- Excellent value for money
- Standard advanced safety kit
- Practical and roomy for five
- Engine could be peppier
- Steering is a little too light
- Flat front seats
The 2017 Subaru Outback 2.5i Premium is all the car most families will ever need. It's large and practical, well-equipped but not expensive, economical and fairly cheap to run, and with its stocky, rugged proportions, the current Outback shape is pretty good to look at, too.
But the Outback is a station wagon – and don't all car journalists say that Australian families continue to buy large, high-riding SUVs at an alarming rate? Well, they are – but large wagons are making a comeback. The Subaru Outback was a quiet success story in 2016, accruing more than twelve thousand sales, outselling all large SUVs bar the Toyota Prado, and competing strongly against the hot medium SUV class too.
So how is the Outback making SUV buyers think again, and instead spend their money on something as old-school as a wagon? I borrowed the popular 2.5i Premium model and drove it around for 800 kilometres – and I found out.
First, the Subaru is designed as a family car through and through, and the Outback makes no apologies for that. This car isn't designed to be sporty. Instead, the Subaru Outback is a reminder of why the best family cars are usually not engineered for speed, but for comfort. Like the old Volvo wagons that invented this recipe, the Outback is designed for one purpose: the task of carting five people and their stuff around in safety and comfort.
The Outback channels the Volvo wagon reputation in another way: safety. Subaru have emerged as a real beacon of safety tech in the past few years, and the Outback is a proper standout at this price point. Every model alerts you to a potential crash before it happens and will apply the brakes if you don't react to the warning. The Premium model adds more helpful stuff, like blind spot warnings, reversing cross-traffic alert, and auto high beam.
However, the Outback isn't like a Volvo wagon when it comes to price. Here, Subaru strikes a huge blow against SUVs of a similar size. As a buyer, you pay a real premium for a high-riding vehicle – but at $42,240, the Outback 2.5i Premium is a great buy, with a list of standard features rivalling much more expensive models from European manufacturers.
Naturally, the Subaru's driving characteristics – which could be called laid-back at best – won't be for those that want to have fun behind the wheel. But as a family workhorse that will spend most of its life between school and the shops, do you need that?
That's not to say that the Subaru can't be a quick car: order the range-topping Outback 3.6R, and you'll get a fast and silky-smooth six-cylinder engine that offers up seriously effortless cruising abilities. The trade-off is economy: the boxer six likes a drink.
I recommend the least-expensive engine: the 2.5-litre naturally aspirated four-cylinder in my test car is never going to excite an enthusiastic driver, but the 2.5-litre is so totally adequate for what everything the average person will ask of it. Plus, unlike the six it isn't thirsty: 7L/100km on the highway and 9L/100km in town is good for a car this size.
With just 129kW and 235Nm, the Outback 2.5i isn't fast, and flooring it doesn't achieve much – this is an engine and a car to cruise around in, driving smoothly and gently: just as most of its buyers will do all of the time.
There is also a diesel but it's not that grunty, and the $3,000 increase over the 2.5-litre doesn't make much sense given the petrol is pretty economical anyway.
The base model of the range is a manual version of the diesel – but most people will go for a CVT automatic gearbox. The petrol engines are only available with the auto. Subaru's CVT is inoffensive and quiet as long as you don't drive it like you stole it. Drive the Outback hard and the CVT becomes loud and elastic; a conventional auto is more pleasant.
The Outback is easy to steer around town because there's plenty of assistance in the power steering. The wheel feels very light, so parking and manoeuvring around tight corners is simple. The downside is that you expect the wheel to get heavier at higher speeds, but this doesn't really happen – a better variable steering ratio will make the Outback a better driver's car in a future update.
As I said, though, the Outback is built for comfort, not for speed, and driving this thing is relaxing – either in town or on long road trips. The suspension is supple without being too soft. The Subaru swallows up urban potholes and the slightly raised ride height helps insulate you and the rest of the passengers from imperfections in the road beneath.
Permanent all-wheel-drive is standard and it delivers plenty of grip. In the dry, the Outback hangs on impressively in hard cornering, despite a bit of body roll. However, it's in the wet that you really notice the benefit of AWD – the Outback simply doesn't miss a beat in crappy weather, and that fills you with confidence, especially if you've got kids in the back.
The Outback doesn't mind gravel roads or light trails, either. This is a raised and cladded wagon, so it can take a few knocks without drama. The ground clearance of 213 millimetres is decent, and the car's X-Mode tells the AWD system that you've headed off the beaten track and makes driving on loose surfaces easier. We didn't get stuck.
It's inside where you notice the worthwhile differences of upgrading to the Outback Premium. The cloth seats of the base model are swapped out for durable and soft leather, you get a bigger navigation screen and the trim looks more upmarket.
All Outbacks, though, feel solid and well screwed together, with nicely weighted switches, modern touch-based controls for the touchscreen and soft-touch materials covering the dash and door-tops. It's only lower down in the cabin where you notice the cheaper materials that help Subaru achieve this price.
The front seats are soft and comfortable for the back, but long-legged drivers will, like me, probably find them a bit flat in the thigh department. Also, given the Outback avoids sporting pretensions the side bolstering is minimal: beefing this up a little would definitely make for a better seat.
To match the beefed-up look outside the driving position is high: the Outback doesn't give up ground to SUVs in this regard. As a driver, you're still sitting above smaller cars, just without the rest of the compromises that come with a taller SUV.
The back seat is massive, though, with a really supportive bench that will keep the kids comfortable on long drives. It reclines, too, which means naps in the car are definitely achievable, and the air vents for back seat passengers help to stave off any car sickness. There are no dedicated USB ports for those in the back, though – but at least there are two available in the front.
Up front, the Premium's seven-inch touchscreen does get grubby from fingerprints, but it works well. The simple menus are shared with Toyota products and, like those cars, syncing a phone and playing music over Bluetooth is simple but there is no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. The stereo is just okay – but entering navigation destinations and following the instructions is easy.
There's another colour screen between the driver's gauges – it can show a digital speedo, your next navigation direction and telephone info, but not the current track playing through the stereo.
A porthole sunroof is standard kit on the Outback Premium and I found myself sliding it open on a regular basis during the summery days I kept the car.
Buying a big wagon is all about how much stuff you can cram into it – and where kids are concerned, this means bulky items like prams and bikes have to slide right in with ease. Well, wagons are often more practical than SUVs in this regard, and the Outback is no different. It's got a huge boot and a spacious cabin and is one of the most practical options in its class.
An electric boot tailgate is standard on the Outback Premium, and once it's opened up there are 512 litres of space behind the rear seats. That's about 20% more space than Subaru's similarly-priced Forester SUV can muster. Plus, the boot is a good one – not all boots are created equal. It's long and square, with no 'lip' between the boot floor and the outside world, so you can slide heavy suitcases straight in or out with no drama. A pram behind the rear seats is easily accommodated.
If you need more room, the back seats fold right from within the boot – one of my favourite features. Once that's done, the Outback gives you 1,801 litres of really long space – I carried a bookshelf home from the shops with an inch to spare. Once again, the Outback wagon betters the Forester SUV by about 20%.
The Outback's interior is very spacious, because this is a pretty big car and it's limited to seating five. The back seat is enormous, so carrying three people in there is easy. There are three ISOFIX points back there, too, so three car seats can sit side by side.
Plus, it feels spacious inside, too, because of the big windows and sunroof. Those back windows are low enough for kids to see out of them – that's not always the case these days. There are decent cubby spaces dotted throughout the cabin; the cupholders are American-size.
Those cool, blocky roof rails aren't just for style, either. They're fully operational, and can be switched from running lengthways to running the width of the car, depending on what you need to tie down onto them. See the video at the top of the page for a demonstration of how this works.
RELIABILITY & RUNNING COSTS
There are four main running costs to any vehicle – maintenance, fuel, insurance, and depreciation. The data in this section is based on the 2.5-litre petrol version of the 2017 Subaru Outback, with the CVT automatic.
Servicing and maintaining the Outback
Subaru offers a three-year, 75,000 kilometre capped price servicing arrangement on the Outback. The warranty lasts three years, with unlimited kilometres, from new.
The servicing programme averages out at $734 per year across the three years that it applies – with the fourth service a rude shock at $524.94. Frustratingly, the Outback has to be taken in every six months for servicing. This bucks the industry trend toward more convenient annual services. Subaru recovers some points, though, with generous mileage allocations for these services – allowing for 25,000 kilometres to be driven each year without more frequent, out-of-schedule maintenance.
Fuelling the Outback
The Outback's standard petrol engine is pretty efficient, but those who spend most of their time on the highway will want to check out the two-litre diesel, which is the only engine that can be had with a manual gearbox.
We found the Outback 2.5-litre's official figure of 7.3L/100km was about right. At that rate of consumption, the Outback would use about $1,332 per year in E10 petrol – or about $3,996 over three years, which is realistic-to-good for a car this size.
Insuring the Outback
We seek insurance quotes from mainstream insurers based on a 30 year old living in Chatswood, NSW, with a good driving history who parks the vehicle in the driveway.
The Outback is inexpensive to insure. On average, it will set you back $854 per year to insure an Outback – or $2,562 over three years.
How the Outback depreciates
Many people keep a new car for about three years, so we calculate what we expect you will lose in depreciation over three years of ownership of the Outback based on respected Glass's Guide data.
Based on three years of ownership and 14,000km of driving per year, Glass's indicates that the Outback holds its value quite strongly. If you sold in three years, you could expect to get back about $24,900 from the initial $42,240 cost, or about 59% – that's much better than the 51% predicted value of a Volkswagen Passat Alltrack.
The Outback has attractive running costs.
The safe, conservative nature of the Subaru Outback makes it cheap to insure. Plus, it's fairly economical, which helps to offset the admittedly dear maintenance.
With all of that in mind, though, the Outback is an attractive ownership proposition.
Over three years, an Outback 2.5i will cost you about $8,760 to maintain, fuel up, and insure – in the lower category of costs for a car like this.
VALUE FOR MONEY
There are absolutely no options available on the Outback Premium: what you see here is exactly what you get. Even metallic paints – often a place where you'll be caught spending thousands more for a good colour – are all included. Our car's sand-like Platinum Grey suited the bulky lines but is fairly conservative. There are brighter colours on the palette.
So – the sole question is which Outback trim you should buy. There are three – a base model, the Premium we tested, and the top-spec 3.6R model.
The base model is available with either the 2.5-litre petrol ($36,240) or the 2.0-litre diesel ($35,740 for the manual, $38,740 for the auto), and comes with a decent feature set – the EyeSight advanced safety tech, a reversing camera, a touchscreen audio system, 18-inch wheels, dual zone climate control, the adjustable roof racks and automatic wipers are all included.
But the best value is the Premium model, which is $42,240 for either the petrol automatic or manual diesel, or $45,240 for the diesel auto. The additional $6,000 brings lots of worthwhile features. The leather seats are more comfortable and durable, and they're heated and electrically adjustable in the front. The Premium also adds a bigger touchscreen with sat nav, LED headlights, a sunroof, and keyless entry and start/stop.
The 3.6R model ($48,740 – auto only) adds the bigger six-cylinder engine, plus a 12-speaker Harmon Kardon premium stereo.
Compared to similarly-sized vehicles with all-wheel-drive, the Outback represents outstanding value. This is a big car – more like a Mazda CX-9 in length than the CX-5 it's priced like. With that in mind, $42,240 for an Outback Premium barely gets you into a base model of a large SUV – let alone a version with all-wheel-drive and the luxury feature set.
Look at the Outback against similarly-priced but smaller vehicles from the medium SUV class, and it remains impressive. The feature set is generous and the extra room in the boot will be valuable for families – the Outback should be close to the top of your test-drive list if you need a big, durable vehicle like this.
While the Outback has station wagon DNA – especially since there is no longer a Subaru Liberty wagon available here, the Outback markets itself as something of a quasi-SUV. The raised ride height and handsome cladding make it a bit unique, but Subaru aren't the only ones playing this game.
The Volkswagen Group likes a cladded wagon too – in fact, they make a number of them.
It's worth checking out the Skoda Octavia Scout which is a bit smaller but quite a bit cheaper than the Outback. The nicer model, called the Scout Premium, is $38,990 and comes with a punchy turbo petrol engine.
If it's a proper Volkswagen you want, then, you'll need to test drive the Passat Alltrack. It's quite a step up over the Outback at $50,790, but the strong diesel engine and luxurious interior make the Passat an altogether more premium vehicle than the Subaru.
Then there are altogether more luxurious cars, like the $60,990 Volvo V60 Cross Country or the $71,400 Audi A4 all road, but then you're way out of the Outback's ballpark on price.
|Power||129kW at 5,800rpm|
|Torque||235Nm at 4,000rpm|
|Power to weight ratio||81kW / tonne|
|Fuel consumption (combined)||7.3L/100km|
|Fuel capacity||60 litres|
|Average range||822 kilometres|
Transmission and Drivetrain
|Configuration||Conventionally variable transmission|
|Drivetrain||All wheel drive|
Dimensions and Weights
|Unoccupied weight||1,588 kilograms|
|Cargo space (seats up)||512 litres|
|Cargo space (seats down)||1,801 litres|