2020 Subaru Outback first drive review: Tech and trail mix
Back in 1994, Subaru's engineers and product planners had the brilliant idea of taking the Legacy wagon, jacking it up on a raised suspension and calling it a crossover. Subie's hallmark Symmetrical all-wheel drive worked well with the tweaked ride height and put the so-called Subaru Outback in a sweet spot with a growing class of around 200,000 adventure-seeking buyers during its first generation. Two million units later, the Outback is Subaru's best-selling model.
The sixth-generation 2020 Subaru Outback's mission hasn't changed much, but the landscape it enters today is very different than it was 25 years ago. There's a lot more competition in the crossover space and buyers are getting a lot pickier. And so the Outback needs to evolve to keep its crown.
The new Outback is now based on Subaru's new Global Platform, just like the Forester. And as it's done with that vehicle, Subaru has largely avoided model year bloat with an overall length that is less than two inches longer than last year. The new Outback doesn't look all that different, either. The cladding has been changed, the roof rails get a redesign and the "Outback" logo has been moved from the front door to beneath the rear, but the broad strokes stick closely to the established tall-wagon formula. If you're a fan of prior Outbacks, you'll like this one, too.
Another big part of the Outback's formula is its off-road capability. The 2020 model still boasts 8.7 inches of ground clearance thanks to its elevated suspension and generous approach, departure, and break-over angles. Standard all-wheel drive is still in full effect, but it's now augmented by an available X-Mode terrain control system that enhances traction off-road with precise application of brake pressure and throttle control.
During my testing on a moderately gnarly ATV trail, I was impressed at how the Outback found traction when tackling some challenging climbs with all-season street tires on loose dirt. The large tall wagon is no rock crawler, but I think the off-road capabilities far exceed what the average weekend warrior will need to get to a campsite or mountain bike trail.
Providing torque for all of that trail riding is a new standard engine: A 2.5-liter Boxer four-cylinder engine -- borrowed from the Forester -- that makes 182 horsepower and 176 pound-feet of torque. That's an adequate amount of power; not overwhelming, but the Outback also never felt underpowered, even off-road. That engine is mated with a continuously variable transmission and, in ideal conditions, delivers an EPA estimated 26 miles per gallon city and 33 mpg highway. The CVT is a smooth operator, if maybe not the most fun, and did a good job balancing economy and torque delivery during my day of testing on the road and on the trail.
For 2020, the six-cylinder option is no more, so drivers looking for a bit more oomph behind the right pedal will need to upgrade to the new, 2.4-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder option, which we first saw in the larger Ascent. At this XT trim level, it makes 260 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque -- an improvement by both metrics over the old 3.6R model. Speed demons and the heavy-footed will feel a marked improvement in response and acceleration between the base 2.5 and turbocharged 2.4. However, for more relaxed driving styles, the CVT mutes much of the difference in off boost performance.
The 2020 lineup gains a new Onyx XT model that combines that turbocharged powertrain with blacked-out trim and unique 18-inch wheels. Inside, the Onyx gets a special weather-repellant, two-tone grey interior. Aiding off-road capability is a dual-mode version of the X-Mode system with a special Sand and Mud program, as well as a full-size spare tire, features unique to the Onyx model.
For drivers who spend most of their miles on the tarmac -- most of us, if I'm honest -- Subaru has made improvements to the Outback's on-road performance. There's a revised double-wishbone suspension upfront, which improves grip and stability when cornering and helps with comfort over bumps. Brake-based torque vectoring reigns in understeer and helps the crossover handle bend with more neutral, predictable steering. Revisions to the rear suspension and improved chassis noise reduction result in the Outback being much more comfortable and quiet, which helps make longer highway hauls less fatiguing.
The most dramatic change to the cockpit is the massive 11.6-inch vertical display that's available at upper trim levels. This portrait orientation means that the TomTom-powered navigation maps can stretch out to give a view further down the road. (However, the standard Android Auto or Apple CarPlay don't stretch vertically, so both technologies look a bit awkwardly cramped on the large screen.)
Powering this display is Subaru's new Starlink infotainment and telematics software, which makes good use of the interface with a design that is pretty straightforward after a pretty easy learning curve. The layout is basically split into three stacked tiers with the large center section being where all of your navigation, audio source selections, Starlink apps, and other main infotainment functions live.
At the top is a slim section that basically echoes the Subaru information screen that you'd find atop of the current Subaru Crosstrek's dashboard, and can be swiped between weather, traffic, vehicle and other at-a-glance information. The lower section is dedicated to multi-zone climate controls and seat heater toggles, though Subaru also has dedicated hardware buttons for temperature control and volume and tuning knobs that flank the screen for use when wearing gloves.
I mostly like this new setup, but I'm not in love with the touchscreen's digitizer -- the actual touch surface that registers tapped and swiped inputs. Looking closely, it appears that the digitizer sits a millimeter or so above the actual display, instead of flush, and has a plasticky feel that flexes a bit under my fingertips when I touch it. This is extremely nitpicky, I know, and I'm sure there's a reason Subaru chose this hardware (perhaps it works better with heavy gloves than a glass capacitive surface). Thankfully, the software seemed responsive enough to my touch inputs during testing.
The EyeSight driver aid suite should be familiar to Subie-philes by now, as it's the same setup that you'll find across most of the automaker's lineup from the Impreza to the Ascent. This stereoscopic camera-based system powers features like adaptive cruise control, pedestrian and animal detection, lane-keeping assist and more.
New for 2020 is a front-view camera option that gives a wide angle view of the area ahead of the car at low speeds, as well as a highway lane-centering function for the EyeSight steering assist that keeps the Outback from ping-ponging between the lane lines. The latter is a nice get on a wide enough highway, but my drive consisted of narrow B-roads and trails, I didn't have much of an opportunity to try it out.
The Outback is also the second model in Subaru's lineup to get the automaker's new Driver Focus monitoring system. This places an infrared camera on the dashboard that watches the driver's face to make sure they're not distracted or drowsy. The system can see the driver's eyes through most sunglasses and at night and responds with increasingly urgent alerts if you spend too much time not looking ahead. As a nice bonus feature, the Driver Focus system also powers a facial recognition system that can recall seat and mirror position and other preferences for up to five different profiles.
Value has also been an integral part of the Outback's formula and that's not going to change too much for the 2020 model year. Expect the Outback to start at around $27,655 for the base model -- only $335 more than last year -- and tops out at around $40,075 for the top Touring XT with the turbocharged engine and most of the available bells and whistles. Drivers interested in the blacked-out Onyx Edition will find it at a sweet spot in the lineup at $35,905. All of those prices, of course, include a $1,010 destination charge.
What I like most about the 2020 Subaru Outback is how the automaker took a very close look at the DNA of the vehicle and didn't change what people already loved. At the same time, it's made the rest of the vehicle much easier to live with, with smart applications of technology. Better safety tech makes it more appealing to families and, while not perfect, the new Starlink dashboard tech is a big step towards keeping the king of this niche competitive and relevant.
Editors' note: Travel costs related to this feature were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. While Roadshow accepts multi-day vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews, all scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms.
The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.
Originally published July 29.
Update, Aug. 13: Adds video.