Subaru's latest Outback is a rugged load lugger that defies classification

If cars were tools, the new outdoorsy-sounding Subaru Outback would be a Swiss Army knife.

Its versatility, however, can also be its Achilles' heel.

Most cars are built for specific purposes. Besides sedans, there are MPVs to move more than five people, stationwagons to lug loads, SUVs for offroad jaunts (at least, theoretically) and roadsters and coupes for driving fun.

I cannot quite get a handle on the Outback. It looks a little like a crossover, but I think it is best described as a stationwagon with some offroad abilities.

Its competitors are the Audi A4 Allroad and Volkswagen Passat Alltrack - both not available in Singapore. Its other rival is the Volvo XC70, which has disappeared from the local Volvo agent's price list. Their unnoticeable absence in Singapore gives you a sense of the niche appeal of such cars.

Under the skin, the Outback is basically a Subaru Legacy. It is as wide as the Legacy (1,840mm) but is slightly longer (4,815mm vs 4,795mm) because of its protruding skid plates fore and aft. It also has a 63mm higher ground clearance (213mm vs 150mm).

The Outback is also powered by the same 2.5-litre naturally aspirated "boxer" engine as the Legacy.

It sprints from 0 to 100kmh in 10.2 seconds, which is 0.6 seconds slower than the Legacy's 9.6 seconds, primarily because it is about 60kg heavier.

The new Outback looks sharper than its predecessor, but the criticism that Subaru cars are not the prettiest in the carpark is still valid here. While it is not as ugly as the Subaru Tribeca, it still takes some getting used to.

The lack of visual appeal can be forgiven once the driver and passengers get into the cabin.

A 1.7m-tall colleague who hitched a ride in the rear was impressed by the generous legroom. The Outback's 2,745mm wheelbase is just a little shorter than that of Toyota's seven-seater Wish (2,750mm).

Its dashboard is modern, although more functional and utilitarian than luxurious.

Its steering wheel deserves to be singled out - it has 17 buttons, switches and paddles for everything you need from changing gears to engaging the cruise control and switching radio stations.

A 7-inch touchscreen monitor offers useful features such as Bluetooth pairing of mobile phones and apps for audio and entertainment functions.

Sufficient storage spaces are peppered throughout the cabin, including a thoughtful space for sunglasses.

With the rear seats folded flat, the cargo area is a bewildering 1,801 litres, allowing the car to lug a two-seater Ikea sofa or two mountain bikes easily.

The Outback is not short of frills. The list includes keyless entry, sunroof, Harmon Kardon speakers, electronic parking brakes and a powered tailgate with adjustable height settings.

But some omissions are stark. The car does not have built-in satellite navigation or daytime-running lights.

The all-wheel-drive Outback excels on the move. There is a slight whiff of body roll but it is largely composed when negotiating corners. On long, straight stretches, the car is as comfortable as a luxe barge well above its price bracket.

Its continuously variable transmission has six "virtual" ratios, and there are two drive modes: a default leisurely mode and a "sports mode" where engine speeds are allowed to climb higher before the gearbox "shifts up". If the "sports mode" is not punchy enough, the pedal shifters will do the trick.

The car's steering feels a little disconnected when compared with what something like the WRX offers.

Its engine is a gem. It is responsive and predictably linear, although it is no scorcher.

The Outback's "hill descent" function - common in serious SUVs - keeps the car at a constant speed going downhill. It is useful in slippery situations, such as when you are negotiating a slope lined with loose gravel. But its use is limited in urbanised Singapore.

Overall, the Outback is an attractive proposition. It can be a jack of all trades - a car that can foreseeably do a bit of everything.

Whether you are a family man and an outdoorsman, you should find it appealing. But whether it is appealing enough for you to go out and buy one is another question altogether.

As mentioned, the Outback is essentially an all-wheel-drive stationwagon with decent ground clearance. It is neither a full-fledged SUV nor a conventional stationwagon.

Given the prevailing preference for cars with clearly defined roles, the spot that the Outback occupies is still unfamiliar to most drivers.

That can be both a blessing and a curse.

tohyc@sph.com.sg