SUBARU hopes that its spacious new Legacy and Outback models have what it takes to spread the appeal of its rugged four-wheel-drive family cars.
A rise to popularity of the large estate and its more rugged cross-over counterpart in 2010 would mark the end of a torrid 18 months.
Just at the time when Subaru was aiming to broaden the appeal of its range, drawing in more buyers with new versions of the Forester, Legacy and Outback, the crunch hit hard and sales slumped.
Even the scrappage scheme failed to offer a considerable boost, with people using their 2,000 to climb behind the wheel of sub-1.4-litre hatchbacks.
Subaru’s traditional strength, creating four-wheel-drive family cars, looked set to drive the Japanese manufacturer down a highway to nowhere.
But after a week with the new Outback 2.5i SE NavPlus (28,295), Im convinced the Impreza’s bigger brothers could be the key to a Subaru resurgence.
Prices for the hardcore cross-over start at 26,065 for the two-litre boxer diesel- powered SE-spec car and top out with the 32,835 3.6R, so this car marks the mid-way stage.
Full-time symmetrical all-wheel-drive, self-levelling suspension, cruise control and heated seats are all standard and the SE NavPlus adds sat-nav, with the largest screen I have ever seen, keyless push button start and a reversing camera to top out a premium spec list.
The only unusual absence was that of parking sensors. I simply can’t put my faith in the fish-eye view of obstacles offered by those boot-mounted reversing cameras alone.
A square-edged stance, rising shoulderline and rakish headlights mark a departure from the previous generation car and the start of a new styling direction.
It’s not a particularly eye-catching, neither is it particularly rugged-looking, despite roof rails and a useful 200mm ground clearance, but it is big and imposing.
Dimensions swelled by 45mm in length, 50mm in width, 6mm in height and a sizable 75mm increase in wheelbase have inflated load space (there’s 526 litres of boot) and brought a welcome boost in rear accommodation.
Impressive leg room, especially, represents a substantial improvement over the previous generation Outback.
That huge sat-nav screen dominates a dashboard which demonstrates a further step forward. Tactile, soft-touch plastics, leather-clad seats, steering wheel and armrest, and well-judged touches of aluminium-effect trim all combine to good effect and everything feels well constructed.
Its perhaps not surprising, given its shared genes with the Legacy estate, that the Outback does a convincing impression of an executive estate.
Subaru’s Lineartronic constantly variable automatic transmission offers smooth progress. Steering wheel-mounted aluminium paddles shifters allow manual gear changes as fast as 90 milliseconds but the linear and refined nature of the CVT 'box renders them redundant much of the time.
Only a slight reluctance to change between drive and reverse swiftly during slow speed manoeuvres lets the otherwise seamless set-up down.
Progress in the 2.5i isn’t lightning-fast but the Outback never feels slow. The 2.5i will hit 62mph in 10.4 seconds and has a 120mph top speed.
The suspension is firm enough to ensure that it doesn’t wallow as a regular 4x4 might through a series of turns and it offers a surprisingly engaging drive.
Feel through the steering is, somewhat surprisingly, more lucid and communicative than that found in Subaru’s sporty Impreza STI.
The 2.5i Lineartronic Outback’s Active torque-split AWD ensures that traction is never an issue (even in the recent snow and ice) and distributes power to provide maximum fuel economy under normal conditions.
Fuel economy was one thing I didn’t expect to be impressed by with the Outback. It’s a pretty large, petrol-powered, four-wheel-drive estate, after all but with the help of that CVT transmission, a genuine 33.6mpg is on the cards.
CO2 emissions of 194g/km, while some 27g/km behind Subaru’s own boxer diesel-engined Outback, keep the 2.5i out of the top road tax band.
Subaru has really sprung a surprise with the new Outback.
As an alternative to a luxury SUV, a go-anywhere tow car or rugged family estate, it fills a niche but is now accomplished enough to draw new customers from more established markets.
It might not be the most instantly striking cross-over on the market but multi-talented, comfortable and well-specced, it could well be the car to bring Subaru to the masses.
Subaru Outback 2.5i
Engine: 2.5-litre, four-cylinder boxer, petrol.
Power: 165bhp and 169lb.ft.
Performance: 0 to 62mph in 10.4 seconds and 120mph
Fuel economy: 33.6mpg (combined)
CO2 emissions: 194g/km
Price: £28,925 (as tested)
For: Spacious, well-specced, refined and a surprisingly good drive
Against: Might not appeal to more image-conscious SUV drivers