off-roaders in the muddy mess.

So, with all that in mind, welcome the latest iteration of the Subaru Outback. In all likelihood the name will spark a twinge of memory in your grey matter. The model has been around for nearly 15 years now, but it’s hardly made a dent on the Irish motoring conscious. This latest iteration, for all its ability, is unlikely to change that unless something radical happens with the brand.

Despite that it’s a remarkably nice car to drive. There’s something inherently honest and straightforward about the Outback. It doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is. There are no pretentious swoops or sweeps, no fearsome grille growling out from the front to scare learner drivers or cyclists. It’s just a workhorse draped in metal that protects you from the elements. And if the going gets tough, it’s going to put up a fight to get you out of the mud.

Previous Outbacks suffered slightly from bodyroll, a sense that the car was sat on the chassis rather than part of it. This version offers no such issues and the car hunkers down with a firm suspension that allows decent cornering for a car of its size, while combining that with an unerring ability to soak up bumps, yumps and cavernous potholes. Our test car made light work of a dirt road stretch we test cars on that regularly has occupants counting their fillings at the other end.

Subaru now has a very decent diesel engine in its range. In fact it has had this engine for some time now, but few have bothered to notice. The manual transmission couldn’t be described as sporty, and it makes a bit of a racket on the outside when started cold – something its premium rivals have long-since quashed with decent sound proofing. It seems that all the soundproofing efforts have been reserved for the cabin, where you can barely hear the engine note. That’s not always a good thing, for you have to keep an eye on the rev counter to ensure you’re not running it too low or high.

This issue aside, however, it delivers in terms of power. There’s a nice rich vein of torque that lets you cruise along without overworking your left arm in gear changes.

The frustrating twist in the tale of the Outback is that sales have hardly been stellar. Too many Irish people still associate the brand with loud and lairy Imprezas and guys in rally jackets outside chip shops in Mullingar.

In reality the marque has a duo of models in this Outback and the Legacy that would look smart outside any country pile or smart semi-D in the leafy suburbs.

According to Subaru, buyers of the Outback are “not slaves to changing fashion trends”. Following any sort of fashion trends is not an accusation that could ever befall Subaru. Their design department have to be the most oddball creatives to pen a line in the motor trade, with the exception perhaps of SsangYong. The Legacy is a smart looking car, but overall as a design company they’re great engineers.

For years, motoring hacks have decried the failure of car buyers to recognise the hidden pedigree of this brand. Shame on all of you. Yet Subaru must take some of the blame themselves. How many Outbacks do you suppose they sold last year? Take a conservative guess.

The answer is 27. Given that it’s stocked with safety and comfort features you’d normally find in the options list at a German franchise, is capable of hardcore rough stuff, and is family-friendly to boot, why on earth does it sell less than a BMW 7 Series? Say it softly, but it’s also good value.

One can understand when the firm were selling only petrol models to a diesel market, but it has a sturdy diesel engine that works a treat. The crossover public simply don’t consider this brand. We can go two ways with this: either the motoring public can hang their head in shame for failing to consider the Subaru offerings, or the firm itself must bear some responsibility.

This car deserves better. In terms of price competition, it’s infinitely better at crossing over the rough stuff than any of the other offerings it rubs shoulders with at €41,000. Consider that other great crossover, the Volvo XC70. It’s a car we had previously thought would be ideal on the driveway of any country house, where the occasional trailer has to be towed or horsebox moved. Yet for the all-wheel-drive version of it you are talking about €12,000 more than the Outback – and then only for the entry-level model. Now it’s a more comfortable and better looking car, and admittedly a better drive, but on a budget the Outback has it matched.

This car has a premium niche appeal that should fit the bill of those who don’t want to run with the crowd. It’s about discretion with innate ability, modesty with strength. For the thousands of Irish SUV owners who rue the folly of their motoring excess during the heydays of the Irish boom and dread the annual motor tax bill that reminds them of the error of their ways, this is the sensible alternative that doesn’t require too much compromise when you have loads to lug and muddy tracks to overcome


Engine1,998cc horizontally-opposed “boxer” four-cylinder diesel putting out 149bhp at 3,600rpm and 350Nm of torque from 1,800rpm with a six-speed manual transmission and all-wheel-drive system

SpecificationFront, side and curtain airbags; dynamic stability control; traction control; ABS; electronic handbrake; hill-start assist; front foglights; powered sunroof; electric driver’s seat; heated front seats; leather steering wheel with audio controls; leather upholstery; rain-sensing wipers; dual-zone air-con; Bluetooth connection; six-CD player with radio and aux input; cruise control; 17-inch alloys

Bootspace526-1677 L

0-100km/h9.6 secs

L/100km (mpg)Urban – 7.7 (36.7); extra urban – 5.6 (50.4); combined – 6.4 (44.1)

Emissions (motor tax)167 g/km (€447)