The Subaru Outback has always had a loyal following, its classy blend of understated design and all-weather practicality earning it the respect of many.
While it gained a diesel engine in recent years in the form of Subaru’s excellent 2.0-litre Boxer unit, it did so without the option of an automatic transmission that’s rapidly becoming a prerequisite in this sector.
Thankfully, that’s changed for 2014, and at the same time Subaru’s engineers have taken the opportunity to fiddle with the oily bits and tweak the styling.
Externally, the new Outback wears body-coloured cladding, more aggressive black-backed headlights, and new gunmetal grey 17-inch alloy wheels, while inside the instruments have been updated with a new colour display between the two main dials, and there’s a modest use of carbon-fibre trim here and there.
The engineering changes start with revisions to the suspension aimed at improving stability and comfort, and that’s a feeling that comes across readily, the Outback’s long-travel suspension soaking up pot-holes and deep ridges in a way most cars can only dream of.
Perhaps more surprising, however, is the Outback’s ability to corner flatly; conventional wisdom dictates that 200mm of ground clearance leads to the sensation of driving on stilts, but the big Subaru displays a keenness to its turn-in that belies its size.
There is some body roll, of course, but in truth it’s something that really only makes itself evident during quick and successive changes of direction, such as entering and exiting tight roundabouts at speed.
Even then, there’s a sense that Subaru’s Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system is working away beneath the floor to keep things very much rubber side down. And that’s a feeling that’s prevalent no matter the weather or road conditions.
The meat of the changes, however, are to be found under the bonnet: for the first time, Subaru’s 2.0-litre ‘Boxer’ diesel engine is available with an automatic transmission.
Normally, the letters ‘CVT’ fill me with dread, but Subaru’s implementation of the continuously variable transmission is particularly well executed. Dubbed ‘Lineartronic’ in Subaru-speak, it’s a transmission that spends much of its time behaving like a conventional automatic ‘box – and is all the better for it.
In normal driving the engine spins quietly to itself at around the 2,000rpm mark, leaving the gearbox to adjust its ratios and thereby accelerate as necessary, and this makes for pleasingly calm and quiet progress.
Ask for a little more from the drivetrain and the gearbox will act more like a conventional auto. Instead of pegging the engine at the red-line as with a normal CVT and leaving the distinctive audio trail of a car with permanent clutch slip in your wake, Subaru’s Lineartronic will instead simulate a series of gears, changing smoothly and seamlessly through each one.
This also alleviates the normal affliction of CVT-equipped cars: their inability to accelerate from 50 to 70mph to overtake on a dual carriageway without punishing both your ear-drums and the queue of traffic that builds up behind you as the CVT system glacially adjusts itself in order to pick up speed.
Indeed, in the Outback, mashing the accelerator into the carpet isn’t required, such is the Lineartronic’s understanding of the diesel engine’s torque reserves that the two work together to achieve what’s required.
A pair of paddles mounted behind the steering wheel offer more in the way of manual control, if that’s your preference, and these allow you to shift through seven simulated gears.
However, once you’ve made a manual override, there’s no direct way to return to automatic mode. Instead, the gearbox tries to select an opportune moment to take back control, and this can conflict with a forward-planned overtake, for instance.
Still, this small niggle can be solved by moving the gear lever across the gate to the M position, and here you can paddle your way through each of the seven pseudo-ratios as much as you like.
For the most part, though, Subaru’s Lineartronic does such a thoroughly respectable job of corralling the engine’s 150 horses that it’s best left to its own devices.
Your reward for doing so is calm yet responsive progress, with only the merest hint of diesel soundtrack entering the cabin.
The Outback makes the strongest case for itself on a long journey, and it’s here that you’ll appreciate reach and rake adjustment for the steering wheel and comfortable seats with a good range of travel. Rear-seat passengers are well looked after, with plenty of knee-room and reclining seat backs.
The stereo system’s excellent sound quality will help you while away the hours, too, although it is a little truculent when it comes to pairing a ‘phone over Bluetooth, with a somewhat labyrinthine menu system and a small screen.
Of course, being a Subaru, practicality is a strong point, with 562 litres of boot space rising to 1,677 litres with the seats folded, an easy process thanks to a pair of levers in the boot walls that drop the rear seat backs to create an almost flat load floor.
Prices for the new Outback start at £29,995 for the manual model, the Lineartronic coming in at £31,495. Equipment levels are generous, with climate control, cruise control, heated seats, HID headlights, electric sunroof, and reversing camera all standard.
It’s efficient, too, recording 44.8mpg on the combined cycle and we had little trouble maintaining a 41mpg average across a mix of driving conditions. CO2 emissions of 166 g/km place it in VED Band H with a £200 road tax bill.
The Subaru Outback offers a compelling mix of practicality, all-weather surefootedness, real-world efficiency and – in the guise of the new Lineartronic model – an easily accessible and incredibly driver-friendly package.
Long before the term ‘crossover’ was ever invented, this is the car forward-thinking people bought. Now it’s worthy of a place on everyone’s shortlist.
|Entry-level Price||£29,995||Price as tested||£31,495|
|Engine||4-cylinder turbodiesel, 1998cc||Transmission||CVT auto|
|Power||150PS @ 3,600rpm||Torque||350Nm @ 1,600-2,400rpm|
|0-62||9.7 secs||Top speed||121 mph|
|Economy||44.8 mpg||CO2||166 g/km|
|Dimensions||4790 x 1820 x 1605 (LWH)||Kerb Weight||1624 kg|