Car review – big bootie

I am currently in quarantine after returning to Hampshire from just over a week in Provence. We had intended to spend three weeks in France, working the first and then holidaying for the remaining two. But in order to get our children to school on time we had to cut things short. Choosing to avoid airports and other people, in total we drove just under 2,000 miles which prompted me to do my next review on cars.

What I think will make this review unique, is that I know nothing about cars. I do like cars, I used to own a Defender 110 which we drove down to Morocco, but it was a nightmare to park in London and candidly it was incredibly uncomfortable on long drives. The onset of children sparked a rapid succession of cars as we tried to identify the optimal one for our needs. This culminated in us owning a VW Passat GTE estate and Fiat Panda 4×4.

Passat GTE in touring mode and unusually not being repaired

On paper the Passat was great, in that it was a plug in hybrid, very economical, big boot etc. In reality, it was the most uncomfortable car I had ever driven and would arrive after only a two hour drive with my back broken and reduced to hobbling around like an old man after longer journeys. My wife had the same issue. It also had very low ground clearance and ridiculously low-profile tyres that were not going to be up to the job with our move to the country. And finally, like every VW group car I have owned, it broke down ending up off the road for nearly a month while VW in Germany tried to work out why it wouldn’t move. My Panda, which was really a toy, was great fun, unstoppable off road and I relished rocking up to shoots in it. With the lane to school deteriorating, my wife drove the Panda and I commuted to the office or station in the Passat, or more often than not, the VW Sharan the garage had lent me.

My one concern with the Panda was its death-trap status, officially confirmed by Euro NCAP awarding it zero stars. Zero stars is an incredible feat of aged engineering. What you must not forget is there is an arms race happening on the UK’s roads with cars getting bigger and bigger, particularly if your children attend a certain type of school. You are in the minority if you are not driving a XC90, Range Rover, Discovery or, god forbid, that ghastly Bentley 4×4 thing – officially the worlds most obnoxious car. The Bentayga, which means “c**t” in Swahili apparently, could drive over our Panda reducing it to a crushed Italian tin can without even noticing. Fortunately, as we didn’t send our children to Cheam, there are relatively few of these monstrosities around, so while the risk was relatively small, we concluded the Panda had to go despite the pleasure I got from how out of place it looked in the car park.

Fiat Panda 4×4 – great off-road, not so good on it

With both the Passat and Panda on the way out I was on the hunt for something with:

  1. Big boot – this is critical, cannot overstate its significance
  2. Safe – I am anxious
  3. Petrol – I love my lungs and those of my children
  4. 4×4 with good ground clearance- but should not be an SUV
  5. At least 2 tonne towing capacity – have a boat to shift around
  6. Not a status symbol – see above
  7. Reliable – I was getting fed up of VW Basingstoke’s waiting room
  8. Really comfortable – I’m getting old
  9. Big tyres – need to be pothole proof
  10. Automatic gearbox – why would you have a manual any more? In the UK you are either stationary or crawling along about to become stationary, a nightmare in a manual car.

I spent quite a lot of time trying to find something along these lines, but most options from Skoda, whose 4×4 Octavia should really be ideal, were let down by low profile tyres, or no petrol option available. The new XC70 from Volvo looked too expensive and complicated and it no longer had the cavernous boot it used to, plus it also had low profile tyres which are prone to popping on pot holes, of which we have some particularly spectacular ones around us. The Audi Allroad was fine, but I didn’t want to drive an Audi.

Lane and river merge into one

I was beginning to loose hope and was resigning myself to perhaps having to get the Skoda, deal with its nitrous oxide and stump up a load of money to put normal wheels on it. Then, on an extended business trip to the US mid-west in the winter, when the temperature got down to -28c and thick snow covered the ground I saw it. Literally everyone was driving a 4×4 estate that was petrol and automatic. I even got picked up by one being used as an Uber (btw always a good sign I think, these Uber drivers don’t dick around with anything second rate). It was comfortable, quiet and reassuringly bland from the outside. It also had sensible tyres on and great ground clearance. These Subaru Outbacks were everywhere, indeed, from later research in America “wagons”, which I think is what we would call an estate car, represents 1.4% of the US market of which the Outback made up 1.2%.

Jumping off the plane at Heathrow I was set on a Subaru Outback. The problem is, that while Subaru are massive in the US, they are tiny in the UK selling just over 3,000 cars a year. 3,000! To provide some context, Audi sell up to 30,000 cars a month! I was staggered, why wasn’t everyone driving these brilliant cars like in the US?

Anyway, the Outback, in the UK is certainly niche, so niche in fact that the dealership I bought it from sold Subarus and Lotus, another incredibly niche brand, seeming genuinely surprised to sell a car. Regardless, its just been over a year and, having done two 13 hours drives, fully laden, bikes on back, box on roof, dog in footwell across France in temperatures that hit 43c I cannot fault this car.

Good size boot

While being supremely comfortable on the motorway, once we got to rural Provence, it was brilliant on the various off road tracks that get you to the best picnic spots in the foothills of the Mont Ventoux. Even more laden on the way back with as much wine as we dared, we still had a very comfortable drive.

When I am out doing my shoot duties, it has no problems lugging bags of grain around through the fields. Potholes are no issues and when the lane floods, and it floods seriously, the Outback plods along quite happily. It is inoffensive on the eye and critically not many people own them so its quite hard to stereotype the owner, apart from being a massive anorak that blogs about broadband.

Picnic spot finder

Downsides are it doesn’t have a DAB radio, or parking sensors instead giving you a camera at the back which is fine provided it isn’t too sunny, when the screen is impossible to see, or when it isn’t muddy, as mud covers the camera. I’ve now taken to giving my finger a lick and wiping the lens every couple of times I open the boot to keep the camera lens clean – I like this car so much I’m surprised I’m not using my tongue to do it…