Take a look at any manufacturers website and you’ll probably find something in their catalogue that has been awarded “Car of the Year” status in some category or other, by some motoring organisation or other. The list is long, diverse, and in some cases downright baffling.
Which is why I won’t be declaring the Subaru Outback the inaugural winner of our “Car of the Year” Award. Mainly because no such award exists. What I will say is that of all of the cars I took for a spin in 2016 the Outback was the one that blew me away with how good it was. To put that into some sort of context you should also take into account a brace of bona fide super cars and a whole herd of mad German horses that made the short list. The fact that a big, luxurious, chunky, eminently comfy, estate-shaped, practical, SUV, 4×4, family, off-road, vehicle sits atop the pile is frankly astonishing.
Except it isn’t because the Outback is every one of those things.
I first encountered it on a wet and windy winter morning near Peterborough. The weather was truly dreadful and we were expected to venture out in it to drive across an increasingly muddy landscape. There wasn’t a square inch of Tarmac within miles, just mud, water, more mud, soaking wet grass, and some more mud. Inside there was warmth, coffee and tasty treats so, being responsible adults, we went outside to play in the mud.
It’s one thing to sit and listen while a Subaru employee tells you how fabulously clever and efficient the Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system is. The way they describe how X-Mode monitors the whole car and optimises control of the brakes, engine and AWD system to maintain traction sounds technically brilliant. The Lineartronic CVT transmission is hailed as a work of engineering genius: It’s way beyond my capabilities but apparently it utilises a stepless gear ratio which is better for economy and performance. All of these things sound very impressive. It’s quite another thing entirely when you realise that they’re bolted to something that sits 20mm lower than an actual off-road vehicle and is wearing bog standard road tyres that promise about as much grip in the surrounding quagmire as a pair of stilettos on an ice rink.
Given the choice between me and a hugely successful global engineering company, guess which one of us was wrong?
Every single one of those engineering bits worked flawlessly to drive the Outback onwards in whichever direction it was pointed. We forded ponds, traversed steep slopes, descended very steep and very muddy inclines then turned around and drove back up them again just because we could. At one point we even drove along a stream – driving across was too easy – whose banks were higher than the roof and not much wider than the car, before climbing out at a narrow defile where the Wildebeest usually cross on their annual migration. Luckily we avoided the Crocodiles.
It’s not a surprise that a car is capable of travelling across difficult terrain, people have been designing off-road vehicles to do exactly that for decades. But the Outback isn’t a proper 4×4 it’s a crossover, which is essentially an estate car with delusions of grandeur. It’s too low, too soft, too lacking in big chunky tyres to tackle anything more ambitious than a mildly moist car boot sale. Yet it did everything asked of it with consummate ease. To match the off-road performance of the Outback and maintain similar levels of comfort and refinement you’d have to spend around £40k on a 4×4. Which is exactly what you should do if you want to spend an extra £8k whilst being forced to drive a big, unwieldy 4×4 to the shops.
The whole point of a crossover is to create something capable of dealing with the occasional bit of rough but which handles like a normal car the other 99% of the time. Obviously that’s not good enough for Subaru. I know this because I’ve now tested the Outback on the road. What they’ve actually built is a car that is 100% off-roader and 100% premium estate car. I suspect they may have used witchcraft.
The requirements for driving on and off the road are fundamentally different. Ground clearance, suspension travel, power delivery, all have to be fettled to suit. The Outback ignores all of it. The same All-Wheel drive system that stops you sliding around in the mud keeps the tyres gripped and turning on the road too. The clever gearbox that gently feeds in the power works equally well on dry Tarmac. The lower ground clearance makes it handle like a regular car and the suspension that cushioned the blows in the fields keeps the worst of the nations’ potholes from shattering your spine.
You also get to sit in lovely leather seats, set the climate control just right, listen to the Bluetooth infotainment system while the Sat Nav keeps you on course. You get the 7″ touchscreen, electric everything and automatic transmission – complete with silly flappy paddles you’ll probably never use. You even get around 40mpg from a 2.5-litre petrol engine, more from the diesel version. The Outback has got loads of room in the back, a massive boot, an impressive equipment list, solid build quality, and will perform admirably wherever you choose to take it.
We might not have an award to hand out but if we did the Subaru Outback would win, and for one very good reason. It’s absolutely bloody brilliant.