2020 Subaru Outback: First Drive Review

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience Bucking the Trend
The U.S. passenger car market has been declining during 2019, but Subaru is bucking that trend — June marked the 91st consecutive month of sales growth for the Japanese automaker. Leading the pack is Subaru’s Outback — the vehicle that arguably started the crossover segment when it was introduced 25 years ago as a wagon with raised ground clearance. Now Subaru has revealed an all-new Outback, and after spending time in this new model both on and off pavement, we’re convinced those record sales will continue.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience Familiar Looks
Car shoppers might think the new sixth-generation Outback looks much like the current model — and they would be correct. Granted, the exterior does receive a few design updates, but unless folks know what to look for, most will simply recognize the vehicle as an Outback. (Most noticeable are new horizontal LED fog lights — the Outback has had large, round fog lights since the model’s humble beginnings.) However, there are major changes under the skin for the 2020 model. Built on the company’s global platform, Outback possesses many new features, a greatly improved interior, updated powertrains and the latest version of EyeSight — Subaru’s suite of advanced safety technology.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience New Global Platform
Introduced in 2017 on the new Impreza, Subaru’s global platform has also been the foundation for the new Forester, Ascent and 2020 Legacy. With a structure 70 percent stiffer in torsional rigidity than the outgoing model, as well as a 100 percent improvement in rear subframe rigidity, the new Outback provides a much more comfortable and engaging ride — which has been our experience with other Subarus on this new platform. An all-new, lighter, more responsive suspension also adds to the model’s improved drivability.

© Subaru of America Safety
Even though the 2020 Outback has been redesigned for improved crash protection, Subaru’s EyeSight system — now standard on all Outbacks — helps avoid collisions altogether. EyeSight includes automatic emergency braking as well as an advanced adaptive cruise control with lane centering, providing steering assistance if the vehicle veers out of its lane. Also new for 2020 is the DriverFocus Distraction Mitigation System, which uses an infrared camera and facial recognition to determine if the drive is fatigued or simply not paying attention; it provides both audio and visual alerts.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience Top Safety Pick +
The Subaru Outback is one of the safest vehicles in America, named a Top Safety Pick + by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The Outback has earned this top rating since 2013, and it is very likely to continue this run once the 2020 Outback is tested. Subaru has also prepared the new Outback for the NHTSA’s upcoming Oblique Overlap crash test — this test will go into effect in 2023, but Subaru says that the 2020 Outback meets the requirements today.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience Model Lineup
Subaru offers several variants of the new Outback, ranging from a base version to the luxurious Touring trim level. All Outbacks features Subaru’s Symmetrical all-wheel drive with active torque vectoring, vehicle dynamics control, X-Mode with hill descent control and a generous 8.7-inches of ground clearance.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience Subaru Outback (Base)
The entry trim of the Outback lineup has a starting MSRP of $26,645 and comes well equipped with dual 7.0-inch display screens — one for audio, one for climate control and other vehicle systems — as well as an AM / FM / HD Radio audio system, Apple CarPlay / Android Auto, roof rails with integrated crossbars, LED headlights and 17-inch alloy wheels. Also standard is EyeSight, which includes automatic emergency braking, advanced adaptive cruise control with lane centering and high-beam assist.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience Subaru Outback Premium
With a base price of $28,895, the Outback Premium adds dual-zone climate control, heated front seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a power driver’s seat, rear-seat USB ports, LED fog lights and a large 11.6-inch high-resolution vertical touchscreen display.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience Subaru Outback Limited
Priced at $33,445, the Outback Limited upgrades the Premium with perforated leather seat trim, a power passenger seat, heated rear seats, gloss black and silver metallic interior trim, keyless access with pushbutton start, a hands-free power liftgate and reverse automatic braking. For an additional $4,300, the Limited XT adds a turbocharged engine as well as a power moonroof, Subaru’s DriverFocus distraction mitigation system and insulated front door glass.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience Subaru Outback Touring
The top-level Outback Touring has a base price of $37,345 and comes well equipped with Java Brown Nappa leather trim with tan stitching, ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, a power moonroof, a navigation system and exterior trim in chrome and silver. Also standard is Subaru’s new DriverFocus distraction mitigation system. The Touring XT adds a turbocharged engine, insulated front door glass and dual tailpipes for an additional $2,350.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience Subaru Outback Onyx XT
The Onyx is an all-new trim for 2020, and it is the least expensive turbocharged Outback. Starting at an MSRP of $34,895, the Onyx stands out with black exterior trim, black 18-inch alloy wheels and an exclusive gray two-tone interior with a special water-repellant StarTex seat trim. Also standard is a 180-degree front-view monitor, a full-size spare tire, a hands-free power liftgate and the exclusive dual-mode X-Mode for increased off-road capability.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience Under the Hood
Outback is available with two different engines, both of which offer more power and better fuel economy than the outgoing units. The standard powertrain is a 2.5-liter boxer 4-cylinder engine producing 182 horsepower and 176 lb-ft of torque, with power sent to all four wheels via a Lineartronic CVT featuring an 8-speed manual mode that simulates a typical transmission. Fuel economy is rated at 26 mpg city / 33 mpg highway / 29 mpg combined.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience Turbo
For the first time since 2009, Subaru puts a turbocharged powerplant back in the Outback. Powering the XT trims is a 2.4-liter turbocharged boxer engine that produces 260 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of torque at a low 2000 rpm. A new high-torque CVT is designed to better handle the turbocharged power and it does a fine job. Much more fuel efficient than the outgoing six cylinder, the turbocharged engine is rated at 25 mpg city / 32 mpg highway / 28 mpg combined — only slightly less than the standard engine. This turbocharged engine also gives the Outback its best tow rating ever: 3,500 pounds.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience Inner Space
Inside the cabin, the new Outback stands out from previous generations thanks to a much more premium look. A large vertical display screen sets the focus and tone of the interior, and it is nicely integrated with the instrument panel via a large, easy-to-read display. The system has hard knobs for volume and tuning, and actual buttons for climate control, but everything else is accessed via the touchscreen. Normally this setup tends to reveal shortcomings, but the Subaru system seems to be designed well with shortcuts to the home screen, as well as reserved sections for climate control and an additional information screen at the top.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience Front Seats
Front seats in the new 2020 Subaru Outback are quite comfortable, although naturally we prefer the soft leather on the higher trim levels. The waterproof StarTex material in the Onyx possesses an odd texture; although it seems optimal for adventurous types who might get in the car while all muddy or wet, for everyday use it may not be as desirable.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience Rear Seat
The new Outback is longer than the previous generation, and the rear seat capitalizes on the extra space. Both headroom and legroom are increased, which makes for a very roomy back seat. The middle seat doesn’t feel as cramped as some other crossovers, so Outback can easily seat five occupants. The optional heated rear seats and 2.1-amp USB ports make riding in back even better.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience Cargo Space
Subaru redesigned the rear hatch of the 2020 Outback with a wider opening for easier loading. For added convenience, Subaru now offers hands-free hatch opening — a simple wave of the hand across the rear Subaru logo opens the hatch. The Outback also has a new cargo cover design that allows for quick release — very convenient when hands are full. Cargo volume has also increased over the previous generation; with the rear seats folded flat, the rear area has 75 inches of linear space — enough room for a trip to a big-box furniture showroom, or for the average adult sleeping bag — depending on how folks plan to use their new Outback.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience On the Road
The Outback is billed as a crossover SUV, but we still think of it as a wagon — and that is a compliment. As a wagon, Outback drives much like a car — which means better handling and overall a more comfortable ride than the typical crossover. The driver position remains elevated for better visibility, but ingress and egress remain easy, even for shorter or older folks.

© Subaru of America Underpowered at Times
The standard engine teamed with the CVT is perfectly adequate in most driving situations; however, the combination can feel a bit anemic when encountering steep inclines or attempting to accelerate quickly to merge with traffic. Full throttle results in a lot of noise without much acceleration.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience Turbo Power
It’s a different story with the new turbocharged powerplant. Although we’re not big fans of CVTs in general, the transmission in the 2020 Outback works quite well with the more powerful engine. Acceleration is quick — passing on a two-lane road presents no problems — and overall the new Outback has plenty of power on tap.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience Quiet and Smooth
The 2020 Outback delivers a quiet, smooth ride with decent steering feedback and an overall solid feel. When the road gets curvy the Outback holds its own, but it isn’t a sports car — nor is it designed to be one. Note that higher-level trims with insulated front windows are noticeably quieter than Outbacks with standard windows — something worth considering before purchase.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience Off-Road
With 8.7-inches of ground clearance and a very capable all-wheel-drive system, the Outback feels right at home when the pavement ends. During a recent press drive we experienced a variety of terrain as we piloted the new Outback through woods near Fort Bragg, California, and the found the ride much more comfortable than expected. Even when encountering severe ruts and dips the 2020 Outback’s ride isn’t jarring, and overall the vehicle inspires confidence as it tackles steep climbs on loose surfaces.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience X-Mode
During our off-road drive we left the Outback in X-Mode — the system stays on until reaching speeds of 25 mph. In addition to providing better low-speed traction over slippery, uneven surfaces, X-Mode also features hill-descent control. This system will hold the speed of the Outback on steep descents, even when the surface is loose or slick. Once a hill gets crested and descent begins, whatever the speed at that time is what gets maintained without drivers having to touch the throttle or brakes. Although the experience can be a bit unnerving, X-Mode works quite well by maintaining control in what feels and looks like a precarious situation.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience Not Trying To Be a Jeep
Some will immediately dismiss the off-road capabilities of the Outback because it can’t perform like a Jeep Wrangler. Granted, the Outback is not going to climb over rocks and has no low-range 4-wheel drive system. Yet, for most consumers, the Outback is more than capable of handling rough logging roads or taking other forays off pavement.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience Right for You?
The Subaru Outback has a loyal following, and those who enjoy the current model are likely to discover they like the new one even more. A variety of trims provide economical or luxurious transportation with impressive off-road prowess, comfortable everyday drivability, plenty of cargo-carrying utility and the latest high-tech safety features. Add to this fuel-efficient powertrains and rugged good looks and the new 2020 Outback makes an excellent option in the very competitive crossover segment. And for those who wish to “Buy American,” or at least drive a vehicle built in America, the new Outback is assembled in Indiana at Subaru of Indiana Automotive.

© Perry Stern, Automotive Content Experience Rating: 9.0
Pros: Premium interior; off-road comfort and capability; advanced safety features standard.
Cons: Smaller engine feels underpowered; cargo hatch cannot be closed manually; Onyx seat material uncomfortable.
Bottom Line: The original crossover is better than ever — both on and off the road.

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