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MOTORING: Subaru Outback 3.6R-S ES CVT: The great all-rounder

Su-bah-ru, or Suba-roo? Which ever way you pronounce it, everyone agrees that Subaru, that refreshingly off-beat Japanese auto maker, builds some pretty decent vehicles. And most of those offer a degree of versatility not typical of mainstream models. That’s particularly true of the Outback estate.

I’m not sure what the Subaru Outback has in common with that vast tract of emptiness at the very heart of the Australian continent (or is it a country?) it takes its name from. But put it this way: if you wanted to choose a vehicle in which to traverse the Outback’s 3,000km Stuart Highway, perhaps with a bit of bundu bashing on the side, this Subaru would fit that bill quite nicely, thank you. For petrolheads like me, any mention of the Subaru brand is more likely to conjure up images of its wild-winged, go-faster Impreza STI sedans and raucous rally machines. But for adventure-spirited explorers with a love for the great outdoors, Subaru has a completely different meaning. Those folks will be drawn to the brand by its Forester and XV soft-roaders – and the Outback, of course. The latter is a little more difficult to quantify: it looks like a station wagon, but has the presence of an all-terrainer. If that sounds like a promising combination, read on. Subaru is one of the few marques to have persevered with a station wagon (or estate, if you want to sound posh) when much of the market is pandering to the SUV craze. That said, the Outback offers enough in the way of all-terrain talent to give many a so-called SUV a run for their money, without having to resort to the tall profile and boxy looks typical of the genre. It’s a handsome machine in a robust, chunky kind of way that provides some visual indication of its under-the-skin talents. While the silhouette is unmistakably station wagon, it’s dressed up with robust lower-body cladding, front and rear scuff plates, and prominent roof rails. Add that elevated stance (the minimum ground clearance is an impressive 213mm) and the effect is practical rather than pretty. But it does suggest that the Outback isn’t scared of tackling the kind of terrain you’d hesitate to subject many a softroader to. Nor are those looks simply a case of window dressing. The Outback has been designed to take on the wilderness, and it has the underpinnings to prove it. First and foremost, there’s Subaru’s symmetrical all-wheel drive. No, it’s not a low range-based system you’ll find on “real” off-roaders. But it does provide drive to all wheels, distributing power between the front and rear axles as needed. There’s also a so-called X-Mode, which optimises the traction control parameters for all-terrain use, while hill descent control makes negotiating tricky downhills a more sure-footed affair. Together, these features and systems make for some pretty useful off-roading talent. Realistically, you won’t be able to follow your neighbour’s Defender up a 40-degree rocky incline – but with some off-road savvy and the correct tyre pressures, you’ll be surprised just what the Outback is able to cope with. Gravel roads are a breeze, but sand and mud – even the occasional water crossing – should be well within its comfort zone. That despite the fact that the Outback is generously dimensioned and tips the scales at 1.7 tons. The interior is spacious and airy, with the rear bench easily seating three adults, while the luggage compartment has a very useful 512-litre capacity, expandable by folding the split rear seatback down. It’s a cabin that finds an attractive compromise between fancy and function. You get all the luxury bits – leather, climate control, electric everything, a touchscreen-based infotainment system with multi-speaker Harman Kardon sound, Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, TomTom-based satnav… the list goes on. The touchscreen is user-friendly too, benefiting overall ergonomics – although some of the minor switchgear could be better positioned. The driving position is good, and clear all-round visibility from the multi-adjustable driver’s seat allows effective situational awareness, on and off the beaten track. One of the longest standard features lists falls under the safety heading. The Outback literally bristles with active and passive safety features, including no less than seven airbags, all-disc ABS brakes, and stability and traction control. Also included is a raft of driver assistance systems –blind spot warning, lane change assistance, rear cross traffic alert – as well as Subaru’s so-called Eyesight system, which uses stereo cameras to provide pre-collision throttle management and braking, adaptive cruise control, and lane change warning. Add front, side and rear cameras (which even allow you to see what’s ahead when off-roading) and you have one of the most comprehensive safety and driver assistance packages in the business. Eschewing the trend favouring smaller-capacity turbo engines, the Outback is powered by a 3.6-litre flat-six boxer engine. Unique among Japanese auto makers, Subaru has embraced the horizontally-opposed cylinder layout, quoting efficiency, packaging and a lower centre of gravity as the major benefits. In the Outback, the boxer six churns out 191kW and 350Nm, delivered in a smooth and linear stream of urge. There isn’t the low-down punch of a turbo, but torque delivery is ample from low down, making for good all-round tractability. Subaru is also a big proponent of the Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) – a slightly different take on automatic shifting. In essence, it provides an infinitely variable effective gear ratio, based on speed and load. That should allow the gearbox to always offer the best possible drive for a particular set of circumstances, even if the accompanying engine note often becomes droney and overlaboured. To its credit, the Subaru suffers less from these symptoms than some CVT-equipped cars I’ve encountered. And besides, I preferred using the steering column-mounted shift paddles, which put the driver in command of gear selection. On the move, the Outback feels poised and composed, despite a long-travel suspension designed to deal with both tar and gravel. There’s plenty of grip too, even when you swap tar for gravel. The all-wheel drive keeps the big estate nicely in check without becoming obvious or intrusive, and as a result, the Subaru exudes an almost regal confidence, regardless of the surface or conditions it’s asked to cope with. Not surprisingly, it feels eminently at home on dirt, resisting any temptation for tail-happy antics and steering straight and true, even on rutted sections and off-camber surfaces. Although there’s ample get up and go, don’t expect the Outback to take a leaf out of its Impreza STI sibling’s performance book. Progress is swift and unfussed, with the estate always underplaying its true rate of progress. A sub 8sec time for the benchmark 0-100km/h sprint is admirable nonetheless, and while Subaru is coy about the estate’s top speed, it should be able to reach around 200km/h. More importantly, you can load the Subaru to the gills, and still expect to cruise comfortably at beyond the legal limit. [caption id="attachment_107588" align="alignnone" width="3500"] Legacy[/caption] That also confirms the Outback’s ability to cover a lot of ground – almost any ground – effortlessly; be it a long-distance intercity journey, or an extended rough-and-tumble over indifferent gravel to some remote camping spot. Its versatility extends further to include school runs and urban commutes, where the generous space and high comfort levels on offer remain relevant. That it also feels more car than SUV is, to my mind, a boon: you never get that sense of bulk and cumbersomeness that can mar the SUV driving experience, especially in the urban jungle. The core appeal of the Subaru lies in the impressive breadth of its talent. Almost chameleon-like, it can adapt to its surroundings better than a station wagon or an SUV, effectively because it fulfils both roles so well. Often, attempting that level of versatility leads to a vehicle that’s a jack of all trades, but a master of none. For once, the Subaru Outback proves that it can master almost any role. The best part? You don’t have to traverse the Stuart Highway’s 3,000km to experience it. DM PROS Adept at coping with a broad range of motoring conditions and applications. Well equipped and priced, too. CONS Those chunky looks, station wagon layout and boxer engine won’t please mainstream buyers. Wouldn’t a manual option be great? VITAL STATS

Subaru Outback 3.6R-S ES CVT

Engine

Six-cylinder boxer, 3,630cc

Power

191kW @ 6,000rpm

Torque

350Nm @ 4,400rpm

Power-to-weight ratio

106.05 kW/ton

Gearbox

Six-speed CVT, AWD

Wheels/tyres

18-inch alloy, 225/60 R18 tyres

0-100 km/h

7.6sec

Top speed

205km/h (est)

Fuel tank capacity

60 litres

Fuel consumption (claimed/tested)

9.9/11.1 litres/100km

Operating range (claimed/tested)

660 / 540km

CO2 emissions

230 g/km

Retail price/as tested

R668,100

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