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Subaru Outback 2021 review: Sport

The new Outback seems more attractive at first glance than before.

Daily driver score

4/5

Urban score

4/5

Buying a Subaru station wagon has long been definitively a good idea, but - much like buying wine from Costco or a tattoo from a man dressed as a clown - it has come with a few asterisks.  

Subaru has always had a few issues with design, almost as if they had a fight at a party once and just don’t get on any more. What I mean by this is that its cars have often looked a bit weird and even challenging. 

The Forester and Outback have had some iterations that go beyond eye-catching.

While they are tough and great to drive, with all-wheel drive for extra grip and properly involving steering, there’s also been a sense that their interiors weren’t exactly top class. The infotainment has also been a bit… Costco.

But within minutes of spying and then climbing into the new Subaru Outback, there’s a real feeling that things have changed. Stepped up. Improved, in fact, almost out of sight.

Most noticeably with that huge, Tesla-like new central touchscreen. 

Would a week of living with the Subaru Outback AWD Sport in urban inner Sydney prove that feeling, or make a fool of me? Only a few hundred speed bumps, a dozen narrow-lane close encounters and a few tight squeezes at the local supermarket car park could tell us for sure.

Does it represent good value for the price? What features does it come with?

The fact that the Subaru Outback range starts at under $40,000 is genuinely staggering, as this really is a lot of car for the money.

Prices have, however, risen compared to the old model, which Subaru says reflects additional equipment and safety tech.

The range starts with the entry-level Outback AWD at $39,990 but we’ve got the mid-range AWD Sport at $44,490 (the top-spec AWD Touring is $47,490).

Our Outback comes with model-specific dark 18-inch alloy wheels, a full size alloy spare, LED headlights, LED foglights, push-button start, keyless entry, electric park brake, rain-sensing wipers, heated and power-folding side mirrors, fabric seat trim, leather steering wheel, paddle-shifters, electric adjustment for the front seats, rear seats with manual recline, and a 60:40 split-fold rear seat with boot release levers.

  • There are LED headlights. There are LED headlights.
  • The Sport wears 18-inch alloy wheels. The Sport wears 18-inch alloy wheels.
  • Inside is a leather steering wheel. Inside is a leather steering wheel.
  • Underneath the boot floor is a full-size spare tyre. Underneath the boot floor is a full-size spare tyre.

There’s also a genuinely impressive 11.6-inch touchscreen in portrait layout - reminiscent of Tesla’s although not quite as outstanding - which incorporates Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring.

Inside is a 11.6-inch portrait touchscreen. Inside is a 11.6-inch portrait touchscreen.

There are six speakers standard, as well as four USB ports (2x front, 2x rear).

Other aesthetic touches for our Sport spec include black exterior trim, fixed roof rails, a power tailgate, water repellent interior trim with lurid green stitching, heated front and outboard rear seats, sports pedals, light-sensing headlights (auto on/off) and sat nav as part of that big media screen.

There’s also a front view and side view monitor for parking/low speed driving.

What you miss out on by not going to the top-spec Touring are the electric sunroof, Nappa leather interior trim, a heated steering wheel, auto dipping passenger side door mirror, memory settings for driver’s seat, satin finish door mirrors, silver highlight roof rails (with stowable crossbars), and gloss-finish wheel, and a better stereo. 

Unless you really want leather, I think the Sport is the sweet spot here, and hugely well specified at the price.

Our test car was wearing a no-cost optional layer of something called Autumn Green Metallic. Our test car was wearing a no-cost optional layer of something called Autumn Green Metallic.

The Sport gets all the impressive safety tech, too, including a driver monitoring system that warns you to keep your eyes on the road (it really works, too, not the I looked at my phone and got beeped at) and monitor for signs of drowsiness.

All models come with a reversing camera, Subaru’s EyeSight forward facing camera system that incorporates AEB, lane keeping, adaptive cruise control and more. 

Not having a wireless phone charger didn’t bother me overly, but considering how many Hyundais it’s now in as standard, it probably should be in the Outback.

Colour wise, I was wearing a no-cost optional layer of something called Autumn Green Metallic. I liked it, a lot of people did not.

Is there anything interesting about its design?

In the case of Subaru, the answer to this question is invariably “yes”. For a long time that was because the company seemed to make almost wilfully weird-looking machines - great to drive, good to own, hard to look at.

The Subaru Impreza has been through many looks, some of them awful, some not bad, but the Outback, the latest version of which we’re driving here, has often been strangely lumpen and largely unattractive. 

Part of the problem was a kind of bulbous heaviness to the rear end, and an almost criminal ignoring of any kind of design rules about proportion. This was a shame because for people who actually appreciate a low centre of gravity and prefer a large station wagon over a high-top SUV, the Outback should have been a winner. 

Now, finally, it looks like one. The new Outback seems to throw out the quirky rulebook of Subaru design, with a shape that’s just the right amount of muscular chunkiness combined with classic station wagon.

I genuinely warmed to it, despite ours being painted in a colour, Autumn Green Metallic, that seemed to make a lot of people vomitous - a kind of drab olive green that puts the “ak” in khaki.

The fluoro green Outback badges on the side also worked for me, personally, but I concede they wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste. 

Overall, it’s a good-looking non-SUV-shaped practical family car that looks like it could handle a bit of Outback off-roading, or at least some gravel and snow work.

In the city, it turned plenty of urban heads as well - although that could have been the paint - and brought a bit of rugged outdoorsiness to my inner-city Sydney street.

How practical is the space inside?

This Outback doesn’t just feel like a new car inside, it feels like a whole new Subaru has been launched.

The most obvious factor is that huge new central screen, which looks fabulous when running Apple CarPlay (sadly, even using the cable connection, I had a few issues with it operating less than seamlessy).

The touchscreen looks great when running Apple CarPlay. The touchscreen looks great when running Apple CarPlay.

There are a lot of buttons on the steering wheel, which has a lovely, chunky steering wheel, but they are all simple enough to use and logically laid out.

I must admit the indicators drove me slightly mad, as Subaru seems to have copied BMW’s design flaw of using blinkers that tend to stay on when you don’t want them to, and need to be cancelled manually. This might be something you get used to, of course.

This Outback doesn’t just feel like a new car inside, it feels like a whole new Subaru has been launched. This Outback doesn’t just feel like a new car inside, it feels like a whole new Subaru has been launched.

There are four cupholders, two front and two back, and bottle holders in the doors as well, and generally there's plenty of storage in the cabin.

I also managed to drive a few adults across vast swathes of Sydney while I had the Outback and they were comfortable in the back with plenty of head and legroom. My children - 14 and nine - were even more so.

There's plenty of head and legroom in the back. There's plenty of head and legroom in the back.

The adjustable back rest should allow an even higher level of comfort than normal, while the boot space - at 522 litres (VDA), was more than ample for my weekly shopping and the run to swimming lessons.

With the seats dropped you can fit a whopping 1267 litres back there.

  • Our three piece suitcase set easily fit in the back of the Outback. Our three piece suitcase set easily fit in the back of the Outback.
  • With the rear seats in place, boot space is rated at 522 litres. With the rear seats in place, boot space is rated at 522 litres.
  • Folding the seats flat increases cargo capacity to 1267 litres. Folding the seats flat increases cargo capacity to 1267 litres.

Sure, it’s not an SUV in terms of shape, but there’s more room here than you’d find in some of its mid-size SUV competitors, and more than enough for most people.

What are the key stats for the engine and transmission?

The engine is perhaps the least obvious but, on paper, most impressively new part of the Outback, because it is, according to Subaru, “90 per cent new”, or just 10 per cent same old, same old.

All Outbacks share the same 2.5-litre four-cylinder boxer engine, making 138kW and 245Nm. They’re not exciting figures, but they’re good enough, and more than the engine they replace - with 7 per cent more power and 4.2 per cent more torque.

Personally, I would like to see a turbo version - which is available in other markets - for a bit more Subaru-style zing. And the wider market would probably appreciate a hybrid offering of some kind, in this day and age, but it is not to be.

The 2.5-litre four-cylinder boxer engine produces 138kW/245Nm. The 2.5-litre four-cylinder boxer engine produces 138kW/245Nm.

For what it is, the naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine is up to the task, particularly around town. I’m curious to know how it would handle climbing a steep mountain, but there weren’t any in my neighbourhood to find out on.

Sadly, there is no manual transmission and all Outbacks make do with a “refined” Lineartronic continuously variable transmission (CVT) automatic.

I do not like CVT transmissions. This Outback did not change my mind.

How much fuel does it consume?

What safety equipment is fitted? What safety rating?

Look, I was a bit put off, personally, by the Skynet-style habit the Outback has of scanning your face every time you start the car, and pointing out that it’s doing so with a “Driver Scan in Progress” warning on the dash, but then I realised it was all about safety.

The Outback’s driver-monitor camera is, in fact, constantly watching you to make sure that your eyes are on the road and that you’re not getting drowsy. It does not hold back with the beeps, bells, whistles and flashing lights if it thinks you’re not paying attention, either.

As such, the Subaru is the sort of car where you’re constantly aware of the safety systems - the Outback seems verily bristling with them.

So far, however, there is no ANCAP crash-test safety rating for the 2021 Outback.

It does have a lot of features as standard, though, like Subaru’s EyeSight stereo camera system, which reads the road ahead. It also incorporates forward/front autonomous emergency braking (AEB) for vehicles that works between 10km/h and 160km/h. 

There's also pedestrian AEB (1km/h to 30km/h) and cyclist detection and AEB (60km/h or less), and it has lane-keeping technology with emergency lane keep assist that can swerve the car to avoid impacts with cars, people or cyclists (approximately 80km/h or less). That’s some pretty advanced stuff.

The reversing camera is good, and looks clear on the big central screen, but you don’t get a 360-degree around view camera, which can be handy in town.

And there are other elements to the safety matrix, including Lead Vehicle Start Alert (the cameras tell you when the car in front has driven off) and lane centring (to keep you in the middle of your lane), both of which operate between zero and 145km/h, and there is adaptive high beam lights on all grades, too.

The airbag count for the Outback is eight, with dual front, front side, driver’s knee, passenger centre-front, and full-length curtain coverage.

What does it cost to own? What warranty is offered?

While it’s up against other brands doing seven and 10-year warranties, Subaru is sticking with a five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty.

The brand also has shorter maintenance intervals than some, with services scheduled every 12 months or 12,500km (most are 15,000km intervals).

The costs of maintenance aren’t low, however. After an initial free checkup at one-month, the services cost: $345 (12 months/12,500km); $595 (24 months/25,000km); $351 (36 months/37,500km); $801 (48 months/50,000km); and $358 (60 months/62,500km). That averages out at about $490 per service, which is high. 

What's it like to drive around town?

I’ve long been a fan of the way Subaru’s drive as they tend to provide a level of involvement, flat-cornering ability and steering feel that’s a step above most of their competitors. 

The stability, safety and grip provided by the company’s always-on all-wheel drive also helps, particularly on a slippery city day when the oil from millions of parked cars turns black asphalt into dark rainbows of peril.

The new Outback feels typically Subaru, then, only better. I had just spent some time in a Forester before driving this Outback, and the feeling of a step up in refinement in terms of ride, handling and the amount of noise intrusion was instantly noticeable. 

The big step up in cabin feel and infotainment modernity obviously helps the perception of quality as well, although the gear lever still feels a touch plasticky.

With its lower centre of gravity, you can push the Outback around bends with a confidence that’s harder to find in higher-riding family SUVs. Not that one does too much speedy cornering during an Urban Guide review, of course, but even at medium speeds around familiar bends that I drive dozens of times a year, the Outback just felt properly planted, and the steering sweet and meaty.

Personally, I found all of the Subaru’s many bings, bongs and flashing warning lights a bit of a sensory safety overload, and the way it scanned my face like some kind of evil Matrix robot every time I started it up freaked me out a little as well, but I impinge it would make many people feel happy and protected.

The only problems, then, were the engine and gearbox, which, while by no means awful or disastrous, simply aren’t as refined and involving as the rest of the Outback. 

I have noticed over the years since Start-Stop systems became seemingly compulsory to save fuel (and the Outback actually has a great little timer that comes up every time your engine does switch off, showing you just often you have been sitting utterly still in traffic and how much fuel you’ve saved doing so) that it can be very difficult to get an engine to switch on and off smoothly and without rattling and clattering. 

Some companies have now mastered it, Subaru’s Outback is not quite there, yet.

Other than that, the engine isn’t overly unpleasant and it certainly has enough torque for cross-city overtaking and freeway cruising, with a sprinkling of zest for when you want to punch off a green light as well. A turbo version would be nicer.

What makes it less exciting is the droning and what I’d call indecisiveness of the CVT gearbox. I’m no fan of this kind of transmission, and I’ll grant you that they’ve become much less awful over the years, but the fact that it sometimes feels as thought transmission can’t quite make up its mind on any single gear and has chosen instead to just moan about its lot like Marvin the Paranoid Android did not fill me with joy.

I think this Outback would be vastly more enjoyable with a manual gearbox, and probably even more so with a manual.

Parking

While it might loom large next to a Subaru Impreza or the seemingly ubiquitous XV, the Outback is not so vast or overbearing that it’s difficult to park. 

There’s good visibility all round - which made my wife, who fell instantly in love with this car as a daily driver and now wants one quite annoyingly badly - and the parking sensors are less jumpy and annoying than some of the other safety systems.

I was confident enough to take this Subaru up to our local high street, which is in a state of constant warfare over too-few car spaces, and even to our local Woolworths, a place I do not normally enter when driving larger SUVs, thanks to the fact that its carpark was designed when no vehicle was larger than a Datsun 1600.

Personally, if someone put a gun to my head and forced me to buy an SUV, I wouldn't, I'd buy a Subaru Outback. A station wagon is just so much more involving to drive, better to corner and, particularly important for this test, easier to use around town. The new Outback is a step ahead from previous efforts and definitely worth considering if you've got a medium size family, or you do a lot driving up to the snow.

 

$44,490

Based on new car retail price

VIEW PRICING & SPECS

Daily driver score

4/5

Urban score

4/5
Disclaimer: The pricing information shown in the editorial content (Review Prices) is to be used as a guide only and is based on information provided to Carsguide Autotrader Media Solutions Pty Ltd (Carsguide) both by third party sources and the car manufacturer at the time of publication. The Review Prices were correct at the time of publication.  Carsguide does not warrant or represent that the information is accurate, reliable, complete, current or suitable for any particular purpose. You should not use or rely upon this information without conducting an independent assessment and valuation of the vehicle.