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 Subaru where does fall behind is in scheduled servicing which, at six months or 12,500km 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.
The Kia Sorento has returned to the winner’s list following a subtle but well thought out model update late in 2017, which has made a very good vehicle even better. Of course, there were the usual minor cosmetic changes necessary to distinguish the new model from its predecessor but the real differences lay beneath the surface.
The diesel versions get an all-new conventional-style eight-speed automatic. Having two extra gears provides a better spread of ratios, which helps the 2.2-litre turbo-diesel deliver strong performance and general drivability, both on and off the road. Even more noticeable, though is the reduction in fuel consumption and the vehicle’s smoother and quieter operation all round.
Kia’s local engineering team has further worked to fine tune the suspension and make it better suited to Australian road conditions. The end result is a compliant, controlled ride that is amongst the best in the class. This sure-footedness also continues off-road where the Sorento shows plenty of agility.
The highest-selling version in the Sorento line-up is the top-spec GT-Line AWD diesel model. Over recent years, buyers have recognised the long-term value-for-money proposition of it, which now has extra features including a premium sound system, bigger touchscreen, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone integration, a 360-degrees camera view and LED headlights that turn with the steering to help see where you’re heading.
A comprehensive suite of advanced safety technologies supports Sorento’s excellent five-star ANCAP rating. Highly desirable autonomous emergency braking with a forward collision warning system is now standard across the range, together with a host of other safety features including lane keep assist, driver attention alert, rear-view camera and hill start assist. The GT-Line adds blind spot detection and cross traffic alert. Relatively affordable running and repair costs, the reassurance of seven years capped price servicing and the peace of mind provided by Kia’s class-leading seven-year warranty should also be considered in the buying decision.
The Sorento is a practical and classy family wagon. Seven seats are standard and space and comfort are both considered amongst the best in class. Leg room in the third row, which is an area many vehicles in this class fall short, is relatively good in the Sorento, but could still be tight for large adults to travel long distances.
The GT-Line’s interior is well appointed with leather trim and impressive build quality creating a genuine luxury look and feel. Ergonomically, the Sorento is one of the best in class, with clear instrumentation and well laid out controls that fall naturally to hand, which all play a significant role in the vehicle’s overall driving ease.
In such a large and hotly contested category, it’s the Sorento’s consistently high standards over all aspects of long-term ownership (value for money, design and function, and on-road ability) that makes it a worthy class winner in this year’s Australia’s Best Car awards.
For the last couple of years, Volvo has provided genuine competition to the German and British offerings in the premium SUV market. This year, the XC60, like the XC90 before it, has taken out this prestigious class.
Think ‘SUV’ and you probably think ‘gas guzzlers’, but the finalists all have relatively fuel efficient 2.0-litre turbo diesel engines with eight-speed automatic transmissions to make the most of the small capacities and keep them in their RPM sweet-spots to maximise responsiveness and efficiency.
Gone are the boxy Volvos of the past and both the internal and external styling of the XC60 are elegant and very much in keeping with the overall brand design shared with the XC90. The cabin has a very upmarket feel, with a mix of woodgrain panels, leather and brushed metal accents, and intricately cut speaker grilles and shaped air vents. A customisable, dash-mounted, tablet-like screen provides the driver with a main access point to the XC60’s systems, such as the infotainment system and driving controllers. Physical buttons are limited to demisters, hazard lights, music navigation, volume and a home button for the touchscreen.
The quality of the seats, both in their materials and comfort, is class-leading and the engine start/stop is next to the drive selector and operated via twisting a knob.
Pioneering safety technology is nothing new for Volvo, and this vehicle follows the tradition of the first-generation XC60, which was the first Volvo to get autonomous emergency braking as standard nearly a decade ago. The new XC60 has a collision avoidance assistant to help the driver in making evasive manoeuvres, and oncoming lane mitigation, which steers the vehicle away from a potential head-on crash. It also has intersection collision avoidance that automatically applies the brakes if the driver turns in front of an oncoming vehicle.
The all-wheel-drive system is fitted across the range and driving was surprisingly smooth. On the bitumen you aren’t really conscious that you’re driving an SUV and would swear you’re instead driving a well-behaved and competent handling sedan. Off-road it didn’t do as well as some in the mud and dirt undulations, mainly due to its city road tyres quickly clogging up and making traction difficult. However, even off-road you feel cossetted in the quiet, safe and comfortable cabin of the XC60.
Living with the XC60 is simple and convenient. There’s a user-friendly tailgate that opens with the swipe of a foot under the bumper. And, while not having the cargo space of the larger XC90, it does have ample storage space.
The XC60’s lower price made it the best value package in the class. As an extremely drivable vehicle with a comfortable and luxurious interior, the judges just kept piling on the scores to have it winning ahead of its larger and more expensive sibling.