Good: all-weather and all-terrain security, steering and handling balance, practicality, likely reliability, anti-fashion image, improved cabin layout and quality
Not so good: enormously expensive, some cabin items still a bit low-tech, high emissions
It must be because I grew up in the country. You wouldn't think it to meet me really. My vowel sounds are plummy English ones I inherited from my (West-Brit) mum and dad, not the fast-paced chatter of the West Cork town that I still, twenty years since I left it, think of as home. I've actually been a city slicker for most of those twenty years and even growing up I wasn't exactly a bumpkin - dad's an electrical contractor and mum runs a local shop. Some friends had parents who farmed or fished or made cheese, but we lived in a house that, if it weren't surrounded on all sides by the staggering beauty of the south west coast, you'd call suburban.
But while I might not be pure-bred country, I think that childhood did leave me with some country-ish traits. I still look askance at a pair of shoes or a jacket that's not what you'd call 'winter practical.' I still regard power cuts as a chance to break out the candles, the Monopoly and the toasting fork for the fire. And I really, really like practical cars.
This Subaru Outback is a classic case in point. Many of you will only have the vaguest smattering of an appreciation for the Subaru name, but growing up in a full-on rallying heartland, I have always adored the iconoclastic Japanese brand. Jimmy and latterly Colin McRae on the telly, Bertie Fisher in real life right in front of me and that classic flat-four warble echoing off the dry-stone. It's an intoxicating mix.
OK, so the rallying days are long behind it, but Subaru still holds an appeal for me, which is why, a couple of years back, it hurt a bit having to mark down the old Outback model against the Skoda Superb 4x4. Too expensive, too harsh-riding and not economical enough, I had to say.
In some ways, little has changed. This range-topping Outback, with its CVT automatic transmission and 'Eyesight' stereoscopic camera safety system, will set you back the guts of €50k, while a similarly specified Skoda can be had for almost €20k less. That's a big, big hurdle to clear at your first attempt...
The Outback has genuinely been hugely improved though. The cabin, usually a source of dreariness for Subaru, has taken a big step forward. OK, it's still not up to Audi levels, but the central touchscreen looks good and works well, and the levels of fit and finish are very good. A few cheap bits, such as the Atari-ish digital display between the main instruments? Afraid so, but it's better than before and it's also hugely comfortable.
Ah yes, comfort. The last Outback rode like it had concrete for springs. This one, although still a touch firm at times, is much better - smoother and more soothing. Space inside is good too, and that almost-600-litre boot will swallow pretty much anything you throw at it. Legroom in the back seats is excellent as well.
On the drivetrain front, it's a little hard not to be disappointed. The 150hp 2.0-litre flat-four 'Boxer Diesel' engine has barely changed since it was first introduced in 2008 and while it's competitive on power and smoothness (and I love the faint warble of its exhaust), the fact is that on CO2 emissions it just can't compete. A sum of €570 to tax it for a year is just too much.
Well, it should be, but the Outback just has a level of charm which it spun upon me that makes it impossible for me not to like. Especially in the horrendous weather we've seen in the past couple of weeks, it's an astonishingly reassuring thing to drive. The permanent four-wheel drive gives you traction that I simply couldn't get to break, while the well-weighted steering and nicely-balanced chassis give you terrific confidence when pressing on. The CVT 'Lineartronic' transmission is also not bad - it seems to spend a minimum, rather than a maximum, of its time letting the engine rev itself out, and if you hold full throttle, it will start adding 'pretend' ratios to keep the acceleration going while reducing the rev count. Nice.
It's also very safe. The Eyesight system works as a collision avoidance setup (flashing warnings and then slamming on the brakes if it detects an obstacle ahead and you don't take any action), as well as warning you if you're drifting out of your lane. It also feeds into the adaptive cruise control, which is one of the better setups of its kind - slowing you gently when it picks up a slower vehicle ahead and accelerating smoothly but briskly when you pull out to overtake. It's also simple and intuitive to use. Mind you, it's a shame that the lane keeping warning only includes a beep and a flashing graphic, and not a self-nudging steering wheel.
Look, being totally objective, you should save yourself almost the price of a new Golf and get a Skoda Octavia Scout - there's almost no sense in spending all the extra on the Subaru and the cars are very closely matched in terms of capability and dimensions.
And yet... I cannot bring myself to dismiss the Subaru. Its combination of rugged reliability, no-nonsense image, practicality and the fact that it will probably get an awful lot further off road and back again than most rivals (even than some full-on SUVs) makes it hugely appealing to me. I know it's nuts, but I think I really would try and find the extra cash. Put it this way, on the day the Outback went back, I picked up a slinky, low-slung, premium German saloon whose price tag was about the same. And spent the entire journey home wishing I was still in the Subaru. I know I'm odd, but I just can't help myself. You can take the boy out of the country...