The Subaru Outback is one of those cars that majors on practicality and ease of use, and consequently always attracts a particular kind of buyer.
Even in these airbrushed fashionable times, for every gaggle of consumers motivated by style there remains the one who wears the clothes that are comfortable, visits the hairdresser’s only when absolutely necessary, and values function and substance over style and form in most of the things in their life.
These buyers are a quite rare but hardy breed, and they're also the buyers that Japanese four-wheel drive specialist Subaru would simply not have survived these testing last five years without.
And they're the buyers that, at a certain time and station of life – when contemporaries are considering premium-branded German executive saloons and SUVs – will probably end up ordering an Outback. Formerly known as the Legacy Outback, this jacked-up mid-sized estate first came along in 1996.
Until quite lately its petrol-only engines made it a tricky machine to justify, interesting and capable as it undoubtedly always was. Now, however, the Outback has finally got the powertrain – and the pricetag – to make it a viable as well as an interesting niche alternative.
The Outback has had a 2014-model-year facelift typical of Subaru; minimal changes to the exterior and interior but a critical update under the skin. Specifically, it's the combination of the firm's boxer turbodiesel engine with an automatic transmission that's the big news: it has never appeared in a Subaru before, and also satisfies the preference of most family 4x4 buyers.
Technically the gearbox is a Continuously Variable Transmission newly developed by Subaru and, emitting 166g/km coupled to the 2.0-litre flat four turbodiesel engine, it’s not as if it brings earth-shattering economy or emissions to the segment. If you prefer you can have your Outback with the 155g/km manual ‘box instead, but neither derivative is likely to be a smash hit with fleet buyers. The boxer diesel is the only engine offered.
Externally the 2014 Outback gets a new radiator grille, new 17in alloy wheels, different headlamps, bigger front fog lamps and different roof bars. The tweaks inside the cabin are more obvious and effective.
There are new, clearer instruments; there’s a drive computer that no longer looks so dated; there are new part-leather seats that are particularly comfortable; and there’s some carbon-effect trim which, like a few other parts of the interior, still seems a bit cheap. But you can’t quibble with the sheer space of the cabin, which offers passenger accommodation to rival a Skoda Superb.
The Outback has new firmer chassis settings and, out on the road, it introduces them by fidgeting and pitching slightly over choppy surfaces. The car’s low-speed ride is a little bit noisy, too – although perfectly acceptable. But the car handles quite well. Body roll’s present but contained, and the steering’s reasonably direct, very manageable and communicative. The limits of the car’s dynamic talent are without question the grip levels of its standard ‘M&S’ tyres, rather than the stoutness of its suspension.
The quiet miracle is the powertrain, which may be the first diesel/CVT double act that we can wholeheartedly recommend. Under typical two-thirds throttle loading – rather than revving hard and making even harder work of acceleration as we expect a modern CVT to do – the gearbox simply settles just above 2000rpm and quite briskly ushers the Outback down the road.
It feels much more like a seamless-shifting torque converter than a normal CVT in that respect. It’ll resort to a high-revving default at full power, but only at full power - and the engine’s not particularly noisy. There’s also a seven-speed manual mode that’s hard to fault: gearchanges come quickly with almost entirely without slurring. Subaru’s Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system is standard on all Outback models as well, so there's no issue with putting that power down to the ground.
Here, then, is a much-improved, super-practical family car that merits plenty of credit and consideration. Barring the Subaru BRZ sports car, and given the altered priorities its buyers will have compared to those of the less appealing Legacy, the Outback may even be the most appealing car that Subaru makes at the moment.
And while that appeal may be niche, it should be more persuasive than ever for private buyers more interested in what their car can do for them than what it says about them.