Review and road test of the Subaru Outback (1996 - 2003)
THE GREAT OUTDOORS
BY ANDY ENRIGHT
Long before Audi devised the Allroad or Volvo ever came up with the V70 Cross Country, Subaru were marketing an all-wheel drive estate with extra ground clearance in the uncompromising shape of the Legacy Outback. Realising that their traditional market - aside from turbocharged Impreza customers - was still much enamoured of rugged estate cars that could do an honest day's work, the Outback was a logical extension of the Legacy brand. There's no shortage of used examples in the system, some in better shape than others. The Outback has a reputation as one of the most reliable cars you can buy but it pays to look at a few before buying.
1996 - 98 Series 1 Legacy Outback 2.5
1998 - 2003 Series 2 Legacy Outback 2.5, H6-3.0
2003 - to date Series 3 Outback 2.5, 3.0R
The Outback was a car that Subaru had never really earmarked for the British market, instead concentrating initially on Japan and the US where these sorts of vehicle s go down very well. The precedent in the UK for rugged all-wheel drive estates was patchy at best and the importers dipped a tentative toe into the water when they decided to bring in limited numbers of 148bhp Outback 2.5-litre models in late 1996. Despite the low key introduction, demand seemed strong and throughout 1997 this model sold steadily, establishing a reputation for itself as a solid, no-nonsense performer that appeared astonishingly reliable. In December 1998 the Legacy range received a thorough facelift and the Outback series received more changes. As well as the 2.5-litre engine being boosted to 154bhp, a rather thirsty 209bhp 3.0-litre flat-six engined version, the H6-3.0, was introduced. The suspension was revised and the front end got bigger headlamps. The interior was thoroughly revised with the fascia angled towards the driver.
In August 1999 Subaru added Vehicle Dynamic Control to the Legacy Outback range but it wasn't until the 2002 model year car that the shape got tinkered with again, the Outback featuring double deck headlamps with inlaid circular indicators and ornate multi-reflectors all housed in a large pod. The grille was also revised, being made deeper and wider, giving the slightly bland Outback front end a good deal more presence. This was backed up by a more aggressive front and rear bumper and sill treatment. The 2004 model year Outback - which dropped the Legacy part of its name - was unveiled in summer 2003 and featured sleeker styling and superior materials used in the cabin. Further tweaks were made in the summer of 2005 with subtly revised styling and various tweaks to improved handling. Interior materials were also upgraded at this juncture.
What You Get
Ever-so slightly unusual looks, eccentric touches like Subaru's 'hill-holder' device (makes hill starts easier for those who never got the hang of a normal handbrake), superb quality and great reliability.
Most will buy these cars for their all-weather transmission. The fact that a Subaru doesn't look like a four-wheel-drive is exactly why many people buy them. The Legacy has always been a favourite of the dale-dwelling doctor-on-call, so if you can find a one-owner country car, all the better. You might only need the all-wheel drive a few days a year, but, like having air conditioning in a heat wave, you'll never be without it again.
The Series 2 models built between 1998 and 2003 are most commonplace on our roads and they're tough but very well equipped. The 2.5-litre model features a clever list of standard equipment and true to form they include everything but the kitchen sink. No, scratch that: you do get a kitchen sink - in the form of a 'washing-up bowl' in the boot well, said to be ideal for items like muddy walking boots. More common standard features include a top quality stereo CD system, air conditioning, twin front and side airbags, ABS, and alloy wheels. Inside, there are heated front seats with the dashboard and armrests colour-co-ordinated in beige and brown. It doesn't quite disguise the plastic however - and the mock-wood fascia fittings seem a touch contrived. The 3.0-litre version gets heated front seats with the dashboard and armrests colour-co-ordinated in beige and brown. Although the interior isn't the most stylish, the Mercedes-like auto-gear selector gate is evidence that they've been learning from the Europeans. Nice touches include illuminated vanity mirrors, a de-icing system for the windscreen wipers and heated door mirrors, plus of course the obligatory retractable cup holder.
What to Look For
Legacy Outback models are hardy things and little goes wrong with the mechanicals or the electrics. The body is well rustproofed and the only grumbles that have emerged concern the plastics quality of the Mk 1 models and the paintwork that on some examples is has the finish of orange peel. The main thing to look out for is that the car hasn't been subjected to overly enthusiastic off roading. Despite the marketing blurb, the Outback is really only a trail and track device and if somebody has attempted to go rock hopping with one they may well have wreaked havoc with the exhaust, the suspension, the spoilers and valances and the wheelarch liners.
(Based on a Legacy 2.5 and exclusive of VAT) A clutch assembly will set you back about £220 and a new exhaust about £185 excluding catalyst. Front shock absorbers are close to £130 each. An exchange alternator comes in at around £300 and an exchange starter motor at around £150. A new radiator is about £215. Replacement door mirrors are around the £150 mark and a headlamp about £180.
On the Road
Flat four cylinder engines and all-wheel drive are Subaru trademarks and the Outback 2.5 conforms to this pattern. In this sector of the market, 154bhp isn't going to blow up too many trousers, but such is the sophistication of the four-wheel drive mechanicals that the heavyweight Outback can still bound to 60mph in a mere 9.2 seconds. A 250bhp Audi Allroad 2.7T is less than a second quicker and retailed at £12,000 more. Okay, so the Subaru can't reduce whole swathes of the Kings Road to green-eyed jealousy but that's part of its appeal. Inconspicuous it may be, but in certain circles it presses just the right 'old money' buttons that the ostentatious Audi doesn't know exist.
The Outback H6-3.0 has a flat six-cylinder engine upfront, differentiating it from the opposition who utilise straight five-cylinder or V6 engines. Subaru have worked hard on this six-cylinder engine in recent times, fine-tuning the airflow rate and the accelerator mechanism to give livelier throttle response. Revisions to the standard 4-speed automatic gearbox also allow the engine to rev higher before change-up. This is a powerplant no bigger or heavier than the 2.5-litre four-cylinder unit used in other Outback models. Rest to sixty occupies 8.5 seconds on the way to 130mph and mid-range torque is described by the engineers as 'plentiful': don't doubt it. Not that this is a particularly sporty car: you could have guessed that by the lack of a manual gearbox option.
The used Legacy Outback is a car that makes a lot of sense. In certain respects it's well ahead of its time and the market for estate-based 4x4s is only now becoming popular. The Outback represents a cut-price ticket into one of the fastest growing market niches, plus you get the bonus of a claim on originality. Subaru owners have consistently voted the Outback one of the UK's most reliable cars in JD Power customer satisfaction surveys so it really is difficult to go wrong. If you need a car that will run and run, the Outback makes a great choice.
Subaru Outback (1996 - 2003) review by ANDY ENRIGHT