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AROUND RED ROCKS - AN OUTBACK DOUBLE
Subaru outbacks pull Jayco Outbacks.
Back in 2004 Subaru and Jayco combined their strengths to illustrate the Outback’s abilities as a bush towing vehicle.
It seemed like Mission Trouble, if not Mission Impossible: coupling Subaru Outbacks to Jayco caravans and camper trailers and letting a bunch of journalists loose on stony dirt tracks. We know the roads around the West MacDonnell Ranges very well and are only too familiar with the tyre damage the sharp stones of the Mereenie Loop can cause.
We expected a too-fast trip, punctuated by punctures.
The trek began in The Alice, with a lineup of Subaru/Jayco combinations assembled just outside the city. The first leg of the journey was along Namatjira Drive, a bitumen stretch with undulations and sharp grades that gave us a good opportunity to evaluate the Subaru’s towing suitability at highway cruising speeds.
The Outbacks selected for the towing task were all 3.0R models, fitted with standard five-speed automatic transmissions. This transmission has three-mode operation: full automatic function with the shift map aimed at fuel economy; a Sportshift mode with automatic shifting, but with higher-rev shift points; and a manual mode in which the transmission holds the selected ratio.
On the bitumen section we used all three driving modes and preferred the Sportshift automatic method. The higher rev limit in each ratio preserved momentum and kept the boxer six spinning up near its peak torque point of 297 Nm at 4200 rpm on the steeper sections.
The three-litre, 180-kilowatt flat-six engine relished the towing job and felt unstressed hauling van loads up to 1200 kilograms. Even when working up the rev band on steep road sections the engine was smooth and quiet.
We were also impressed with the stability of the combination and the fact that the Subaru didn’t sag at the rear end. The 3.0R Outback comes with load levelling rear suspension struts that pump up hydraulically, using the action and energy of the suspension to achieve the required pressure. When initially coupled to the trailer the trailer tow ball weight of 90 kg dropped rear suspension height, until the struts pumped themselves up on the run. We noticed that when the van was uncoupled the Subaru’s unladen rear suspension sat noticeably higher than normal, but settled back to normal ride height after a kilometre or so.
Subaru rated the 2004 Outback at 1800kg trailer capacity and we’d be happy to couple one up to a heavier van than the ones we towed on this test.
However, we still had reservations about the genteel Subaru’s gravel road abilities.
The next stage of our Alice Springs experience was the dirt road loop from Glen Helen Gorge around to Hermannsburg, via Gosse Bluff. This gravel stretch is well used by tourist vehicles and features heavy corrugations, large, sharp stones, potholes and transverse dry creek ruts. We looked at the Outback’s street-style tyres and wondered…
We needn’t have worried, because not one of the Yokohama Geolandar boots went pop. They also showed no signs of tread cutting or chipping from the sharp stones. The Subaru guys said that the ‘recce’ car ran the road three times and had no tyre trouble, and when we checked its tyres we couldn’t see any stone scarring.
On dirt the Outback’s traditional Subaru all-wheel-drive system provided excellent traction. The test vehicles weren’t top-shelf models with Vehicle Dynamics Control and while this optional stability enhancement system would be a towing asset we had no issues with the basic vehicle’s grip on loose dirt and gravel.
At Gosse Bluff we ventured along the narrow, rocky track to this aboriginal sacred site – a track that’s deservedly marked ‘4WD only’. The Subaru had no difficulty on this course and the Jayco Outback camper’s excellent ground clearance kept it well clear of obstacles.
We were impressed by the body integrity of the Subaru on the dirt and off road sections of this test drive. Our first impressions of the 2004 Subaru range were that the suspension rates were a little on the firm side for dirt road work, but this test proved otherwise. There was no sign of suspension ‘walk’ over corrugations, no steering wheel shake from bumps and there was no evidence of body distortion as we picked our way across dry creek bottoms. The only protest the Subaru made was rattling from some of its interior trim components.
Ergonomics were judged excellent and the cloth-centred leather seats provided a comfortable perch, with good side support and none of the slipperiness that’s common with all-leather seats. The driver’s seat is also height adjustable.
The test cars were fitted with over-width mirrors, but the standard rear peepers provided adequate vision around the Jayco vans.
Fuel consumption during our on and off road towing loop worked out at 16.7 litres per 100 kilometres.
Subaru worked constantly on increases to the towing capacities of the entire range between 1990 and 2004. In 1990 the Outback was rated for a 1200kg towing load and by 2004 it had risen to 1800kg.
The cooling package for the Outback 3.0R included an optional additional transmission oil cooler. The standard three-litre engine radiator incorporated a transmission oil cooler in the bottom section of the radiator, but for heavy towing Subaru added a full-width cooler in front of the radiator.
The second oil cooler started to work when the transmission fluid warmed up and passed through a restriction orifice into the larger cooler.
As softroaders go the 2004 Subaru Outback was one of the best. The standard tyres were better in off road conditions than their innocuous appearance suggested and every Subie came with a full-sized spare under the cargo floor.
The underbody was clean and most vital components were tucked up out of harm’s way, but we’d like to have seen the plastic engine and transmission tray replaced by a metal one
The recovery points consisted of a forged screw-in eye up front and a welded eye at the rear. The front eye was a European type that located in a threaded socket behind the plastic air dam. The advantage of this design is that it puts the attachment point for a strap or towrope well clear of fragile plastic bodywork.
The engine air intake was a flat funnel atop the radiator and could easily be screened by a radiator blind when necessary.
We think Subaru’s habit of tagging under bonnet maintenance items with yellow caps or handles is an excellent idea: if it’s yellow, look underneath it every time you fill the fuel tank.
Jayco’s bush homes
It’s only when you see a collection of Jayco caravans and camper trailers that you realise just how many different models the market leader produces.
The Outback variants have proved popular with those who wish to venture off the black top and our experience pulling one was favourable.
Outback camper trailers sit higher than their road-going counterparts, thanks to larger chassis rails and underslung axles.
Set up with Subaru’s recommended 90 kg ball weight the Outback tracked straight behind its Subaru namesake. There was no fishtailing even at Northern Territory speeds and very little trailer ‘push’ when cornering. The electric drum brakes were easily adjusted from the driver’s seat and didn’t grab, even when liberally coated with dust.
The Outback camper trailer was easy to set up and pack, and backed without drama.
We liked the high mounted lights and blinkers and the fact that there was no stone bounce from the front of the trailer to the back of the towing vehicle. We couldn’t find a single stone chip on the rear of the Subaru.
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