Outback in Central Otago

Price: $49,990, $54,990 (X), $57,490 (Touring)
Engine: 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol, maximum power 138kW, maximum torque 245Nm
Transmission: Eight-speed CVT, all- wheel drive
Brakes and stability systems: Front and rear disc brakes, ABS, EBD, RAB, AVH, ATV, BA
Safety: Not yet tested
Wheels and tyres: Alloy wheels, 225/60 R18 tyres
Fuel and economy: 7.3L/100km, capacity 63 litres
Emissions: 168g CO2/km on combined cycle
Dimensions: Length 4870mm, width 1875mm, height 1675mm (Outback and Touring), 1670mm (Outback X)


Richard Bosselman heads into Goat country in the new Subaru Outback.

When the previous Outback was released, Subaru wanted to make a statement about how tough it was, so they ran the media event on a classic Central Otago gut-buster.

Six years later, we’re back in the Nevis Valley, this time heading in from Bannockburn and making our way through the valley to Garston, three hours away.

The funny thing is it doesn’t really matter from which direction you tackle the Nevis, it’s a hard slog regardless and in some places hasn’t changed a whole lot from when it came to national attention in the 1860s with the gold rush.

We started with a big ascent, climbing to 1300m on the country’s highest accessible public road, then it was down into the valley and past numerous reminders of the area’s history — dredge ponds and tailings, gold mines and a lonely, hillside cemetery. Then there’s the 28 river crossings ... and another equally tough ascent to finish. Oh, and don’t forget the choking dust when driving in a pack as it’s best to do in areas this remote with no mobile phone coverage.

Just another typical day out in the life of the most popular Subaru model?

Maybe not, but it’s good to know that the Outback can still be counted on to tackle ‘‘above and beyond’’ adventures.

According to Subaru, this sixth-generation model is better than any before it: hence it’s being promoted as the GOOAT— a play on ‘‘Greatest Of All Time’’, but with ‘‘Outback’’ squeezed in.

The company also says it is the biggest, safest, most luxurious and technologically advanced Outback since the model was launched 25 years ago.

There are three levels of specification: the entry model that was previously called the Sport is now simply the Outback, while at the top of the line is the Touring (previously the Premium). In between is the X, a derivative that became part of the outgoing range towards the end of last year.

The new versions cost $49,990, $54,990 and $57,490 respectively. Previous models cost $47,490-$59,990.

The core recipe remains unsullied — a high-riding wagon with a constantly variable transmission, full-time all-wheel-drive and the styling approach best described as ‘‘evolutionary’’.

You can pick the new one by its scalloped black plastic rocker panels and wheel-arch flares, along with a new grille, but even though it is 50mm longer and 35mm wider, the silhouette and stance between old and new is, at a glance, very much the same.  However, take a closer look and everything changes.

The 2021 model is different inside and, beyond taking on a big portrait-format touch screen, the seats and indicator stalk have changed (the first for the better, the other for no good reason). The Outback also switches to a new underpinning, using the Subaru Global Platform (SGP) that debuted with the latest Impreza, which makes it a slightly larger car, but allows it to adopt a lot more tech.

On the engine side, the focus falls wholly on one engine, a 2.5-litre normally aspirated, direct injection flat four.

It will seem immediately familiar — the outgoing model had the same capacity powerplant with very similar outputs — yet this one, while developing 135kW of power and 245Nm of torque (6kW and 10Nm more), runs more smoothly, is more flexible and also delivers better optimal economy, with 7.3 litres per 100km claimed. It also has an uprated towing capacity of 2000kg — an increase of 25%.

The previous model launched with three engines — the four-cylinder petrol, a four-cylinder diesel (removed after three years) and a six-cylinder 3.6 that has been retired. The latter was popular with about 25% of the old car’s buyers, so to reconcile its loss New Zealand and in Australia have successfully gained access to a performance engine used in the car in North America — a feisty 2.0-litre turbo petrol outputting, in US market format, 193kW and 360Nm. The deal requires Japan having to engineer a right-hand drive conversion; an ongoing process. Local managing director Wallis Dumper is hoping we’ll get it at the end of 2022.

Whether or not Outback gets a hybrid, as Forester and XV have, remains to be seen. Electrification is in the plan, but the Forester/XV hybrid drivetrain isn’t right for the Outback, so Subaru’s next step is a full electric car (co-developed with Toyota).

In terms of performance, the Outback is not bothered by open-road cruising or slow-pace trail blazing: there’s an easy muscularity that was certainly beneficial offroad and it revealed good efficiency on the seal from Garston to Queenstown.

A lot of that is down to the heavily-revised transmission. A CVT, but Subaru seems to be better than most at mimicking a conventional automatic and this one mostly avoids the nastiness of older CVTs.

With eight steps, this CVT features more than 80% new or improved parts and offers increased ratio coverage at both ends. All three models have this transmission, and all come with paddle shifters. It cannot be rushed, but ‘‘laidback’’ is what this car does really well.

Traversing rocks and ruts is no trouble and the Outback has a fabulously compliant ride. Actually, let’s just call the bump absorption exceptional. The 225/60/R18 Bridgestone Alenza tyres help, but in reality the entire suspension tune is a work of genius.

The trade-off for its compliance is, as before, a slightly sloppy dynamic feel but, honestly, who cares? It’s an adventure wagon, not a race car, and the fact that it’ll simply soak up the punishment when driving at pace across poor surfaces will remain a big buy-in.

The line implements an updated X-Mode selectable terrain response system, intrinsically the same as that in the outgoing Outback X. It combines driver-selectable drive modes for terrain and weather management with differential locks and hill descent control to simplify and improve capability on non-optimal driving surfaces.
The fresh platform is said to absorb 40% more crash energy in a frontal impact than previously.

Subaru’s updated genIV EyeSight Driver Assist safety suite only rolls out in its entirety in the Touring model, but all three have the basics. A fresh feature is a passenger seat cushion air bag which, in frontal impacts, raises the seat cushion to preventing submarining. There are now eight airbags in total.

From the inside looking out, it’s a better car. The redesigned seats are excellent, as is the driving position.

Primarily, it’s all eyes on the big touchscreen. The portrait layout is sensible — it mimics the way we look at our smartphones already and, as such, makes it more intuitive.

Outbacks have always felt big inside and this one is no different. There’s a touch more head and legroom front and rear, but what appeals just as much is that the boot is deeper and wider. The second-row seats fold via a switch next to the headrest and open reveal a luggage space that goes from 522 litres to 1782 litres. The electric tailgate is still a bit slow, but the hands-free activation is neat — rather than waggle your foot under the bumper, you just put an elbow near the rear badge. It also keeps those handy fold-out roof rails.

Well, I’ll not be the first and surely won’t be the last to suggest that the Outback’s appeal hasn’t changed. Yes, the market is tougher and harder than ever, but there’s nothing else like an Outback.

Photos: Supplied