Test Drive:2020 Subaru Outback

Ron Sessions | Aug 29, 2019
2020 Subaru Outback photo
Photo: Ron Sessions

Introduction

The Outback is Subaru’s best-selling model. Two million have been sold since the model was first introduced in 1994. The 2020 version marks the debut of the 6th generation version. It’s a winning combination of sport-utility-like capabilities and all-wheel drive with carlike ride, handling and fuel economy drive characteristics.

For 2020, Subaru polishes the Outback’s apple with significantly upgraded interior materials, a new 11.6-inch tablet-style infotainment screen, two new engines and available DriverFocus Distraction Mitigation system. As it was in 2019, Subaru’s dual-camera Eyesight Driver Assist system is standard on all models and expands to include adaptive cruise control with lane centering.

Prices range from $27,655 to $40,705 including the $1,010 destination charge. The model lineup includes the $27,655 Base, $29,905 Premium, $34,455 Limited and $38,355 Touring models plus a new Onyx Edition XT. The $38,755 Limited XT and $40,705 Touring XT models with a new turbocharged engine round out the available trims.

The new $35,905 Onyx Edition XT is aimed at younger buyers looking for a dash of testosterone. It comes with black-out trim, black painted alloy wheels, all-weather gray synthetic seat coverings, Dual X-Mode (off-road traction control) with throttle mitigation, hill descent control, a full-size spare, a 180-degree camera and 3,500-lb towing ability.

2020 Subaru Outback front view photo
Photo: Ron Sessions

Styling and Design

To the casual observer, the 2020 Outback looks much the same as the outgoing 2019 model. The side windows and rearmost roof pillars have a more streamlined appearance and there’s a body-color roof spoiler as well. Otherwise, the new Outback maintains the “hiking boot” design theme that’s been so successful over its 25-year history, complete with black-out lower body cladding, more robust-looking front and rear fascias and a functional roof rack with tie-downs and retractable cross bars. It’s a 5-passenger wagon with 8.7 inches of ground clearance that can go places, still showing plenty of air between the tops of its 17- or 18-inch all-season tires and the fender wells.

While it rides on the same wheelbase as the 2019 model, the 2020 Outback gets stretched 1.4 inches behind the rear wheels, aiding rear seat legroom and cargo space. New for 2020 are standard LED low- and high-beam headlamps and boomerang tail lamps as well as stacked vertical LED running lamps.

The 2020 Outback’s cabin gets a significant upgrade with more extensive seat bolstering, more soft-touch materials and major infotainment system updates.

2020 Subaru Outback interior dashboard and front seats photo
Photo: Ron Sessions

Features and Controls

Standard on all Outback trims is set-and-forget automatic climate control, adaptive cruise control, high-beam assist, a backup camera with a washer, remote keyless entry, cloth seat trim, manual-adjusting front buckets with a driver’s side seat height adjuster, a 60/40 split folding rear seat, two USB ports in the center console, a tilt/telescopic steering column and power windows, mirrors and door locks. A new power-lockable push and pop gas filler door eliminates the remote release lever on the floor by the door sill.

Moving up to Premium trim adds a power driver’s seat with adjustable lumbar, dark tint privacy glass, heated front seats and a wiper de-icer, dual-zone automatic climate control,  a cargo cover, LED fog lamps, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter and a pair of rear USB ports.

Limited trim brings perforated leather seats, extendable driver’s seat lower cushion, a power front passenger seat, 18-inch wheels, pushbutton start, one-touch up/down power windows, heated rear seats, steering-responsive and height-adjustable LED headlamps, reverse automatic braking and a garage-door opener. Also standard on Limited trim is a hand’s free lift gate; With the remote keyfob on your person, hover with an arm or some other free body part in front of the Subaru logo below the liftgate window to operate it. No one-legged foot waving under the bumper is necessary.

The all-in Touring model adds ventilated front seats with soft Nappa leather trim, a power moonroof, a heated steering wheel and upgraded trim throughout.

All 2020 Outbacks offer more room inside. Rear seat legroom is up 1.4 inches, thanks to the car’s extended length. Subaru also carved out more space between the rear wheel wells so the floor is wider and allows more items to fit flat. Total cargo space is also up marginally to 75.7 cubic feet with the rear seat folded flat.

2020 Subaru Outback turbo engine photo
Photo: Ron Sessions

Safety and Technology

Subaru updates its Starlink infotainment systems for 2020. The base trim gets two 7-inch screens, the upper one to control the standard AM/FM/HD audio system and the lower one for the climate control, safety and all-wheel-drive systems.

The biggest update is the availability of an 11.6-inch tablet-style infotainment touchscreen, shared with the Legacy sedan and standard in the Outback’s Premium and higher trims. The big touchscreen dominates the center of the dash and sizewise is nearly on par with the big Ram 1500 pickup’s optional 12-inch vertical display and larger than the 2020 Ford Explorer’s available 10.1 inch unit. The big screen offers large on-screen tiles for infotainment functions as well as handy analog volume and tuning knobs that you can operate without taking your eyes off the road, even wearing gloves.

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity are standard with both systems as is SiriusXM. Also new is an available 4G LTE in-vehicle Wi-Fi hotspot for easy internet access for portable devices on the road. The available navigation system, standard in Limited models, is powered by TomTom. The infotainment system includes a quick reference guide for major owner’s manual topics. And for those buyers who still cherish their extensive collection of Eighties and Nineties tunes on compact discs, a console-mounted CD player is still available.

The standard adaptive cruise control system includes lane centering as well as stop and go features up to 90 mph. The lane centering system avoids the annoying pinball side-to-side motions experienced in some other vehicle’s systems.

Subaru’s two-camera Eyesight safety system continues as standard equipment in all Outback models. It includes a head-up display of safety system function in the windshield, automatic pre-collision emergency braking, as well as vehicle lane-departure and sway warnings. A blind-spot warning system with lane-change assist and rear cross-traffic alert is optional in Premium trims and standard on Limited and Touring models. Also new on Limited and Touring trims is reverse automatic braking.

A new Driver Focus Distraction Mitigation system available in the Outback Limited and standard in Touring (introduced last year in the Forester) checks driver alertness using an infra-red camera and facial recognition software. It sends audible and visual warnings if it senses that the driver is distracted. The system can also remember key settings for climate control, seat and mirror adjustments for up to five drivers.

There’s a 180-degree front camera (introduced last year in the Ascent) as well for negotiating tricky terrain off-road, which came in quite handy during the drive with the Outback’s nose pointed to the sky and the trail dropping off sharply.

NHTSA and IIHS crash ratings not yet available for the 2020 Subaru Outback. Keeping in mind future safety standards, the 2020 Outback features a revised front-end structure designed to protect occupants in an oblique-angle frontal collision, the testing for which NHTSA plans to implement starting in the 2023 model year.

2020 Subaru Outback rear view photo
Photo: Ron Sessions

Driving Impressions

The first thing you notice the moment you start the engine is how much quieter the new Outback’s cabin is. Subaru doubled down on sound insulation and now uses acoustic front glass.

The next impression you get once the 2020 Outback is in motion is how solid and stiff the body feels, which you can really notice when taking the vehicle diagonally up a steep driveway ramp or negotiating uneven terrain. As with many other new vehicles these days, the Outback utilizes a high percentage of high-strength steel and lots of structural adhesives along seams and at weld joints—Subaru says 108 feet of it. Subaru also added structural reinforcements around the door openings and in the cargo bay as well.

There are two new engines. Base is the direct-injected, naturally aspirated 2.5-liter boxer-four from the Forester rated at 182 horsepower (up 7 percent from the output of the 2019 Outback’s base 2.5-liter) and 176 lb-ft of torque. The 2.5-liter is EPA estimated at 25 mpg city/33 mpg highway/29 mpg combined. The 2.5-liter four’s large-for-the-class 18.5 gallon fuel tank and 33-mpg EPA estimated highway rating give it an impressive 610-mile cruising range. With the base 2.5-liter 4-cylinder, the Outback’s maximum tow rating is 2,700 lbs.

For Outback XT models, last year’s available 3.6-liter 6-cylinder engine is replaced by a turbocharged 2.4-liter boxer-four shared with the larger, heavier 3-row Ascent. Pumping a healthy 260 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of torque, it is EPA estimated at 23 mpg city/30 mpg highway/26 mpg combined, about 3-4 mpg more fuel-efficient than the Ascent 4-cylinder turbo and last year’s Outback with the 6-cylinder engine. Output of the Outback’s new turbo four is similar to that of last year’s six-cylinder but torque increases a significant 12 percent and maximum torque is available beginning at just 2000 rpm for good engine response across a broad bandwidth of driving situations. Maximum tow capacity with the 2.4-liter 4-cylinder turbo is 3,500 lbs, an 800-lb increase over last year’s Outback with the optional 3.6-liter 6-cylinder.

Both the 2.5-liter and 2.4-liter turbo engines use a fuel-saving stop/start system that shuts off the engine at stoplights and automatically restarts when the driver lifts a foot off the brake pdeal.

A Lineartronic continuously variable automatic transmission is paired with both engines, seamlessly matching engine speed with the best gear ratio for power and efficiency based on throttle position and road load. The CVT features an 8-speed manual mode (up from six speeds last year) that allows the driver to upshift and downshift through the gears via a pair of standard steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters.  

Front visibility is excellent due to a relatively low dashboard and hood, thin windshield pillars, pedestal-mounted side mirrors and small front-quarter windows.

On the road, the new Outback offers slightly quicker steering for better turn-in response and reduced friction that results in less fatigue on long stints behind the wheel. The 2020 model’s dampers now have a new internal rebound spring that helps reduce body roll in corners. Active Torque Vectoring in the Outback’s standard Symmetrical all-wheel drive aids stability and helps reduce understeer when turning sharply. The Outback has the same ground clearance as a Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk.

2020 Subaru Outback cargo space photo
Photo: Ron Sessions

Conclusion

While most other carmakers have abandoned the wagon segment in favor of SUVs, Subaru continues to mine gold with its outdoorsy-looking, slightly lifted all-wheel drive Outback wagon. The nice thing about the Outback is its slightly elevated driving position, one that neither requires occupants to climb up nor skootch down to get in. Just open a door and slide your butt sideways. Also, because the Outback doesn’t have an SUV’s tall roof, you don’t need a ladder to mount bikes or rooftop carriers up there. 

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