The West

Choice is simply automatic
The Subaru Outback finally has a diesel automatic option.

It has been a long time coming but Subaru finally has an automatic transmission suitable for its turbocharged boxer diesel engine.

And the first car to be fitted with the new gearbox, which is actually a continuously variable transmission (CVT) rather than a traditional automatic, is the Outback SUV.

At the launch of the new variant in Wagga Wagga, NSW, last week Subaru managing director Nick Senior conceded that the lack of the automatic had denied the company access to 52 per cent of the fastest-growing market segment in Australia.

In the first two months of this year SUV sales have jumped by 17 per cent compared to the same time last year, and now account for 34 per cent of all new car sales.

At the same time passenger car sales have dropped by nearly 2 per cent.

"We are witnessing a significant and long-term shift in the buying preference of Australians," Mr Senior said.

And it is the large SUV market, where the Outback competes, where the biggest sales growth is occurring.

"Most large SUVs sold are powered by a diesel engine and 94 per cent of those are automatic," he said.

"It is those statistics that make this one of the most important and most significant launches for Subaru Australia in a decade."

While Subaru may have been slow to respond to the demand for an automatic transmission, a 300km test drive around the Victorian countryside, showed they appear to have got it right the first time.

The CVT, which is matched to Subaru's 2.0-litre turbo diesel engine that generates 110kW and torque of 350Nm, has been strengthened to handle the additional torque of the diesel engine.

It also has the same 1700kg maximum towing rate as the standard six-speed manual variant and has an official fuel consumption figure of 6.5L/100km which makes it 1.5L/100km more efficient than the 2.5-litre petrol variant with CVT.

We drove the car on a variety of roads and surfaces, including gravel tracks, and found it hard to fault the transmission.

Acceleration was strong and smooth in normal driving conditions and there was no evidence of the whine often associated with this style of transmission when accelerating hard. Subaru has overcome that by introducing a stepped gear change, making it more like a traditional automatic, a feature that automatically engages when the car is being driven in a sporty manner.

To allow for the additional weight over the front axle, the suspension has been tweaked slightly. If the automatic diesel behaves any differently to the other variants I did not pick it up.

Remembering that the Outback is a large SUV that will easily cater for five adults and plenty of gear in the back, it sat nicely when cornering and remained composed at all times, even on some pretty rough surfaces.

Sitting on the speed limit, the engine is quiet, road noise is not intrusive and I found the seats reasonably comfortable, though my travelling companion was not so complimentary, commenting that it was hard to find the right set up for him.

What we did not get the chance to do was see how it performed in genuine off-road conditions where we could test the uphill and downhill control that is part of the adaptive control system.

It also comes with a seven-speed manual mode for off-road driving or those occasions when the driver wants more control over which gear the vehicle is in and a second-gear take-off mode for secure acceleration on slippery surfaces such as gravel or mud.

The automatic diesel engine is available in two specification levels, standard and premium.

The entry-level 2.0D, which is priced at $42,490 - a $2500 premium on the manual - comes standard with sat-nav, reversing camera, Bluetooth compatibility, climate control with rear vents, electric park brake and self-levelling rear suspension.

The 2.0D premium ($45,490) adds leather interior, a sunroof and power driver's seat with memory.

Mr Senior is predicting the automatic variant will see Outback sales grow by about 130 a month to around 4200 a year.

The Outback will now be able to compete on even ground, something its smaller sibling, the Forester, cannot claim with still no plans to make the CVT transmission available in the company's most popular model.

We are witnessing a significant and long-term shift in the buying preference.

The West Australian

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