WHAT IS IT?
The Outback is what some may describe as a "Soft Roader", not an off roader to compete with the Land Rovers of this world, but a niche model competing with Audi's All-Road and Volvo's XC70, both four wheel drive estate cars with raised suspension and appropriately butch body appendages.
This is a very specific and specialised area of the car market, these cars more often than not, found fulfilling the role of a (slightly dubious) fashion statement rather than that of a comfortable, yet practical and rugged, estate car capable of towing a horse box out of a muddy gymkhana paddock.
Realistically the claimed 200mm of ground clearance is not going to take you that far off road, even with Subaru's permanent four wheel drive traction advantage. Subaru have been modest about this cars off-road capabilities, indeed the brochure markets it as a "Crossover" vehicle; "Comfortable in any landscape", I see it as the perfect tool for the modern day James Herriott i.e. a country vet.
WHICH SPECIFIC MODEL?
A very good question that! The Subaru Outback 2.0D, or Boxer Diesel according to the badge on the back, reviewed here is, along with its Sport Tourer (conventional Estate) sister, a genuine "world first".
In order to explain this to you, unfortunately I will have to go into a few technical mechanical details, if that side of things bores you, please feel free to skip this section and move onto the next.
For maybe a decade now I have been surprised and disappointed that no car manufacturer has produced a flat four (or six) cylinder "Boxer" configuration diesel engine. Many manufacturers, from Alfa with the Sud, through Porsche with the classic 911 six cylinders to Subaru and Volkswagen have toyed with Boxer engines, however only Porsche and Subaru are left today selling road cars with this configuration.
Conventional engines have their cylinders cast upright and in line - or in a "V" (or "W") configuration. Whilst this produces a compact engine it is also tall and places the mass high up in the car, putting the overall centre of gravity higher than is ideal.
A Boxer engine has its cylinders mounted on their sides, i.e. parallel to the road, and on opposite sides of the engine block. This not only puts the weight very low in the car but also has huge advantages in terms of operating smoothness, in operation the opposing pistons cancel out each others vibrations.
Diesel engines by nature are required to be bigger and stronger than petrol ones, are often cast in iron rather than aluminium too, also adding to the weight. It has always been my opinion that the inherent advantages of a boxer engine would be ideally suited to diesel, yet until now, nobody has actually created such an engine.
There are three models of Outback available, a none too "basic" R model at £21,490, offering a cloth interior and no sun roof, a £23,490 RE model which has those two features and an REn which adds an integrated satellite navigation system for a further £2000.
The specific model reviewed here is the RE, which I consider to be the prime model in the range.
IN WHAT CAPACITY AM I REVIEWING THIS CAR?
I am reviewing this specific car in a slightly unconventional manner.
I am most certainly a potential Subaru Legacy Diesel customer, you will need to read to the end for my verdict on that score.
However, I am not in the market for this particular Outback model. Due to the scarcity of diesel demonstrators, it was not possible to find a standard Legacy to drive, but being so very similar to the Sports Tourer I was more than happy to try this car.
Importantly I find myself reviewing this car, now at its launch, due to it being something genuinely different and new to the market.
I am also looking to see if Subaru have proven my long held theory about "Boxer" diesels to be correct......
It is confession time here; realistically it is actually far too early in the life of this brand new car to be able to give you an accurate assessment of the running costs of a Legacy Outback Diesel. Basing assumptions on the petrol model is not a good idea; Subaru petrol engined cars have always had a reputation for being costly to run, mostly because of their high fuel consumption - this in turn leading to high depreciation.
It is my opinion that, providing enough customers actually cotton onto what is on offer here, Subaru's fortunes are going to turn entirely on their head with the new diesel engine, the following sections will explain just why I believe that will prove to be the case.
PURCHASE COST 10 / 10
The £23,490 list price looks like an absolute steal when you compare this car to the competitors mentioned above. A basic Audi Allroad Diesel is £34,000, the Volvo XC70 £31,000 - neither have metallic paint or an electric sun roof as standard either. Both of these competitors, in spite of having larger engines, are not only slower, but are much more thirsty too.
Vitally important to any company car driver, such as myself, is the fact that Subaru offer a remarkably low, class leading, CO2 level (156g/kg). The standard 2.5 litre petrol Outback has a CO2 level of 205g/kg. By comparison, the diesel Audi's CO2 figure is 227g/kg, the Volvo's 193g/kg.
Low emissions combined with a very competitive list price mean that this car will be a bargain for a private motorist or company car driver.
THE OPTIONS GAME: 10 / 10 or "How much do I need to spend to make it habitable?"
£55. That's all that I would need to spend on options on this car - that being for a set of carpet mats. Everything that you could possibly require, including metallic paint, is standard here.
If Subaru can produce a car with all this standard equipment, why I ask myself are people paying a fortune for extras such as leather seats, electric sun roofs, xenon headlamps and even CD changers on many so called "premium brand" cars.
With all the equipment offered as standard here you could pay another £10,000 for a BMW 320d Estate, or have a Mini with all the options - neither would have four wheel drive.
I rest my case.
DEPRECIATION 8 / 10 - Always the biggest running cost.
A gamble worth taking I am predicting on this score.
The petrol engined Outbacks have fared rather better than the standard Legacy models, particularly the hard depreciating 3.0 six cylinder saloons. However all Subaru models have suffered from well below average resale values.
Prime reason for this has been the heavy fuel consumption - but there are also a complex and unusual set of other factors. In more remote parts of the country these are extremely popular cars, strong regional variations in price affect them that simply do not come into play with other marques. Many of us in the most populated areas of south east England are 30 miles from our nearest Subaru dealer - their network is rather sparse to say the least.
What is going to really shake the tree here though is Subaru's new diesel engine. Already getting rave press reviews, it is also in very short supply for the remainder of 2008. Initial second hand values of this and other models with this engine are going to be very high due to the very short supply, demand will be high too, the perfect combination for bolstering second hand values.
FUEL ECONOMY 9 / 10
When I read on the Autocar magazine's blog last weekend that one of their staff was getting 50.7mpg on his daily commute out of one of these cars I was a little sceptical. Having driven it today that scepticism vanished completely - this truly is a remarkable engine. From personal experience, everything about its driving characteristics tell me that this is going to be a car capable of remarkable economy.
I would need to cover far more miles in one, not relying on the trip computer, to provide you with an accurate miles per gallon figure, but I know that this car would prove on a daily basis far more economical than my, less powerful, Honda Accord Diesel.
The engine is extremely free revving and totally effortless - with a mere 110 miles on the clock as we drove away from Sparshatts Chichester Subaru dealership, I have never experienced an engine with so little friction. It picks up cleanly and freely from below 1000rpm. No other diesel that I have driven, with the exception of VW's colossal V10, has offered this smoothness and performance at low revs.
In fuel economy terms the answer here is 'cut the gearchanging, cut the fuel consumption'. I honesty believe that 50mpg on a daily basis would be achievable.
SERVICE & MAINTENANCE COSTS 6 / 10: are you going to make the dealer rich?
This is not a car that you can expect to run on a shoestring. Servicing will be more costly than Ford or Vauxhall, more in line with Mercedes or BMW.
You will need to visit the dealer for a service every year, or 12,000 miles, whichever comes first.
Mention should be made here that with four wheel drive it is very important that all four tyres are replaced at the same time. Very expensive transmission damage can occur if this is not carried out. The Outback does come with a full sized alloy spare wheel, other Subaru models have a thin space saving spare wheel.
Let the "fun" begin! You want to know what this car is like to live with and to drive and be driven in.......
STYLING 6 /10: A very subjective category here.
Personally I am not a fan of the butched-up soft roaders, whilst probably being the best looking of this rather superfluous breed, I felt too conspicuous driving this black Outback.
Other small differentiating styling touches, such as the fussy radiator grill and bulges in the lower door and wheel arches spoil what is otherwise a rather attractive estate car shape.
OVERALL BUILD QUALITY AND FINISH 9 / 10 Does it look as though it was slung together?
I have always held this image of Subaru being slightly agricultural and 'tough as old boots'. The Outback in a sense takes that image and runs with it.
Look at it closely and you are admiring fine build quality here, the gaps between the various body panels are very thin and consistent. The unusual pillar-less doors close with an expensive thunk, the glass seals properly around the door seals too - always a bugbear previously with this type of door construction.
In terms of build quality, this was one area where I was impressed, having not expected to be, with the Outback.
SAFETY 9 /10 If it comes to the worst, how well are you and your family going to come out of it.
More than, I think, in any other car that I have driven, this has to be the most complicated section to assess.
One has to wonder, with four wheel drive, Vehicle Dynamic Control System (traction and stability control), ABS and brake assist, just what you would have to do to get into trouble behind the wheel of this car in the first place.
Even on the jacked up suspension, this is one of the safest handling cars that I have driven, dynamically you are not going to purchase a safer car.
Passive safety features have not been scrimped on either; front, side and curtain airbags are provided along with active headrests, a vital aid to prevent whiplash injury. This is a very child friendly car, standard and very easy to access ISO-FIX anchors for child seats are provided in the rear seats.
ERGONOMICS 8 / 10 Before I can start the engine and drive away I need to feel at home in the "working environment". The relationship between the controls and how I, the driver, am able to instinctively operate those controls is, all important. This for me is make or break, before I drive a car, if it does not instinctively "feel" right in this department then I will never like it or ultimately buy it.
Another surprise here. All of the previous Subarus that I have driven have been petrol engined 3.0 automatic Legacy models. Whilst being impressed with the driving position, without a clutch and gearlever to worry about it is less critical.
I was expecting to be sitting too high up in the Outback, I got into it - adjusted the electric seat forwards until the clutch was touching the floor and found that I had achieved the perfect driving position - just like that! The steering wheel is reach and rake adjustable and the electric drivers seat moves in every direction that you would expect it to - there is also a handy two position memory setting for it.
The primary controls - steering wheel, gear lever, pedals, hand brake - are all in the correct place. Where the two points are lost here are for the other, rather randomly scattered controls. Once you live with a car you become used to the layout, this is not a car that you can jump into - use all the knobs and buttons intuitively, without resorting to reading the instruction manual.
VISIBILITY: 10 / 10
For me, visibility is THE major safety factor - one area that I have always had concerns about on my current Honda Accord. The frame-less doors and large glass area give the Subaru a huge advantage here, so does the rake and sweep of the windscreen.
At night you have (standard) xenon headlamps to see your way down dark country lanes. The large and sensibly shaped door mirrors give an excellent view to the rear and housed in their fronts are the indicator repeaters - by far the safest and most visible position for them to be on the car.
Due to the excellent driving position and fine view to every corner, the Subaru Outback is a superbly easy car not only to position on the road, but also to park - helped in no small way by the excellently tight steering lock.
SPACE: 7 / 10:
This is not actually as large a car as it looks. There is ample room for four people in the Outback, five at a pinch.
Due to the hardware required for the rear axle there is both a transmission tunnel under the rear seat and a surprisingly high rear boot floor. The space under the boot cover is rather shallow, a completely flat and beautifully trimmed loading bay is provided.
Small storage spaces are designed into the dashboard. The door pockets, front doors only, are rather small and shallow, as is the central box between the seats. A lot of central console space, freed up by the offset handbrake, has been wasted by the fitment of two overlarge cup-holders. Rear seat occupants are also treated to a cup-holder each!
One major concern about this car however is the lack of secure storage anywhere in the car. Being an estate, any luggage in the boot area is highly vulnerable should the car be broken into. Worse is that no lockable storage space is provided within the car at all - even the impressively large glove box is without a lock.
I would not feel 100% confident walking away from the Outback leaving a camera, GPS or laptop for example. This may well be an inherent disadvantage of owning an estate car, but I do feel that Subaru could have at least provided a lock for the glove box.
STYLE 8 / 10:
Some may argue that this is looking a little old fashioned now compared to more modern interiors provided by newcomers such as the Citroen C5 or Honda Accord. My wife and I agreed that we really liked the Outback's interior - especially if you choose the standard ivory leather, which looks much more spacious and up-market than the black interior.
Features that I particularly like are the door panels with their arm rests and pulls and the central console which is angled towards the driver.
The instrument pack in front of you is very stylish, the very clear and easy to read dials have chrome bezels which lend a real quality touch. When you turn on the ignition all the needles sweep theatrically across their arcs - not quite sure why they do it, but it is a little extra "surprise and delight" feature.
MATERIALS, FIT & FINISH 10 / 10: Aspreys or Ratners?
Once again, quite how a small company such as Subaru can provide these materials and this high level of interior fit and finish is a mystery to me.
Compared to my similarly priced Honda, everything that you touch, from the hand brake lever to the door pull, in the Outback just feels like so much better quality. More welcome still is the complete absence of rattles and squeaks inside this car, not only does it feel robust, but it also feels thoroughly well put together.
AUDIO & CLIMATE CONTROL SYSTEMS 7 / 10: Strange grouping?
There is absolutely nothing wrong with the quality of these systems and indeed the controls for them work beautifully. My beef is with the ergonomic layout here, yes in the long run you would become used to the multiplicity of controls.
Second criticism here is that the three information displays (trip computer, climate control and radio data) all have shiny clear plastic faces which reflect very badly in bright light and are difficult to read.
ON THE ROAD........
......Time to start it up and to offer you a driving assessment.
NOISE, VIBRATION & HARSHNESS 9 / 10 Silk purse or sow's ear?
I have said this before, but in case the message is not getting across, this new diesel boxer engine really is a remarkable power plant.
Starting it up from cold you could not mistake this for a petrol engine, it has a diesel rattle. However, we had the unique opportunity to start this one up and a petrol 2.0 litre automatic at the same time. The petrol was quieter, but there was noticeable vibration through the car - totally absent in the diesel!
Once warm, the engine is transformed into one of the most refined bar none. What little noise it does make is aurally stimulating. Above about 3000rpm it sounds like a highly refined and very quiet V6 petrol unit, below that like any other (petrol) boxer engine that I have driven - only quieter.
What REALLY impressed me was its extraordinary ability to pull from very low revs - tick-over speed in high gears. It was possible to potter about the centre of Chichester in third gear. In my own car I would have been changing gear all the time and using vastly more fuel.
In one sense it is a genuine pity that you do not have to use the gearbox more - the gear-change quality itself is superb, having a well oiled yet mechanical feel to it.
In terms of noise, vibration and harshness Subaru have proved my opinion on the Boxer diesel engine configuration to be entirely correct.
PERFORMANCE 9 / 10 Sh*t off a shovel or a constipated tortoise?
Out onto the open road and the story is very similar, one of relaxed refinement. It has an intoxicating turn of speed, only you do not feel any drama or true sense of acceleration, this is due both to the four wheel drive layout and the sheer refinement of this engine.
I can well imagine sitting comfortably at speed all day on a motorway in this car, performance is not really an issue; it just does what you want it to, when you want it to. It is the most responsive four cylinder diesel that I have driven - I may go as far as to say that it is the most responsive four cylinder engine that I have ever driven!
RIDE & HANDLING 10 / 10
Jacked up or not, the Outback really is something special in this department too. This is the area that would previously have sold me a Subaru, they managed what Jaguar were traditionally so very good at in i.e. providing a combination of a superbly damped ride and yet at the same time entertaining handling.
For a non car enthusiast this is very simple, it is extraordinarily comfortable, you do not feel the bumps or the bends. For someone who really enjoys driving and wishes to exploit this superb chassis the sky is almost the limit.
I may even be inclined to offer a warning here, ultimately you cannot defy the laws of physics, this is a car in which you will find yourself travelling very much faster than you think you are - simply because it is so good.
It is also so good on wet or even snowy roads - with traction and stability that no two wheel drive competitor can offer, this car could keep you mobile when all around you have shuddered to a halt.
I had been expecting to award a 7 in this category.. All the Subarus that I have previously driven have had conventional hydraulic power steering and have provided excellent "feel" through the steering. Upon reading that Subaru have fitted the diesel models with electric (fuel saving) power steering, I was worried. Until now I have never driven a car with electrically assisted steering and praised the feel of it. The Outback broke the mould here, had I not read about it I would have been unaware that this was anything but a conventional steering system.
CONCLUSION - Would I buy one myself and would we want to drive it to Poland in a day?
No, and yes.
The Outback is not the car for me, although we would happily get in one, and I am sure, arrive 1200 miles away tomorrow feeling fresh and relaxed.
There is no escaping the fact that this is a fantastic engine, mated to a world beating chassis. On the basis of driving this Outback I would unhesitatingly place an order for a Legacy saloon.....but there lays the rub!
Due to Subaru UK's allocation of a mere 600 cars for 2008, the decision has been made to only sell the Outback and Sports Tourer - the Legacy Estate. Yes we are prepared to compromise and take the Tourer, but I still have nagging doubts about security of items left in it.
Only thing for me to do then is start campaigning Subaru to sell the saloon here!
With only 600 cars in total coming to the UK this year, if you like the sound of what you have read here, I would urge you to get along to your local Subaru dealer as soon as possible, they are already selling like hot cakes and once gone will not be available until next year.
FINAL SCORE: 145 / 170 - 85.3%
Putting that score into perspective are the following cars based on identical scoring criteria:
ALFA ROMEO 147 1.9JTD Lusso (5 Dr) - 67.8%
FIAT PUNTO GRANDE SPORTING 130 Mjet - 75.9%
HONDA ACCORD i-CTDi Saloon - 80.0%
HONDA CIVIC 1.8i VTEC SE - 78.2%
HONDA CIVIC 1.8i VTEC S i-SHIFT - 68.8%
HONDA CIVIC IMA SE - 73.5%
HONDA JAZZ 1.4 SE CVT-7 (Automatic) - 74.7%
SUBARU OUTBACK 2.0D RE - 85.3%
SAAB 9-3 TiD Vector - 68.2%
SAAB 9-3 TiD Linear CONVERTIBLE (2007 Mondel) - 74.1%
VAUXHALL ASTRA TWINTOP 1.9 CDTi DESIGN - 78.8%
VAUXHALL MONARO VXR - 71.1%
VW PASSAT TDi 140 S ESTATE - 71.7%
VOLVO S60 D5 SE - 70.6%
© RICHADA - April 2008