Big news about Subaru in the past few months has been its shift from conventional automatic gearboxes to Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT).
Or rather a development of CVT that the company calls Subaru Lineartronic Transmission (SLT), which uses a steel chain instead of the belt-type technology in most other CVTs.
The latest XV crossover, which was launched to the media right at the end of 2011, eschewed the four-speed automatic of the previous model in favour of SLT. So too does the all-new Impreza (which also provides the base for the XV, of course), becoming Subaru's most economical petrol-powered model: Combined fuel consumption of just 6.8 litres per 100km.
Radical, huh? Not really. It's easy to forget that Subaru has been doing the SLT thing since 2009, with the current Legacy/Outback lineup. Subaru claims its version of this 'gearless' transmission technology differs from the CVT-norm in being stronger, more compact and (the important bit this) more responsive.
In truth, experience in the Outback 2.5i, with its 123kW/229Nm powerplant, bears this out more than with the smaller Impreza 2.0. I'm still no great fan of CVT, but Subaru's system is almost certainly the best. With a decent amount of torque to draw upon it resists the urge to hit the redline as soon as you put you foot down, and in fact seems engineered to 'step down' a couple of thousand revs once you've experienced an initial surge of acceleration.
I like that; other CVTs tend to just race to the redline and stay there until you lift your right foot. I think Subaru's system acknowledges that CVT/SLT is a somewhat unnatural state, and efforts have been made to allow you to drive it more like a regular automatic.
The man benefit of SLT is fuel economy of course. Our entry-level $48,990 Outback 2.5i achieves 8.3 litres per 100km in the official Australian Design Rules (ADR) test cycle, which is pretty impressive for a big(ish) crossover with a petrol engine.
The SLT is not your only option, of course. Subaru still offers a six-speed manual, although sales of that are virtually non-existent and the three-pedal version actually uses more fuel: 8.9 litres.
We're talking Subaru and fuel economy... in a positive sense. Times have changed, right? However, the Outback still takes a familiar road in terms of chassis dynamics and practicality, and that's a good thing.
Changes for 2012 have been few, but the Outback has gained a reversing camera which works via a small screen in the centre console. A worthwhile addition, even if the 4.3-inch screen seems akin to peeking through a keyhole compared with the large displays of similar systems in other cars.
Say what you will about its transmission ethos, but Subaru still cares about handling and ride. The Outback rides higher than its sister Legacy wagon so is more prone to understeer and body roll, but in some respects I prefer the extra compliance on Kiwi roads. It's still a fantastic car to drive, with precise steering and a communicative chassis that can easily be steered with the throttle on gravel roads.
Add to the package the sheer practicality of a pretty large family wagon - nearly 4800mm long, 490 litres of cargo volume - and the Outback is still pretty close to the perfect Kiwi vehicle.