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If you need a rugged estate then this is now just about the only game in town

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Amid the barrage of new models – often electric – it can be easy to forget the handful of smaller independent brands still managing to carve their own path. This all-new generation of the Subaru Outback came out in 2021 but somehow slipped through our net. 

That appears to be equally true for media as it is for consumers. In 2022, Subaru sold a mere 1391 cars in the UK. That’s behind Alfa Romeo and Bentley, and only just above newcomer Genesis. 

It hasn’t helped that the brand has lacked any kind of halo car for a number of years. The WRX STI (née Impreza) went off sale in 2017 and never received a successor. Although Subaru still makes a WRX complete with a turbocharged flat four and a manual gearbox, it has chosen not to offer that car in Europe.

That is perhaps understandable since hyper-hatches like the Volkswagen Golf R made it rather redundant. However, given how quickly the Toyota GR86 sold out, UK enthusiasts probably would have snapped up a few BRZs as well. 

Alas, Subaru has decided that is not how it wants to profile itself in the UK. Those cars have “nothing to do with the Subaru brand as it is today”, then UK managing director John Hurtig told Autocar in 2020. 

So what does Subaru stand for these days? The Outback should be a pretty good exemplar. As with previous generations, it’s a no-nonsense lifted estate car with some off-road credentials. Unusually for 2023, it’s powered by a 2.5-litre petrol flat four that lacks not only electrification but also turbocharging. That sort of thing is always going to be quite a niche proposition, but one that might well be very fit for its specific purpose.

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Range at a glance

Models Power From
2.5i Lineartronic 167bhp £36,990
Transmission CVT  

European Outback buyers don’t get a choice of engines. A naturally aspirated 2.5-litre boxer is the only option, and it always drives all four wheels through a CVT.There are three trim levels: Limited, Field and Touring.

DESIGN & STYLING

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subaru outback review 2023 01 cornering front

If you have only been keeping half an eye on Subaru’s model range in recent years, your first reaction might be: “Isn’t it a Legacy Outback?”

Indeed, it was first launched in 1994 as the more adventurous version of the Legacy estate. Technically, that is still true, although the standard Legacy saloon is no longer offered in Europe, and the estate fell by the wayside a few generations ago.

Modern Subarus are meant to be no-nonsense, focusing on safety, reliability and functionality, and that is reflected in the exterior design. You might call it adventurous in the sense that the tall ride height, plastic cladding and sump guards will allow it to go on outdoor adventures, but the fundamental estate shape and treatment of the light units is about as conventional as it gets.

While Subaru has had to team up with Toyota to develop the BRZ and the Solterra, its first EV, the brand remains fiercely independent with its bread-and-butter combustion cars. As such, the Outback shares its Subaru Global Platform with its Forester SUV and XV lifted hatchback range-mates.

The firm prides itself on offering four-wheel drive as standard, calling it ‘Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive’ because of the horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine and the equal-length driveshafts. Subaru’s system is more serious than most in this class, but it’s still no Ineos Grenadier. Instead of a centre differential, it uses a wet clutch pack. However, unlike most systems in this class, which wait until the sensors detect slip before they send torque to the rear axle, Subaru keeps the clutches partially engaged at all times so that it defaults to a front-biased 60:40 torque split. It can also be varied depending on the conditions and the driving mode the car’s in.

European-market Outbacks are always powered by a 2.5-litre engine with direct injection that does without turbocharging or hybrid assistance. That relative simplicity is unusual these days and even somewhat surprising because Subaru does have other solutions on the shelf. The Forester uses Subaru’s own e-Boxer system, while Outback buyers in other markets have the option of a 2.4-litre turbo engine.

While the 2.5 is not a completely new development, Subaru claims that 90% of components are new or redesigned compared with the previous generation. It also has a higher compression ratio than previous iterations, at 12.0:1 versus 10.3:1. The net result? It makes 5bhp… less. With 167bhp at a fairly lofty 5000-5800rpm, it’s certainly no powerhouse, particularly in the context of a car that weighed 1690kg on Millbrook Proving Ground’s scales.

Subaru outback mechanical layout

INTERIOR

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Step into the Outback and you would be forgiven for thinking you’ve gone back to 2010. Apart from the fairly large portrait-oriented central touchscreen, the interior layout, design and material choices feel almost wilfully outmoded. Then again, that could be the point: like cargo trousers with lots of pockets, the Outback is meant to be comfy and practical, rather than trendy.

And comfy it certainly is. The leather seats are soft and broad, and almost every surface you might touch is covered in soft leather-like material. The vibe isn’t particularly original and the Outback also doesn’t hit you over the head with overtly practical storage solutions, but you can’t knock the functionality: what you need is all there. The cubby under the armrest is fairly deep, there are two cupholders and the padded trough that disappears into the centre stack is ideal for sliding your phone into.

The one area where Subaru has succumbed to the misguided trappings of modernity is with the climate controls. There are buttons for adjusting the temperature, but everything else – including the heated seats – needs adjusting via the touchscreen. At least the climate panel stays on-screen permanently, though its interface could be more responsive and intuitive.

The deceptive length of the Outback pays dividends for rear passengers. Its longitudinal engine configuration means it’s not as space-efficient as the equally outstretched Skoda Superb, so it can’t match that car’s rear leg room. However, a six-footer can sit comfortably behind another one, and even have some room to slouch. Not that there’s a shortage of head room – the estate body means there’s actually quite a lot. Don’t look for fancy features or gimmicks – there are just a pair of USB ports and air vents, and a fairly comfortable bench.

A boot that’s 100 litres bigger makes a Superb the more practical choice when it comes to cargo space too. You might assume that the Subaru’s four-wheel drive system takes up a lot of room, but there’s actually quite a bit of wasted space under the floor taken up by a bulky foam piece. At least the main space is practical enough. The load floor is level with the sill, and the rear seats fold flat with a pair of handles in the boot area. There are a number of hooks and tie-down points as well.

Subaru outback review 2023 12 screen 0

Multimedia system

For manufacturers unable to develop a world-class multimedia system to rival those of Genesis and Mercedes, the best courses of action are to either use someone else’s architecture (like Renault and its Google system) or to keep it simple. Subaru has done the latter.

The interface looks a little like a children’s video game, but the big buttons and simple menus mean you will quickly find your way around. The same TomTom navigation that you would get on many Stellantis cars is fitted on Field and Touring trims and does the job but isn’t really worth seeking out. Our car didn’t have a data connection for traffic information, so it made much more sense to use Google Maps through Apple CarPlay, which worked well on the large portrait screen. Wireless functionality for both Android and Apple has reportedly been added, but our test car didn’t yet have it.

The 11-speaker Harman Kardon system that comes with Touring spec sounds good rather than exceptional.

Subaru outback dimensions 2

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

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Subaru’s chosen mechanical specification of a 167bhp naturally aspirated boxer engine coupled to a CVT makes the Outback quite a reluctant performer. As long as you adjust your driving style to suit the car, it can be adequate and indeed quite relaxing. The CVT is programmed so that under moderate acceleration it will keep the engine at about 3000rpm. This means that, so long as you’re not in a hurry, the engine stays relatively quiet and you can mooch about, unperturbed by gearchanges.

The problem is that sometimes you just want to make a bit of progress, or you need to merge onto a busy motorway. Then it quickly becomes apparent that 167bhp isn’t very much in a 1690kg car. Our test car managed to shave four-tenths off its quoted 0-62mph time, taking a still-unimpressive 9.8sec. 

The CVT does its best. If you floor it, it will hold the revs in the band where the engine makes maximum power, but for anything less it will engineer in some ‘gearchanges’. They don’t feel contrived – it’s just the gearbox limiting the noise whenever it can. 

That’s very welcome indeed, because this boxer is not a nice engine to listen to. At low revs it’s too quiet to have any discernible character, whereas under high loads it can sound like a tortured small-capacity diesel. It’s at its worst when having to fire into life after being shut down by the start-stop system. It takes several cranks, and sounds particularly unhappy being woken up. Annoyingly, there’s no dedicated button to disable the start-stop system – you have to go into the settings on the touchscreen.

The Outback is rated to tow 2000kg, and we suspect that would be a tall ask for this engine. In the US, the same unit makes 15bhp more, and buyers have the option of a 260bhp 2.4-litre turbocharged version, which sounds like a more appropriate powerplant for this car.

The brake pedal is uncorrupted by any form of regen, and that translates to a pleasantly organic feel. In an emergency stop from 70mph on a dry track, our Outback required almost two metres more than the Skoda Superb did. Our test car wore one mismatched Bridgestone Turanza tyre, though stability was not notably affected.

Subaru outback review 2023 09 trim 0

Off-road notes

The real draw of an Outback compared with, say, a Skoda Superb is the Subaru’s off-road credentials. Still, one should be conscious of its limitations – this is not like a true off- roader. The Outback lacks low gearing and locking diffs and is ultimately held back by its fundamental shape: long overhangs result in fairly modest approach and departure angles (a Dacia Duster does better).

With that said, the Outback is a good deal more capable than most things this side of a Land Rover Defender. Beefy skidplates front and rear mean you can use every degree of those angles without fear of bending a bumper or bashing a sump.

The Outback has two off-road modes: snow/dirt and deep snow/mud. With standard road tyres, it still scrabbled up Millbrook’s gravel slopes and through muddy sections with little fuss. If an off-road mode is engaged and the car detects you are coasting down a hill, it will automatically engage the hill descent control.

Subaru outback offroad ability

RIDE & HANDLING

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subaru outback review 2023 03 cornering rear

Subaru still touts the benefits of its boxer engines and all-wheel drive system. The flat engine lowers the centre of gravity and supposedly can be positioned further back in the chassis. Meanwhile, four-wheel drive should be safer when the roads are slippery.

Unfortunately, those largely feel like claims from a bygone era. Modern traction and stability control systems mean that the average driver doing average driving is very unlikely to be caught out by wheelspin, let alone oversteer. And a good set of winter or even all-season tyres would get you up most snowy hills in the UK, even in a two-wheel-drive car. 

On the road, the Outback feels neutral, with only enough grip but decent response from the front end. The steering weights up progressively enough to let you know what’s going on and the chassis even wants to rotate on a trailing throttle, even if the stability control won’t let it. 

Contrary to Subaru’s claim that the low centre of gravity reduces body roll, the Outback moves rather a lot on its soft suspension, so you need to allow it to settle before committing to a corner. It’s a slightly old-fashioned way of driving and you would never call the Outback sporty, but it’s not unenjoyable. 

It can feel slightly unsophisticated when the steering clunks into the lock stops while manoeuvring. It’s at least reasonably easy. Visibility is pretty good, and the door mirrors are unusually large. A forward-facing camera on the bottom of the passenger-side mirror also helps. The normal reversing camera has some fish-eye distortion.

The ‘Eyesight’ driver assistance suite includes a few functions that weren’t yet mandatory when the Outback was launched, such as driver monitoring and speed limit warnings. Because the model was homologated before July 2022, the latter can be permanently turned off. The other systems work fairly well. We still wouldn’t be sad to lose the driver monitoring and lane keep assist, but neither is too intrusive. The adaptive cruise control responds quickly and smoothly too.

Subaru outback review 2023 02 panning 0

Comfort & Isolation

The Outback may not be sporty, but by and large it is pretty comfortable. The suspension is not only soft, but it also has a long travel, giving a supple primary ride quality that’s controlled enough over large bumps and doesn’t become floaty. It’s a pity the ride over bad surfaces is actually quite poor. Despite the meaty 60-profile tyres, it rattles through potholes with not much decorum.

Save for a bit of air whipping around those big door mirrors, noise isolation in the Outback is very good. We recorded 65dBA at a 70mph cruise, which is 1dBA quieter than the plusher Volvo V90.

The seats help comfort too. They are softly padded and generally armchair-like, and in every version are heated and eight-way electrically adjustable. You sit higher than you might expect in an estate, but the position of the other controls in relation to the seat is sound, and since the Outback isn’t trying to be sporty, it all feels appropriate.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

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subaru outback review 2023 01 cornering front

The fairly serious four-wheel drive system and off-road gear like the skidplates are fitted as standard. So if you’re not going to use its abilities, the Outback won’t make sense for you. Prices start at £36,990, rising to £42,490 for the Touring. A Citroën C5 X or a Skoda Superb estate with the 1.5 TSI will be cheaper, roomier and more economical choices.

However, if you do want a modicum of off-roadability at this price point, genuine rivals are thin on the ground. Lifted estates like Volvo’s Cross Country models, Audi’s Allroads and the Volkswagen Golf Alltrack have all vanished from UK price lists, and crossover SUVs like the Skoda Kodiaq and Toyota RAV4 will get stuck fairly quickly when the going gets tough. The Outback’s closest rival may just be a four-wheel-drive Dacia Duster, which is a far less upmarket experience. In that context, the Outback is decent value. It’s fairly good value on a PCP deal as well.

Fuel consumption is dependent on the type of driving you do. This is a naturally aspirated engine that has to work hard to power a heavy car, so the CVT is keen to give it all the revs it needs when you ask for any sort of performance. As a result, the Outback returned less than 30mpg over a week with us. Conversely, in gentle motorway use, low-40s are eminently achievable. Poor MPGs mean poor CO2 emissions, so if you were to run an Outback as a company car, you would be paying the full whack of benefit-in-kind tax.

Subaru’s three-year/60,000-mile warranty isn’t especially generous, and while Subarus tend to be reliable, they don’t have Toyota’s bulletproof reputation.

Subaru outback dimensions 1

VERDICT

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subaru outback review 2023 22 static front

The Subaru Outback is an outlier in the 2023 estate car market. While other cars focus on style and modern fashions, electrification and feature-rich multimedia, the Outback sticks to the same things it has been doing for decades: no-nonsense functionality and rugged off-roadability. That entails a fair few compromises.

Judged as a normal large estate – a Skoda Superb and Citroën C5 X rival – it is hopelessly behind the times. It’s not particularly fast, it doesn’t handle with any great distinction, it looks somewhat forgettable, its interior materials are drab and its multimedia is rudimentary. If you’re never going to take it off the beaten path, it’s unrecommendable.

However, if you are one of the few people who need a car like the Outback, then there’s no way around it: you need an Outback. Nothing else on the market combines a large, practical body with genuine capability off the Tarmac – not for this sort of money, anyway. Adjust your expectations slightly, and you will find a car that’s broadly comfortable and intuitive to drive with very few usability quirks. The Subaru Outback is fit for purpose, all right. That purpose is just very niche.

Illya Verpraet

Illya Verpraet Road Tester Autocar
Title: Road Tester

As part of Autocar’s road test team, Illya drives everything from superminis to supercars, and writes reviews, comparison tests, as well as the odd feature and news story. 

Much of his time is spent wrangling the data logger and wielding the tape measure to gather the data for Autocar’s eight-page road tests, which are the most rigorous in the business thanks to independent performance, fuel consumption and noise figures.

Subaru Outback First drives