Japanese brand Subaru is famous for its symmetrical four-wheel drive and, of course, boxer engines. I asked my 10-year-old what he thought of Subaru and he replied without hesitation: "It makes really great rally cars - with gold wheels." 

Our Outback test car this week might lack gold wheels and certainly doesn't look like a fire-breathing WRX or STi rally machine, but the important thing is that it shares their DNA. 

Outback is a well-known and respected name in estate car circles and it has been truly one of the benchmark all-wheel drive estates over the years. 

Time is marching on, however, and the current Outback is set to be replaced next year in time for the '152' reg. Right now, you can get the ultimate evolution of the big comfy machine, fitted with a brand new 'Lineartronic' gearbox. 

The seven-speed/stepped 'CVT' gearbox is the big news. Subaru has paired it up with its default engine these days, the two-litre TD diesel boxer. The four-cylinder engine pushes out 150hp and 350nm of torque, which does a good job of hauling around the 1.6-tonne, five-seater. Outback is certified to tow 1.7 tonnes too, so expect to see it at gymkhanas. 

Lineartronic features an 'Active Torque Split' all-wheel drive system that does a similar job to the six-speed manual's centre differential with viscous LSD (limited-slip differential). Outback is all about ease of use, and it delivers on that promise.

Outback is virtually anonymous on the outside - you see, Subaru is full of engineers while designers are thin on the ground. This plain styling suits some buyers, especially those who are more concerned with towing capacity and traction. Apart from the big bonnet scoop, the car's exterior design is bland. The damning proof is that the same 10-year-old walked right past it when I was collecting him from school. And I was in it!

Once inside the comfort level compensates for the conservative exterior. The soft leather seats (SX) deliver an armchair level of comfort. The rest of the interior is showing its age - you certainly won't find Google connectivity or the like - but the cabin is still effective nonetheless. 

The new auto gearbox is a CVT (continuously variable transmission). They are generally droney, sluggish and devoid of personality, but Subaru has made a good fist of this box. The car shifts smoothly but, more importantly, it sips fuel, relatively speaking. Subaru quotes an average consumption of 6.3l/100km (45mpg). We got pretty close to this in a week of testing (6.6).

On the road, Outback's ride is soft and supple. You know by the way the revised suspension feels as it drives along on its 17-inch alloys that the car can handle most modest off-road work in comfort. The 526-litre boot is impressive, especially when you consider you also get decent ground clearance (200mm). 

Two versions are available: an entry-level SE manual for €41,995; and an SX Lineartronic that features leather seats among a host of other creature comforts at €44,995.

Outback does what it says on the tin. Behind the wheel drivers will feel a little superior, thanks to the brand's impressive AWD heritage. 

Michael Sheridan