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Motornet: Back Roading In Subaru's H6 Outback

Subaru's new Outback H6 looks little different from the four-cylinder version, but everyone knows that beauty is skin deep. In the case of the H6, it's what lies beneath the bonnet that really counts....

It's just after 11pm on a Thursday night. The Outback's powerful headlights cleave the dark apart before me as trees and road markers, albeit briefly illuminated, woosh past. The inviting bends and curves of Hayward's Hill just north of Wellington are completely free of traffic. It's a perfect opportunity to really see how this car performs. It really is good to be behind the wheel of a good performing car....

As it happened, I had been driving the Outback for the best part of a week, but hadn't felt I'd really driven it. Believe me, a very clear testiment to a cars' worth is whether or not, after a long hard week at work, you can be bothered dragging yourself out of the house to go for a decent run. So, armed with my current favourite CDs - Powderfinger and Vertical Horizons (I left the 'excessive speed inducing' Chilli's behind) - I headed for the road. It was to prove a revealing drive.

But first some scene setting. The Outback is basically a Subaru Legacy wagon on stilts. The Outback effectively launched the 'jacked-up wagon' genre some years ago and now Subaru has successfully created a niche which other car manufacturers have followed (Volvo V70 X-Country and Audi All-road). While the emphasis is very clearly road car, the added safety value of 4WD and the perception that this car doesn't stop at the tarseal, is a marketing winner. So much so, that the Outback H6 is Subaru's flagship vehicle - commanding an asking price of close to $70k.

Now, $70,000 may seem a lot to ask even for the so-called 'Japanese BMW' but Subaru have done plenty to make this car a must have for the upwardly mobile -especially those who still like to spend the weekend windsurfing, skiing or similar. Externally, the Outback hasn't changed much. But whether you love or hate the styling, there's no denying that the Outback has definite road presence. The dark green mica of the test car over a 'warm grey opal base' looks good. Stylish 16" wheels, front fog lamps and roof rails help make the uninitiated aware that this car is more than just a family wagon.

On the inside, quality attractive tan leather makes for a warm and welcoming interior - though anyone with young kids might raise doubts as to the colour's long term practicality! The car is loaded with toys. Everything from an electric driver's seat, alarm, climate air, cruise control right through to a unique dual sunroof and an easy to use six-speaker stereo system. Pedants will bemoan the CD's single disk status, though most won't care a hoot. Unfortunately, in their attempt to justfiy the big bucks, Subaru went slightly overboard when they decided to include wood, and very fake looking wood to boot. This faux pas is made worse by the inclusion of a great looking combination wood/leather momo steering wheel. On its own, I'm sure the Momo wheel would be fine, but in this situation it looks like an afterthought and contrasts to such an extent with the interior wood to be real cringe material. Surely all the outdoorsy types who'll buy this car will be afronted?



Fortunately, when Subaru gets it right, they get it really right. Which brings me back to Thursday night at 11pm. I have a favourite driving route - as many motoring writers do - for properly putting a car through its paces. It's a good mix of highway, open road, hills, flat areas....you get the idea. Heading off, I quickly settle into the car. The seats are good, the heater works well, and I even have the sunroof open for a time to let in the cool night air. But it's at the traffic lights heading on to Wellington's motorway network that things start to really gel.

While any fool would notice the Outback's boxer 'H6' motor has some pep, I haven't had the opportunity to get a proper feel for it. As the lights go green, I nail the accelerator and everything changes. I am in love. The tachometer climbs steadily before the automatic transmission smoothly changes up as the needle approaches the redline. The acceleration is seemless and I reach 100km/h fast. Officially, Subaru say the Outback can do 0-100km/h in 8.9 seconds. They may be right, but I reckon it feels faster. The engine is an aural symphony, a cacophony of pure mechanical sound. Who would have thought the Japanese could give lessons on engine note?

Subaru claim the three litre horizontally opposed boxer engine is the lightest in the world, while its design allows for a low centre of gravity which in turn improves weight distribution and handling. The engine produces 154kw at 6000rpm and 282nm of torque at 4400. Unlike many turbo motors, there is no hesitation in acceleration and getting that power to all four wheels is achieved with absolutely no fuss.

Roaring up the Hayward's, I put the car through its paces. The handling is responsive and not compromised by compliant ride - even though the highly sprung Subaru does suffer from some suspension travel. But as I sweep over the crest of the hill I get just a little nervous.

It's nothing too dramatic, I don't see my life flash before my eyes, but I am a little unsettled. I never come close to losing control but I do slow down after this bend and take stock. Perhaps the steering isn't as direct as I thought? Does the extra ride height create body roll? Is the extra weight of the six dragging down the nose? Maybe I can't drive as well as I would like?



The answer is probably all of these, or none of these. As much as it would like to, the higher riding Subaru can't be a sports car and a stationwagon. Which is a bit of a pity when you consider how good the engine is. Realising this, Subaru have gone one step further to ensure you can enjoy driving the car without compromising safety. Vehicle Dynamics Control (VDC) is not a new concept, but it is a worthy one. By activating in a split second, VDC helps stop understeer, oversteer or skidding that might otherwise see a driver end up in a sticky mess. For example, when cornering hard the car tends to understeer but the driver is helped by the system which brakes individual back wheels to help get the car around corners. Unfortunately, the system is required more than it should. For all that the boxer engine is light, it is still heavier than the 2.5 litre four of lesser outbacks - and that extra weight does tend to add to the Subaru's understeering nature.

But it's worth keeping in mind that the vast majority of drivers will find the Subaru meets all their driving expectations, and in some cases, exceeds it. For the five percent that it doesn't, looking to the significantly pricier German competition may be the only option.

On the bright side, if you're heading into gravel or snow, the H6 has its advantages over slick handling sports cars. With the addition of VDC, Subaru have done away with the high and low speed ratios of other Subaru wagons. I didn't have the opportunity to get the car off road unfortunately. On the day photographer Neil and I headed for Wellington's south coast 4WD route, we found to our dismay that the route was closed! Talk about bad luck....

Overall, the H6 presents a pretty impressive package. Yes, you pay a reasonable premium for the six cylinder motor but you do get a lot of creature comforts to soften the blow, not to mention the safety of 4WD, load capacity of a wagon, some off road capability and the built-in Subaru 'street cred' factor. And as for that engine....driving is believing.

Specifications

Price - $69,990

Engine - 2999cc boxer six-cylinder engine crating 154kw of power and 282nm torque

Weight - 1590kg

Performance - 0-100km/ph in 8.9seconds (NZ Autocar recorded 8.5)

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