Winner: Subaru Outback 2.5i Premium wagon
Australians love small-to-medium size AWD SUV wagons priced under $50,000. This is one of the largest and most competitive categories on the Australian market. Any number of vehicles could justifiably be the winner, depending on individual needs and personal taste.
To come out top of the class in Australia’s Best Cars is a tough job, but to do it multiple times, as the Subaru Outback has done, is certainly an outstanding achievement.
Key to the Outback’s success is its great all-round ability and general versatility. It can cover a wide range of roles and master each better than most, making it an extremely appealing package.
The 2.5i Premium model is competitively priced, generously equipped, and a standout in design and function. It puts a slightly different meaning on the term ‘crossover vehicle’. The Outback cleverly blends the space and practicality of a conventional station wagon with the appeal and functionality of a higher-riding SUV.
The premium-grade cabin has an upmarket feel and the build quality is excellent. Seat comfort is among the best in class and a spacious luggage compartment puts most SUVs to shame, while the simple folding action of the rear seats creates a flat floor and further extends the load capacity.
A mild update at the end of 2017, with more equipment, better infotainment technology and upgraded safety features, as well as refinements to the 2.5i engine, transmission and suspension, make a good vehicle even better and help keep the Outback ahead of the pack.
Subaru’s focus on safety continues to shine as the Outback comes with an excellent five-star ANCAP safety rating, supported by a highly desirable suite of advanced safety technology in the latest generation ‘EyeSight’ package.
In the 2018 model update, the mechanical changes focused mainly on a smoother, more refined engine. The 2.5-litre Outback is still not the fastest or most powerful in its class, but has good performance where it is needed for responsive driving around town and relaxed cruising on the open road.
Some credit must also go to Subaru’s Lineartronic CVT-style automatic, which helps deliver respectable fuel economy, and its operation is far less intrusive than most other similar transmissions.
The Outback also has class-leading ride comfort and surefooted handling. Subaru’s constant AWD system has proven to be one of the best in the business when the bitumen gets wet and slippery or the road surface turns to gravel. While serious rock crawling adventures are beyond practically every vehicle in this class, including the Outback, its off-road ability on rutted tracks, steep inclines, or loose or muddy surfaces, is better than most people would expect or even consider attempting in this class of vehicle.
One area where the Subaru does fall behind is in scheduled servicing which, at six months or 12,500-kilometre intervals, is a little more frequent than that of most other manufacturers, while the standard three-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty is relatively short by current expectations. Subaru, however, occasionally runs promotional deals with up to five years cover, which is worth looking out for.
Second place: Subaru XV 2.Oi-S
The rejuvenated Subaru XV, built on an all-new platform which it shares with the latest Impreza, has leapt over some excellent vehicles in this class to take a well-earned second place. Fundamentally, the high-riding XV is an Impreza hatchback on steroids.
The XV is the smallest model in Subaru’s impressive SUV wagon line-up. As such, it is tighter on space than other vehicles in the AWD SUV under $50,000 category, but the cabin layout is user friendly and the seats are relatively comfortable, if not quite class leading.
It is in value for money that the XV is strongest, with attractive pricing, good retained value, relatively low fuel consumption and plenty of highly desirable standard features. Top-class safety continues to be a significant part of Subaru’s DNA, with the XV boasting a five-star ANCAP rating and the third-generation EyeSight driver assistance system.
Mechanically, the XV follows a similar formula to the class-winning Outback, with a flat four-cylinder boxer engine (albeit a smaller 2.0-litre unit), CVT-style automatic transmission, and Subaru’s constant AWD system with X-mode for low-speed off-road operation.
While the smaller engine needs to work a bit harder, which is particularly noticeable off-road, it still provides ample performance for everyday use and good fuel economy. On-road, it is also considered one of the best-handling vehicles in the class.
Third place: Kia Sportage GT-Line
The Kia Sportage is a vehicle that continues to impress. In keeping with Australia’s Best Cars’ consumer-focused policy, we always look at the biggest-selling version, which in the Sportage range is the top-grade GT-Line diesel.
Although the GT-Line is more expensive than most of its competitors, you get what you pay for. Equipment levels are excellent, the trim materials have quite an upmarket appearance, and there is a pleasing build quality throughout. For peace of mind, the Kia's lengthy seven-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty provides should not be underestimated either.
The Sportage also has a high degree of safety, its desirable suite of active and passive technologies, including autonomous emergency braking and blind-spot monitoring, helping it achieve a five-star ANCAP rating.
The Sportage is a conventional high-riding, medium-size SUV wagon that is easy to get in and out of. It’s one of the best in class for seat comfort, while all the controls are logically placed and straightforward to operate.
The 2.0-litre turbo-diesel’s strong low-to-mid-range torque, combined with well-matched gearing and slick shifts in Kia’s six-speed automatic, make the GT-Line an enjoyable drive on and off road. It is always in the right gear at the right time. Around town, the diesel engine is smooth and quiet, and for those wanting to get a bit more adventurous, its off-road ability is better than most in this class.