What Car? says...
The Subaru Outback off-road-focused estate car proves you don't need a bulky SUV to get rugged, go-anywhere capabilities.
That might make the Outback sound like a rather niche choice, but then Subaru has always been a little bit different.
Virtually all its cars (the athletic Subaru BRZ sports car is an exception) have four-wheel drive for maximum traction in sticky situations. Some also have boxer engines that lie flat in the engine bay to make the car less top heavy and – in theory – improve handling.
The Outback has both those traditional Subaru traits in the body of an estate car, with black plastic bumpers, side skirts and hefty roof rails. They give it the air of a rugged workhorse, and put it up against the Cross Country versions of the Volvo V60 and Volvo V90 as well as the Volkswagen Golf Alltrack.
While some of those rivals are available with a choice of engines, the Outback keeps it simple with just one option: a 2.5-litre petrol with a CVT automatic gearbox. You do get three separate trims to choose from, though, ranging from the well-equipped entry-level Limited to the posh Touring model.
Over the next few pages of this review, we’ll delve into what the Subaru Outback is like to drive, how it performs compared with its rivals, whether it has the off-road chops to fend off traditional SUVs, how practical it is and how much it’ll cost to run.
Whether you decide a rugged estate, an SUV or something completely different is the car for you, make sure you get it for the best price possible by searching our free What Car? New Car Buying service. There are savings on most makes and models, including some good Subaru Outback deals.
Performance & drive
What it’s like to drive, and how quiet it is
We’ll get straight to the point here and say that the Subaru Outback is slow compared with its competition, with an official 0-60mph time of 10.2sec.
You might not be overly concerned by that, but it does make passing slower traffic or merging on to a busy roundabout more of a hassle. For comparison, the slowest of its key rivals is the B5 diesel Volvo V90 Cross Country (7.5sec).
We'd usually expect a CVT automatic gearbox like the Outback's to make the 167bhp 2.5-litre petrol engine scream when you ask for a burst of power.
However, Subaru has programmed in artificial steps that reduce power briefly to give the impression that a gear change has been made. That helps to bring the revs down, and makes things seem a bit more normal if you’ve come to an Outback from something with a traditional (non-CVT) automatic.
The Outback is pretty easy to drive, with light steering that makes low-speed manoeuvres a cinch. It's a bit vague, though, and doesn't feel as precise during cornering as the Volkswagen Golf Alltrack.
Grip levels could be better and the Outback howls in protest if you try to push it. There's a lot of body lean too – despite the 'boxer' engine configuration that's supposed to help reduce it.
The four-wheel-drive system does what it says on the tin, providing excellent traction in all situations. That's good news for caravan owners who wish to get out of a muddy field without assistance.
The 2000kg towing limit for a braked trailer is good, but it's not the greatest in the class, and the Outback isn’t as stable when you're towing something as the Golf Alltrack. The brakes are strong, though, and very easy to modulate for making smooth stops.
Sadly, ride quality isn’t the Outback’s strongest suit. It settles down a bit once you’ve built up a bit of speed, but it's not as supple as it should be given its jacked-up suspension and relatively small 18in alloy wheels with a generous amount of rubber.
The trade-off would be that the Outback is one of the most rugged estate cars off road, with better ground clearance than most to clamber over obstacles.Its low levels of suspension noise help you feel confident that you’re not going to break it while driving over rutted terrain.
Refinement is decent during ordinary driving, too. There’s not much road noise at a cruise and the engine is reasonably muted when you’re not demanding a lot from it. The only gripes are wisps of wind noise from around its rather upright windscreen and large door mirrors, and a rather abrupt engine start-stop system.
The interior layout, fit and finish
The Subaru Outback makes it easy to find a comfortable driving position because all trim levels get an electrically adjustable driver’s seat. Top-spec Touring models have a highly novel memory system that stores your settings then uses facial recognition to identify you and recall your preferences.
Visibility is excellent in all directions thanks to the thin pillars, large door mirrors, huge rear window and plenty of glass in the rear three-quarters to limit blind-spots.
All Outbacks come with a reversing camera and rear parking sensors but, strangely, front sensors aren’t available, even as an option. Adaptive LED headlights are standard, and provide lots of light at night, as well as being able to alter their beam pattern to avoid dazzling other motorists.
You don't need to be technologically gifted to adjust the air conditioning temperature or sound system settings in the Outback because there are real buttons and knobs for the temperature controls and the sound system.
The big 11.6in portrait-oriented display is used to adjust some elements of the air-con, but the controls are permanently visible at the bottom of the screen. It has very large icons and responds reasonably well to inputs, but the graphics aren’t as classy as the ones found in the Cross Country Volvos.
There isn’t anything demonstrably stylish about the Outback’s interior design, but it is functional and has plenty of supple surfaces in areas you touch regularly. Much of the plastics lower down are hard and scratchy, but the same is true of the Volkswagen Golf Alltrack. A Volvo V60 Cross Country looks much smarter inside, though.
The entry-level Limited trim does without sat-nav, although the TomTom based system you get on mid-range Field and above isn’t worth forking out more for. You’re better off using the standard smartphone mirroring (Apple CarPlay/Android Auto) to run apps on your phone through the touchscreen.
We’ve yet to try the 11-speaker Harman Kardon sound system that comes with top-spec Touring models, but the standard six-speaker set-up does a decent enough job.
Passenger & boot space
How it copes with people and clutter
The driver and front passenger will have lots of space to stretch out in the Subaru Outback – it beats even the Volvo V90 Cross Country for head, leg and shoulder room up front.
There are a few storage spots, from the two cupholders in the centre console to the phone tray ahead of the gear lever with a couple of USB charging ports. The glove box is a decent size, although a huge owner’s manual almost fills it.
The Outback is just as roomy in the back, with similar overall measurements to a V90. Rear-seat passengers can fit their feet under the front seats, and there’s headroom to spare for the middle-seat occupant. The rear seatbacks can be reclined for greater comfort, which isn’t an option on direct rivals.
You can fold the back seats completely flat in a 60/40 split using handles in the boot. It’s a shame they don’t split in a handier 40/20/40 arrangement as they do on some estate cars, but the Outback's set-up is par for the course.
The boot is large and a useful square shape, which will make packing a child’s buggy, for example, a breeze. You don’t have an awkward lip to lift items over, and there’s a lot of underfloor storage if you don’t opt for a full-size spare wheel. Other thoughtful touches Subaru gives you include a couple of fold-out hooks, plus eight tie-down loops.
Buying & owning
Everyday costs, plus how reliable and safe it is
The Subaru Outback in entry-level Limited form is very reasonable. It costs less than the smaller Volkswagen Golf Alltrack, and considerably less than the Cross Country versions of the Volvo V60 and Volvo V90. Even more remarkable is the fact that the Outback is likely to maintain its value far better than those rivals.
The Outback would make a lousy company car due to its high emissions putting it in the top bracket for benefit-in-kind (BIK) tax. Fuel economy isn’t anything to right home about, either. The 33.0mpg combined figure is very low compared with far faster rivals. That’s the price you have to pay for permanent four-wheel drive, unfortunately.
On the plus side, insurance and servicing costs are lower than either of the Volvo rugged estate cars and compare well with the Golf Alltrack.
Of the three trim levels available, Limited is the one we’d pick because it has all the kit you really need and more, including front and rear heated seats, and automatic lights and wipers. Mid-range Field adds leather, an electric tailgate, aluminium pedals, rear air vents and sat-nav. Range-topping Touring has a fancier sound system along with swankier nappa leather.
The Outback really shines when it comes to safety. It passed the latest and most stringent Euro NCAP crash test with five stars, and Subaru provides every available bit of automatic safety tech you can think of as standard.
Automatic emergency braking (AEB) is a given, as is lane-keep assistance and traffic sign recognition. There’s also blindspot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert to warn of objects crossing your path while backing up, along with an auto brake feature to stop you reversing into stuff.
Subaru didn’t feature in our latest 2021 What Car? Reliability Survey, but if you end up having a problem, there’s a three year or 60,000 mile warranty.
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|RRP price range||£36,990 - £42,490|
|Number of trims (see all)||3|
|Number of engines (see all)||1|
|Available fuel types (which is best for you?)||petrol|
|MPG range across all versions||33 - 33|
|Available doors options||5|
|Warranty||3 years / 60000 miles|
|Company car tax at 20% (min/max)||£2,617 / £3,024|
|Company car tax at 40% (min/max)||£5,235 / £6,049|