It's an all-out battle of the 4x4 family estates: Subaru vs. Skoda.
Neil Briscoe
Neil Briscoe
Pics by Shane O' Donoghue

Published on March 28, 2014

Subaru made its name with tearaway rally stage specials and sensible 4x4 estates and wants to woo buyers back to the brand with an updated Outback. Standing in its way though is Skoda and its slick and handsome Superb 4x4 estate.

In the Metal

As any fool knows, buying a full-sized SUV is excessive for most of us. All that size, bulk and weight generally goes to waste. We are not, as a nation, given to heading off into the wilderness to cut down trees or wrestle bears, so our big 4x4s usually only see use on the road and in the supermarket car park. But, for those days when it's snowy, icy or just especially wet out, having all-wheel drive is rather useful. It therefore makes the best financial sense to plump for a lower-slung family car with four-wheel drive, and that is where these two come in.

Subaru of course is famous for four-wheel drive. In fact, it has produced only a handful of models in its history that didn't come with four-wheel drive. And it was with the original Legacy Outback model that Subaru really won big in the US car market. A regular Legacy estate given an injection of growth hormones to increase the ride height, the Outback actually has more serious 4x4 chutzpah than an entire school run's worth of conventional SUVs. Make no mistake, this is a car that can get you out of a seriously sticky situation thanks to what Subaru calls Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive and the brand's legacy (ahem) of 4x4 expertise. This updated Outback now comes with a new CVT transmission with seven pre-set 'ratios' and a mildly updated cabin.

It's a handsome thing too, even if Subaru has made the styling rather too fussy in places. There's no doubt that the extra ride height and chunky details lift it above the standard Legacy in desirability terms.

A shame then that, in the traditional Subaru fashion, the interior cannot keep pace. It's comfy in there, and very spacious and well equipped, but the quality and appearance of the cabin can simply not be excused on a €45k car. Everything in there looks cheap, even if the underlying strength of build is not in doubt.

That's something thrown into stark relief by its rival today, the Skoda Superb. The Superb may be half way through its life cycle now, but it is still a remarkably good car and its cabin shows precisely where Subaru falls down hardest. The surfaces are all lustrous to the touch and to the eye, the instruments and touch screen look and feel expensive (especially compared to the Subaru's tiny infotainment screen and its reversing camera; the display for which looks as fuzzy as a satellite transmission from the early sixties). It's slightly more comfortable overall than the Subaru too (although the Subaru's driver's seat sits much less high and perched up than does the Superb's) and legroom in the back is simply gargantuan. It's a little narrower than the Japanese car though (the Subaru is better if you're planning on carrying multiple child car seats) even if its 633-litre boot utterly murders the Subaru for space.

The Superb is also better looking. Just as the Outback starts to look more fussy and over-styled the more you look at it, so does the Skoda begin to appear more cohesive and appealing. The minor nip and tuck restyle that was launched last year has kept the Superb looking young enough, even if inside and out its smaller brother, the Octavia, is now starting to show up the larger car's age.

Driving Them

Once upon a time, Subaru made the best handling car you could buy. No, not a fast and furious Impreza Turbo (although, god knows, they were blisteringly good fun) but a regular, run of the mill 2.0-litre Legacy saloon. I took just such a car (it was the last one before the current generation model was launched) for a long spin up the Donegal coast once and was blown away by just how well suited it was to Irish road conditions. Four-wheel drive to deal with the rain and tractor spillages, beautifully communicative steering to guide you at ever-increasing pace and confidence levels through the corners and an almost perfectly judged ride quality that eased away the worst road surfaces before the vibrations reached your buttocks.

Sad to say that the new Outback just doesn't live up to that dynamic forebear. The new car still has great steering, with the sort of fingertip feel and feedback that we thought had gone for good, but the rest of the car is a disappointment. The ride is the first problem - it's just too stiff and too knock-kneed. Surface imperfections that its predecessor would have wiped away are now transmitted in all their unpleasantness to the driver and passengers, while body roll remains rampant. There's also an issue with balance - in spite of the traction advantages of the four-wheel drive system, the Outback is just too easily provoked into serious understeer, even to the point of making the front tyres howl in protest and trigger the electronic stability control. And this, we should point out, is without any Juan-Manuel-Fangio-style heroics on our part; just normal driving on give and take roads.

In the Superb, things are much, much calmer. You will never buy one for its sporty responses or agility, but the Superb is an excellent cruiser and doesn't disgrace itself on twister roads either. The latest-generation Haldex four-wheel drive system is perhaps not as purist as the Subaru's permanent 50:50 torque split setup, but it works better on the road, allowing you to put the Superb's power down earlier and with more confidence.

The Subaru's engine remains something of a high point though. It's more powerful and has more torque than that of the Skoda (something reflected in a faster 0-100km/h time) and still sounds more interesting when you rev it than most diesel engines. It is a little too noisy at times though; something not helped by the CVT gearbox, even if it is one of the better examples of its type. There's copious wind noise around the big door mirrors too, so once again, the Superb is a quieter, comfier place to be.

The only point where the Skoda is comprehensively beaten is in the steering department. The Superb's rack just doesn't give the feedback that the Subaru's does and there is an annoying and occasionally disconcerting dead patch for a couple of degrees just off centre.

What you get for your Money

No contest here, it's an easy win for the Skoda. Yes, it's slightly less powerful and slower but the Superb's 2.0-litre TDI engine puts in a fiduciary performance that leaves the Subaru's Boxer Diesel reeling. Skoda quotes a realistic 53mpg overall for the car, and it's in Band B2 (€280 a year) for motor tax. In comparison, Subaru's official figure of 44mpg for the Outback can be as much as 10mpg away from reality and its 166g/km CO2 figure will land you with an annual motor tax bill of €570. It's also far more expensive than the Skoda, by €13,000.

Yes, the Skoda has less equipment as standard, but you could easily spec it up to and beyond the Outback's level and still have change to spare. To be fair though, the Outback is hobbled by the current Euro-Yen exchange rate, a problem Subaru Ireland acknowledges and is constantly working with head office in Tokyo to try and ameliorate. There's also a reliability factor to consider. Skoda tends to build its cars to a very high standard and does well in reliability surveys. Subaru, though, tends to set the reliability standard to which others must aspire and frequently owns those same reliability surveys.

Summary - Neil Briscoe

There was a time when a Subaru, almost any Subaru, was a true thinking man's (or woman's) car. The sort of car that you bought for sensible reasons (space, reliability, 4x4 traction), but found yourself enjoying for more temporal reasons (steering, balance, performance, sheer fun). Sadly, the new Outback fails to live up to that history, it's just too compromised by a poor cabin, a poor emissions rating and some distinctly dubious suspension settings. It's indicative of the fact that for too long and too often, parent company Fuji Heavy Industries has starved Subaru of investment, not to mention the fact that Europe has long been something of a backwater for the brand. Hopefully, the influence of Toyota (which has a stake in Subaru) will help to put the company back where it belongs and hopefully too we will see a renewed focus on Europe and a second-generation Boxer Diesel engine (not to mention a new Impreza Turbo...).

In terms of this contest, though, the Skoda walks it. More handsome, more refined and much, much more affordable it really is operating at the pinnacle of practical family motoring. Yes, €32k is a lot to spend on a car with a Skoda badge, but you are getting one of the best all-rounders that money can buy.

Second Opinion - Shane O' Donoghue

I'm afraid there's no controversy here; the Skoda is, heads and shoulders above the Outback in all aspects that matter. Drive the two cars back-to-back as we did and you'll be shocked at the lack of refinement the Subaru has. It took me little more than half an hour at the wheel of the Outback to make my decision. It's not comfortable enough, has some major refinement issues and is just too expensive and inefficient to truly compete. I'll admit it feels up to the rigours of a life spent off-road more than the Skoda does, but as Neil said at the start, few Irish buyers use their cars in that way.


Tech Specs

Model testedSubaru Outback 2.0 TD SX Lineartronic
Pricing€44,995 as tested (Outback range starts at €41,995)
Engine2.0-litre turbocharged flat-four diesel
TransmissionCVT (continuously variable transmission) automatic, four-wheel drive
Body stylefive-door estate
CO2 emissions166g/km (Band D, €570 per annum)
Combined economy44.8mpg (6.3 litres/100km)
Top speed194km/h
0-100km/h9.7 seconds
Power150hp at 3,600rpm
Torque350Nm at 1,600- to 2,400rpm