The Americans had a problem: Where should they test their new Subaru Legacy Outback? John Carey was part of the obvious solution.
First published in the December 1995 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia’s most experienced and most trusted car magazine since 1953.
It was an obvious idea, really. But not ours; that credit belongs to another, faraway magazine. Here's the scene: Subaru of America has announced a new model. A Legacy- Liberty to us - with extra ground clearance and, in automatic transmission form at least, a new, larger 2.5 litre 16v engine. It is to be called the Legacy Outback. Paul Hogan has been hired to deliver the sales pitch and the Outback duly becomes an item for discussion at US magazine Automobile.
Read former Wheels editor Peter Robinson’s story of how John Carey came to write this classic tale.
So the Automobile people are gathered in their office in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a northern satellite of Motown, where associate editor Mark Schirmer wonders aloud if the right place to test the Outback isn't, well, the Outback. Though there seems little likelihood Subaru of America will go along with Schirmer's idea, it's considered worth running up the flagpole.
Subaru of America doesn't snap to attention and salute immediately but soon agrees to ship an early model to Australia. From there, Automobile is on its own.
Which is why the phone on Angus MacKenzie's desk rings one evening. Schirmer's idea has become his assignment.
Czech-born Jan Palo has the bar almost to himself on a quiet Sunday at the Maree Hotel.
Might Wheels be able to suggest a photogenic route · from Sydney to, say, Ayers Rock, he asks? One that will · take about three days. And could we organise accommodation and a local photographer to shoot the assignment?
Hands across the water and all that, so a flurry of faxes follows as the tour begins to take form. Four and a half days. Sydney to Alice Springs, with a side trip to see Uluru. Steve Strike, Alice Springs-based photographer, will record it all.
Strike, for those of you who haven't had the pleasure, is very bloody Australian indeed. Tall, tanned and whippet- thin, with a droopy moustache and drawling delivery to conceal a quick wit. And not a The American learns that Strike's infectious chortling is a sign he's driving on the wrong side hint of political correctness. · out to be short, tocky and clean-shaven. He’s never visited Australia before, but has clearly done some research before leaving Michigan.
Sydney is cool and calm shortly after dawn on the Friday of depature. The Outback is left-hand drive - Subaru’s plant in East Liberty, Ohio, doesn’t make Legacys any other way. I’m the one with local knowledge, so I steer through Sydney’s sprawling west and on to the Blue Mountains.
On the far side of the Great Dividing Range we make a all detour to Mount Panorama. Shirmer is first surprised it's public road then duly awed by the elevation change on Australia's favourite circuit.
Bathurst is the high point of the day. The Outback is so damn far away, and that means a long, long drive if there's to be time to linger later. So from Bathurst it's relentless push; through Dubbo, Nyngan, Cobar and Wilcannia to Broken Hill. The only excitement comes when Schirmer leaves a fuel stop in Cobar and casually steers up the righthand side of the main street.
“In the States, you wouldn’t be allowed to climb it,” he told Carey. “It’s so dangerous.”
"That side of the road, Mark," I remind him calmly, pointing. The slow-driving farmer in the oncoming 4WD ute is concerned, but not panicked.
It's a habit Schirmer finds hard to shake, but at least his later moments of forgetfulness come in remote, untrafficked places. The American learns that Strike's infectious chortling is a sign he's driving on the wrong side.
We roll into Broken Hill well after sundown. After almost 1200km, sleep is easy. We’ve reached the Outback’s edge. Genuine isolation and emptiness are now close by. Next morning we drive to nearby Silverton, an almost ghost town whose pub has starred in many a movie and countless commercials. The place seems to be turning into a remote artists’ colony. A three-legged dog wanders over. ‘Do Not Feed’ has been spray-painted on its back. The message is for visitors; the locals know it’s on a special diet.
From Broken Hill it’s a run of around 270km along the Barrier Highway and into South Australia to our chosen jumping off point at Yunta. After fuelling, the Subaru Outback gets its first taste of dirt. The road runs straight and fast across the rolling, treeless countryside towards the Flinders Ranges.
In the early afternoon we detour into Chambers Gorge to eat the sandwiches we’d bought in Broken Hill. We are the only people here. Brilliant Port Lincoln parrots flit in the trees growing along the dry bed of the creek.
Schirmer flails furiously at the flies, of which there are many. “These are nothing,” mutters Strike, munching his roll. “Just wait till summer…”
As we drive back towards the main track, Schirmer, who’s learned that Australians know who’s to blame for introduced pests like rabbits and foxes, inquires: “So did the Pommies bring the flies too?”
Outback splashing into Chambers Gorge.
With the North Flinders Ranges looming ever larger on our left it’s northward to Arkaroola, our second overnight stop. We reach the place at well before sundown. After consultation with Marg Sprigg - daughter of Reg Sprigg, the geologist and prospector who founded the place - Strike and Schirmer are allowed onto the ridgetop trails to photograph the Outback. There’s some concern they’ll meet one of Arkaroola’s Ridgetop Tours - conducted in LandCruiser utes with sturdy roll cages and central, outward facing seats - as it’s returning to base. The tracks are steep and narrow.
As we’re checking in, the young woman at the desk, curiosity pricked by the accent, asks about Schirmer’s nationality. He tells her then hears she’s from Manchester.
“So you’re one of these Poms I’ve been hearing about,” he exclaims with mock delight. She flashes back a polite, quizzical smile.
Arkaroola is set in rugged red ranges. On the after dusk return from shooting, Schirmer is pacing a roo along the twisting track back to the village, when it stumbles and falls in front of the car. A stab on the brakes prevents an accident. It’s the closest the Outback gets to hitting one, though Schirmer by now has seen ample evidence that many aren’t so lucky.
Leaving Arkaroola means some backtracking to reach the road which heads due west for Leigh Creek. We turn right and north on a bitumen road. The blacktop lasts 33km, past the huge hole in the ground which is the Leigh Creek coal mine, as far as Lyndhurst.
Lunch in the pub at Maree, 80km further north. It’s Sunday afternoon but the bar’s almost empty. Strike coaxes a local to pose. He’s a Czech immigrant who became a Displaced Person when WW2 ended. The barman makes jokes about the “dud Czech” as he serves good sandwiches.
Maree is desolate, its light hard and clean. Abandoned diesel locomotives are parked on the rusting rails which divide the tiny town. We’re running beside the old Ghan Railway now.
Outback climbing Arkaroola trail.
Lake Eyre South, the small southern part of Australia’s biggest salt lake, looms on the right. It’s vast. A shimmering mirage makes it hard to tell where lake and sky meet. We drive to the edge and walk out on the salt in stifling silence.
“And this is the small one?” says Schirmer, not expecting an answer. Next stop is Beresford, a ruined railway station. The bore still yields water. Nearby there’s a waterhole, surrounded by trees. There are cormorants in the water, corellas in the surrounding trees and swallows feeding on the wing. It’s an oasis.
Schirmer climbs the derelict desalination tower, usedto make the bore water suitable for steam engines. “There ain’t nothing out there,” he shouts down.
But beyond the horizon lies William Creek Hotel. Planes are parked beside the main street and the bar is full.
Beyond William Creek we leave the Oodnadatta Track and turn left and west for Coober Pedy, opal town. We’re looking forward to the luxury of the Desert Sands Motel.
From Coober Pedy the remainder of the drive to uluru is a flog along the bitumen of the Stuart and Lasseter Highways. For the first 100km or so there are incredible numbers of wedge-tailed eagles feasting on the road trains’ overnight kill. They’re big birds and very slow to accelerate. We get a very close view of one’s backside as it flaps along the road, slowly gathering speed. It’s a very, very near miss.
You can see The Rock from 50km away. Your imagination can’t prepare you for the up-close reality. It’s simply awe-inspiring.
As the sun falls we retire to the official Ayers Rock Sunset Viewing Point. It’s nearly full. On one side there’s a small tour bus full of Japanese sipping campers and chewing tidbits.
Schirmer sits on the bonnet of the Outback, having what he later describes as a “religious experience” as the sun sets on Uluru. Even the cheerfully chattering crowd can’t spoil the moment. Schirmer proclaims he must climb it.
He rises before dawn the next morning to make the ascent. Strike and I sleep in. Schirmer is among the first to set out on the climb. It’s hard but worth it, he tells us over breakfast. “In the States, you wouldn’t be allowed to climb it,” he adds. “It’s so dangerous....”
There’s little danger, though, in averaging 160 km/h on the Northern Territory’s unrestricted roads. Schirmer and I have planes to catch in Alice. Strike has a home to go to.
We’ve driven 4000km and seen but a fraction of the Outback. But we’re grown to know, trust and respect and even like the other Outback as we’ve done it.
What is the American Outback?
Simply put, Legacy Outback equals rough-ready Subaru Liberty 4WD wagon. Built in left-hand drive at Subaru of America's plant in East Liberty, Ohio, the Outback's prime task is to broaden the Legacy/Liberty's market appeal in North America. Badged as the Grand Wagon, it's also being sold in Europe where Japanese-made right-hand drive variants recently went on sale. This will be the source of the Australian Outback when it goes on sale here next year.
Outback is, the North American advertising campaign claims, 'The World's First Sport Utility Wagon'. Utility, in this case, obviously doesn't translate into the Australian idiom. It plainly isn't a ute. What it means is that the Legacy Outback is a competitor for more conventional 4WDs, generically known in the US as sport utes. For this new role, the Outback is made stronger, taller and more muscular than other Legacys. It's sharply priced at around US$20,000.
Legacy’s 2.5 litre dohc is a bored and stroked 2.2 with dohc heads. Much improved torque delivery gives it a real edge off-road.
Strength is increased by stamping certain key elements of the Outback's platform from thicker than standard steel. The Outback has ground clearance of 185mm - 30mm greater than other US-market Legacys - provided by a combination of spacers between body and suspension sub-frames and larger diameter wheels and tyres. Shock absorber piston rod diameters are also increased. The 15in alloys wear Mud and Snow 205/70 Michelins.
Power, in the case of Outbacks with automatic transmission like the one seen on these pages, comes from a 2.5 litre 16v dohc version of Subaru's flat four. manual models make do with the 2.2 litre 16v sohc from the current Australian Liberty until late '96 when the 2.5 takes over.
The dohc 2.5 is enlarged through increases to both bore and stroke; 2.4mm and 4.0mm respectively. The engine produces 115kW and 210Nm, 22 percent and 11 percent more than the 2.2 litre. More important, peak torque arrives at 2800rpm versus 4400rpm.
Chunky bumpers make it clear this is no ordinary Legacy. After 4000km it's clear the new plastic, at least at the rear, hasn't been designed for truly tough conditions. The barrage of stones thrown up on gravel roads has torn all but one of the bumper's bottom-edge fasteners adrift. And the plastic has begun to split.
Generally the Outback does most things pretty damn well. Though capable of sustained running near its 180km/h cut-out the 2.5's extra punch is most noticeable at lower speeds.
The Outback jumps from a standing start and conquers hills with greater eagerness than a 2.2 litre Liberty. Any increase in fuel consumption is negligible; the Outback averaged 13.1L/100km over 4000km, despite being laden to near capacity and driven hard. The auto gearbox, however doesn't show the engine at its best. The electronically controlled four-speeder is sluggish in its responses and not a particularly smooth shifter.
The Outback's suspension is a mixed bag, too. On smooth-ish bitumen roads it handles very much like a normal Liberty 4WD wagon. The higher centre of gravity is barely noticeable and the ride is, if anything, more absorbant. But when the road undulates, the softness of the Subaru's rear springs and dampers combine to bob the tail. The Outback remembers dirt road irregularities for some time afterwards in several diminishing oscillations before eventually settling. This also means rear-end grip isn't always reliable.
It copes admirably with rough, slow tracks. There's ground clearance enough to straddle rocks and ruts confidently and sufficient wheel travel to keep all four Michelins grounded most of the time. Steep climbs are easy work. The permanent 4WD system distributes drive intelligently and the automatic's torque converter translate delicate throttle work into steady, lurch-free progress. But there's no engine braking worth a damn in descents, and constant braking is necessary.
The Outback is capable of what most would consider four-wheel driving, for a lower price, with greater comfort and using less fuel.
It makes perfect sense, especially if it can be priced around $40,000.