David Motton

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Practical Caravan reviews the Subaru Outback – it might lack flash and high-end finish, but it is a supremely practical and reliable tow car

Overview

The Subaru Outback has become a cult car in caravanning circles. With its raised ride height and four-wheel drive, it is well suited to all-weather touring. The latest generation went on sale in 2009, and has been a welcome addition to our long-term test fleet. 

With four-wheel drive, this estate car should make a practical tug, whatever the weather. We’re looking for practicality, too, with plenty of space inside for people and their luggage. And running costs should be affordable.

Towing

Four-wheel drive gives better traction on slippery Tarmac or when pulling away from a muddy pitch, so if you're wondering what tow car potential the Outback has, the answer is plenty. Moreover, the additional mechanical parts make for vehicles that are far heavier than two-wheel-drive estate cars.

The kerbweight of the Subaru Outback is 1648kg, which includes our addition of 75kg for the driver and luggage, as specified by the EU definition of what the figure should include. An 85% match, the maximum recommended for new tow car drivers by the leading caravanning clubs, is 1401kg. This largely limits the range of caravans from volume manufacturers it can tow under this guideline to entry-level vans and mid-market two-berths, though not exclusively.

The test team hitched the Subaru to a 2004 Abbey Expression 520 with an MTPLM of 1373kg. On the test track, it performed well, for example by accelerating from 30 to 60mph in 11.9 seconds, and taking 8.6 seconds to get from 50-60mph in fifth gear, as you might after being caught behind slower traffic. The Outback confidently held 60mph in top gear on motorway inclines, while remaining stable and composed at speed.

Back at the track, the Subaru was put through the emergency lane-change test. On high-speed runs, the caravan could be felt pushing from behind and there was some roll on corners. Still, the Subaru stayed in control and never gave cause for alarm. In the emergency braking test, the Subaru needed 11.4m to stop the outfit from 30mph.

It had no trouble with the hill-start test, in which the electronic parking brake would not allow the outfit to creep downhill, then released smoothly when we were ready to drive away. We didn’t need to abuse the clutch to climb the 1-in-10 slope in first gear or reverse.

Everyday driving

Look at the rally car-style bonnet scoop of the Subaru Outback and you might expect it to be a sporty car to drive. 

It corners with composure, but there’s too much body roll and not enough feel from the steering to describe it as sporty. On bumpy B-roads, the suspension allows too much body movement.

On the other hand, the Outback provides a cosseting ride, smoothing over all but the worst bumps in the road. It’s a relaxing car on short and long journeys, with a light, smooth clutch action and a comfortable driving position.

The Subaru also boasts a quiet engine, whose offbeat thrum is quite appealing for a diesel and doesn’t become intrusive unless you accelerate hard, making it a great companion on your caravan holidays. 

Space

Not all big cars take full advantage of their size, but the Subaru Outback is one that most certainly does. 

This version is a big improvement on what the previous-generation Outback managed. While the older model was cramped in the back, there’s now plenty of leg and headroom for passengers in the rear seats. 

It’s not just the amount of space, but a high seating position and large rear windows, which provide a splendid view and an airy feel. And getting in and out of the Outback is easy. 

The driver and front passenger get a good deal, too, including generous headroom, despite the presence of a sunroof. One oversight, though, is the lack of air vents for rear-seat passengers.

Official figures show the Subaru’s load capacity varying between a modest 526 litres with the rear seats in use and an enormous 1677 litres when they’re folded. The Outback simplifies extending the boot by providing levers on either side to drop the seat backs. 

The Subaru’s rear windscreen slopes only slightly to increase the load capacity even more – another sign of the clever design that went into making the Outback a supremely practical tow car. 

Running costs

The list price of the Subaru Outback is a somewhat steep £27,995, and haggling won’t drop it much more than £1500, according to research by What Car? magazine. However, it will hold on to 42% of its value.

Economy figures are some way from what you might expect from lighter, two-wheel drive estate cars, but still look respectable next to those for most 4x4s. 

The Outback should manage 44.1mpg on the combined cycle, according to Subaru’s official figure; around our test route, it achieved 25mpg while towing.

It is insurance group 21, making for moderate premiums. 

The list price covers a multitude of features that other cars would only get as options: cruise control, stability control, automatic air conditioning and leather upholstery.

Technical specs

Engine size1998 cc
Kerbweight1648 kg
85% KW1401 kg
Towball limit82 kg
Maximum towing limit1700 kg
Power148.0 bhp
Torque258.0 lb ft
Official MPG44.1 mpg
CO2167 g/km
30-60mph11.9 seconds
30-0mph11.4 m

Verdict

Judged strictly as a tug, the Subaru Outback loses points from the outset for its low kerbweight, which limits the range of tourers that can safely be hitched to it. Moreover, it does not corner all that well if pushed hard or if changing lanes rapidly. 

Other than those shortcomings, the Subaru does most everything well. Its stability when towing at motorway speeds matches the standard set by leading rivals, and its acceleration is almost as strong, too.

We found the Outback to be pleasant to live with when we weren’t in the mood to press on, thanks to the more refined engine and cosseting ride. 

Crucially, it’s also a practical car for rear-seat passengers and their luggage. Form hasn’t been put before function, making the Outback a roomy, easy-going tug and a lovely car for your caravan holidays.

Conclusion

Pros

  • It's as stable on the motorway as leading rivals
  • The engine is quiet and the ride is comfortable
  • Rear passengers get ample room and the boot is enormous with the seats down
  • The Outback retains 42% of its value after three years

Cons

  • It lacks air vents for rear passengers
  • Its low kerbweight reduces the range of tourers it can tow
  • There is quite a bit of roll when it corners under pressure
  • It is slow to accelerate and its braking distance is just acceptable
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