First Drive

2020 Subaru Outback First Drive Review | The big payoff

We expected a better Outback. What we got was a great one.

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Autoblog Rating

The Outback is the perfect choice for a lot of people, especially if they find themselves offf the beaten path. For the new generation, it's even better, with upgraded tech, a quieter, higher quality interior, improved driving dynamics and a turbocharged engine option.

  • Trim
    Onyx Edition XT
  • Engine
    2.4L Turbocharged H-4
  • Power
    260 HP / 277 LB-FT
  • Transmission
  • Drivetrain
  • Engine Placement
  • Curb Weight
    3,884 LBS
  • Towing
    3,500 LBS
  • Seating
  • Cargo
    32.5 Cu. Ft.
  • MPG
    23 City / 30 HWY
  • Base Price

NEWPORT, Calif. — The 2020 Subaru Outback marks the sixth generation of a vehicle, first introduced for 1994, that is in no small part the lynchpin to its company’s current success. The Outback's sales have increased in every generation, with more than 700,000 sold in the most recent generation that started with the 2015 model year. Subaru doesn’t expect things to slow down as it introduces the all-new 2020 Outback, which has undergone a major overhaul despite its familiar sheetmetal.

The Outback has moved to the Subaru Global Platform (SGP), joining the Impreza and Forester on lighter, stiffer, and stronger underpinnings. If the 2019 Forester is any indication of how the SGP can improve a vehicle, this would mean the new Outback will also be calmer, quieter and more refined. Staging from the Inn at Newport Ranch on Northern California’s “Lost Coast,” with a day full of driving both on- and off-road, we were about to find out for ourselves if this would live up to our expectations.

Our first driving stint was in an Outback Touring equipped with the lesser of two available engines. The naturally aspirated 2.5-liter boxer-four, with 182 horsepower and 176 pound-feet of torque, feels perfectly adequate for the driving we did at or near sea level, and climbs competently on steep grades. While it didn’t perform passing maneuvers with a sense of urgency, we still felt comfortable overtaking slower vehicles when we had to.

For daily driving somewhere like the California coast, or the suburbs of the Detroit, the more economical 2.5 (26 mpg city, 33 highway, 29 combined) would be our choice to live with. This is mated to a CVT, one programmed to “shift” like a traditional automatic, staying out of its own way, and providing a nice linear pull — without a rubber band type of feel — when you need to climb a hill. Paddle shifters on the back of the wheel give you a sense of more control, if that’s something you need. We rarely used them.

If you live at higher elevations, need to tow up to 3,500 pounds, or just really miss the days of a turbocharged Outback, there’s now a 2.4-liter turbo-four available in the resurrected XT models. You sacrifice some fuel economy — 3 mpg across the board, 23/30/26 mpg — but get a significant power boost, with hardly any turbo lag and satisfying response. We’re certain customers who’ve graduated from the likes of a WRX to something that can better accommodate kids and dogs will appreciate the boost.

As we had hoped, the SGP platform quiets down the ride considerably – we didn’t notice any squeaks or rattles, and tire roar was only apparent on rougher pavement. Wind noise is low, too, even without the acoustic glass on the front doors — a feature standard on the Limited XT and Touring XT models.

On narrower, curvier mountain roads, the Outback handles surprisingly well. The steering is particularly good, with just-right weighting, and offers the perfect amount of resistance as you dial in more angle. The ratio is quick enough that juking from corner to corner ad infinitum is done with very little hand-over-hand shuffling or unnecessary grabwork. There’s just enough feedback to give you a sense of what’s going on between the tires and the road surface while filtering out most of the vibration. This Outback is seriously easy to drive, and more important, it’s enjoyable.

Additionally, it behaves much more like a passenger car than its size and height would suggest — and it’s easy to forget that the Outback is essentially a lifted wagon when it competes against the likes of the Toyota RAV4 and even the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Despite its ample 8.7 inches of ground clearance (more than most compact SUVs), there’s minimal body roll, which means less stress for passengers who don’t have to brace against it. When we did just that on some dirt roads, the all-wheel drive, brake-based torque vectoring and other stability systems help keep the Outback pointed where we wanted to go.

Despite its sedan-like behavior, it’s not confined to the pavement, and feels at home on terrain where other soft-roaders would lose their footing. A good part of our day was spent off-road, climbing mountain trails overlooking the coastal plains below. Between the Outback’s standard hill descent control and all-wheel-drive grip, climbing steep, muddy trails was essentially drama free. When we couldn’t see over the crest, we displayed the feed from the front camera (a feature standard to the Touring trim) to see which direction the trail led. It’s no trail-rated Jeep, though, and is limited by specs like its 18.6-degree approach angle. Deeper ruts led to some scraping at the front fascia. Subaru reps told us that their team is discussing a quick-release lower front fascia that could help avoid such scrapes, but no final decision has been made.

In this Outback, the EyeSight driver aid system has been improved to include lane centering assistance, bringing it to parity with the Touring Assist we tested out on a WRX in Tokyo last year. Subaru refers to the system here as EyeSight Driver Assist Technology with Advanced Adaptive Cruise Control and Lane Centering. We found it to work well, with some limitations. While it will certainly make congestion or stop-and-go traffic less stressful, on sharper curves, the lane following system would reach some limit, chime at us, and turn off momentarily. It’s certainly not the best or most robust driver aid suite we’ve used, but we’re glad that not only has the technology improved, but that it comes standard in all Outbacks.

In contrast to the outside, the interior has been massively overhauled. Front and center, literally, is a huge, vertical 11.6-inch touchscreen, which is standard in all but the base trim. It fits surprisingly well into the cockpit's overall design, and moreover we appreciate that it bucks the “floating tablet” trend. It’s straightforward to use, and if you don’t like Subaru's native UI, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto come standard. The screen’s size and orientation make it easy to glance over and see the information you need. Subaru maintained hard buttons for a number of functions, including redundant temperature controls, for which we are thankful.

This is the second Subaru vehicle to use the company’s DriverFocus monitoring tech using facial recognition and biometrics. This driver-facing camera keeps a digital eye on you making sure you’re not getting groggy or distracted, and will chime a gentle reminder to keep your eyes on the road. What’s even niftier, DriverFocus will also recognize the faces of as many as five registered drivers, and welcome the individuals with their own settings as they slide in behind the wheel.

The new Outback provides a number of other conveniences, like a hands-free proximity tailgate that opens up when you approach the rear logo with the key fob on your person. With hands full, you can even nudge the flap on the cargo cover with your elbow to get it to retract. Cubbies abound, and the front cupholders are massive. The Outback also retains the nifty “Swing-n-Place” roof rails, and adds tie-down spots at the ends.

And this is a bigger Outback than before, at least inside. It’s only 1.4 inches longer and 0.6 inches wider overall than the outgoing model. Inside, there’s a little over 3 more cubic feet of cargo space than before, rear legroom increases by 1.4 inches, and headroom increases by 1.8 inches in front and by a fraction of an inch in the rear.

This go-around, Subaru offers a version of the Outback called the Onyx Edition, with the 2.4-liter turbo engine, and is targeted toward younger buyers (in a car whose average customer is 45 years old). It features blacked-out (well, dark-gray-ed out) wheels, grille, mirrors and badging. Inside, it features water-repellent interior trim called Startex, which actually feels quite nice for a synthetic material, though certainly not as plush as our Touring model’s Nappa leather. While other Outbacks have a donut in reserve, the Onyx has a full-size spare tire. It also features an upgraded version of the X-Mode system, with a setting for sand and mud, and has the 180-degree front monitor featured on the Touring trim.

The Subaru Outback starts at $27,655, including destination, for the base trim with the 2.5-liter engine, and goes up from there. Premium starts at $29,905, and adds the 11.6-inch head unit, all-weather package, power driver seat and dual climate control. The Limited adds 18-inch wheels, leather seats, blind-spot monitoring and reverse auto braking for $34,455. Touring costs $38,355, and adds Nappa leather, ventilated seats, DriverFocus, power folding mirrors and 180-degree front monitor. The XT turbo models start with the Onyx Edition at $35,905. Limited XT costs $38,755, and the line-topping Touring XT has a price of $40,705.

We came to California expecting a better, more refined Outback with updated tech features. We would have been happy with that. But the 2020 Outback isn’t just competent, it’s actually a pleasure to drive – a tall wagon with stellar handling, which makes it a standout against the crossovers it competes against. It does that while maintaining the utility and charm we’ve come to expect from the brand. Just as it did with the Forester, Subaru applied a practiced, winning formula for the new Outback, then refined it. When Subaru sales keep climbing, bolstered in no small part by the Outback, we won’t be surprised.


Subaru Outback Information

Subaru Outback

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