Outback a softroader for the hardcore

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IOL mot jan20 subaru outback

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Subarus have permanent all-wheel drive and have the best off-road capability in the soft roader class.

ROAD TEST: Subaru Outback 2.0D Premium

In most respects, VW’s Jetta sedan is the perfect car for long-distance family travel – it’s spacious, economical and comfortable. On our recent end-of-year trip to Knysna, it performed flawlessly and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone looking for a great family car.

Yet...

There was one thing we couldn’t do and which I would love to have done: go up the steep, winding road to the top of the Spitzkop – the highest point in the Knysna area – and enjoy a picnic at the top of the world.

The reason: the VW is only front-wheel-drive and has limited ground clearance. I’ve been up there twice before and, apart from the views, the scenery is seldom spoilt by the presence many other people – not many are aware of it and those who are know you need a four-wheel-drive with decent ground clearance.

On the occasions I have ventured up the Spitzkop – and some of the other rugged dirt roads in the Knysna area and in the foothills of the Outeniqua Mountains nearby – I’ve been in a Subaru. These tough, Japanese-made cars all feature permanent all wheel drive and have the best off-road capability in the “soft roader” SUV class, along with the impressive Land Rover Freelander.

IOL mot jan20 Subaru Outback b

The Outback 2-litre diesel model is economical and has adequate punch.

And, what they offer those, like us, who love the outdoors, is the ability and flexibility to go where other so-called SUVs would struggle – and without having to go the “whole hog” and get a expedition-type hard-core 4x4.

Last week, my wife suggested we go for the day to the Pilanesberg National Park and our own Subaru Forester was the only option for us. I had heard that some of the roads in the park were in bad condition. And that’s how it turned out: the Forester enabled us to get to the out-of-the-way viewpoints on the western side of the park. The only other vehicle we saw up there was a hard-core 4x4. The view was worth it.

As a Forester owner, I have always been partial to the best-seller in the Subaru range, although I have had a lot of respect for its more sophisticated sibling, the Outback, which is based on the upmarket Legacy sedan. One of the cars I used for Knysna’s Spitzkop was a 3.0-litre Outback which, although it looks like a school run stationwagon, has outstanding off-road ability and good grunt.

The latest Outback, I always felt, was a bit lacking in the looks department – but Subaru has “machoed” it up a bit with a new body kit, wheels and roof rails, which give it more cred in the parking lot. The one we had on test features Subaru’s diesel engine, a 2.0-litre four-cylinder which is the world’s first “Boxer” (horizontally-opposed) diesel engine.

With a power output of 110kW and more than 320Nm of torque, the Outback is not shamed in the grunt department. But I was concerned that, coupling a turbo-diesel engine with a Constantly Variable Transmission (CVT) would be a silly move.

Generally speaking, I hate CVT gearboxes, because they have a counter-intuitive way of staying at the same, sometimes screaming revs while speed builds. The CVT in Mitsubishi’s previous Outlander – and shared by Citroen’s C4 Aircross – is truly horrible. The people at Subaru SA were at pains to claim their CVT is different. They’re right. I’ve sampled it in three vehicles – two Foresters and the Outback – and concur that it behaves like a good automatic.

IOL mot jan20 Subaru Outback bc

The Outback cabin is supremely comfortable.

In the Outback, the CVT also helps dial out the turbo lag problem that can be exacerbated by mating an autobox with a turbo-diesel engine. Whether you leave the box in D and let it do its thing automatically, or change yourself (in simulated manual six-speed mode through steering wheel-mounted paddles), the result is the same: smooth progress.

It’s economical, too. On a comfortable run down to the Vaal, down the highway and using the air conditioner all the way, the Outback returned 5.2 litres to 100km. If that doesn’t knock on the head the myth of Subarus being fuel-guzzlers nothing will. And it is a myth: I reckon that, comparing like with like, Subarus will be more economical than their competitors, despite many of those competitors not being true all wheel drives.

The Outback is supremely comfortable, as is the Forester, and does not wear down driver or passengers on the long haul. Equipment levels are decent, although Subarus have not been known for their toys, because it is what is under the skin that is important.

I’ve spoken to a few Outback owners, of petrol and diesel versions, and, like most of those who own them, they love their cars. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: there is nothing better in the segment for the combination of comfort, reliability and flexibility.

Meet me at the Spitzkop some time and I’ll explain it.

FACTS

Subaru Outback 2.0D Premium

Engine: 2-litre, 4-cyl, horizontally-opposed, turbodiesel

Power: 110kW @ 3600rpm

Torque: 350Nm @ 1800-2400rpm

0-100km/h (claimed): 9.7 seconds

Fuel requirement: Low-sulphur diesel (minimum 50ppm) or Sasol’s ultra-low sulphur diesel (10ppm) is mandatory or the warranty will be invalidated. This is because high sulphur diesel clogs the particulate filter and can cause engine damage.

Fuel consumption: Excellent for a full-time all wheel drive. You’ll get between 8 and 9 litres to 100km in urban conditions and about 6 litres to 100km on the open road.

CO2 emissions: 172g/km (combined official figures).

Price: R469 000

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