Driving an Outback in Subaru-crazy Seattle is just about as incognito as one can get. You can further disappear into the Evergreen State background if your Outback is Autumn Green Metallic. And that’s how we blended in for a week in a town where the Outback has been the top-selling vehicle several years, and where Subarus constitute 12% of all vehicles sold (2.5 times the brand’s market share nationwide). A few cars are outselling the Outback so far this year — but that's OK, because one of them is the Subaru Forester.
Our disguise for a week was a 2020 Outback Touring, the top trim level, which starts at $38,355 including destination fee. For that sum, which is nearly $12,000 more than a base Outback, you get a quite-nice interior done up in warm Java Brown Nappa Leather, with sunroof, 18-inch black aluminum alloy wheels, satin-chrome side mirrors, body-color door handles, heated steering wheel, and driver-distraction mitigation system. It’s a handsome package, especially the 11.6-inch Starlink touchscreen built into a monolithic, smooth black glass center stack, though the HVAC controls in particular are a curious mix of analog and digital. And it all rides on a new, stiffer platform — making the Outback inwardly new from the ground up, even though it was outwardly designed to look pretty much like it always has. It’s a conservative, don’t-mess-with-success design approach that Subaru also used on the new Forester.
What you don’t get, at least not on this Outback tester nor the one we drove a few months ago in our first-drive review, is a whole lot of power. Both cars were equipped with Subaru’s base 2.5-liter boxer four-cylinder engine that doesn’t reach its peak 182 horsepower until 5,800 rpm, with peak torque of 176 pound-feet at 4,400 rpm. Curb weight on the Touring is 3,772 pounds. Horsepower is up by a mere seven over last year, torque by two pound-feet. Here in Subaru city, I’ve known Outback owners who praise their car's virtues but almost apologetically slip in a qualifier: A little more power would’ve been nice.
Subaru has a solution for that — the optional XT engine, a 2.4-liter turbocharged engine putting out a that’s-more-like-it 260 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of torque. The turbo four takes the place of the 3.6-liter flat-six that was offered through 2019. But the MSRPs for the XT trims are a big step up – $4,300 to go from Limited to Limited XT, $2,350 from Touring to Touring XT – to a total ranging from $35,905 to $40,705. The other way an XT will cost you is fuel economy, with EPA ratings down 3 mpg across the board compared to the non-turbo’s excellent 26 mpg city, 33 highway, 29 overall. As John Snyder found in his review, the XT is the one you’ll want if you’ll be heading to the mountains or come close to its 3,500 lbs tow rating. Or if you drove a WRX before you got married and had kids.
In the flats of Western Washington, crawling through interminable Seattle traffic, the base engine is perfectly fine. You don’t need a turbocharger in the madding crowd. Accelerating up onramps, you wonder how much longer it’s going to take to get you to a 60 mph merging speed, and the answer is 9 seconds or a bit less. The engine sounds like a lot is happening, more than there actually is.
But the Outback’s persona is the great outdoors. So what if you want to break away and head into the mountains to ski or hike? How would the base engine feel then? We decided to make a quick climb up I-90 to Snoqualmie Pass. Though it's the Cascades’ lowest east-west pass, at a hair over 3,000 feet, the big rigs struggle to pull some of Snoqualmie's grades. And it’s the backbone of the Mountains to Sound Greenway, the thoroughfare to 1.5 million acres of scenic outdoor recreation that beckon the Outback demographic.
In winter, with average annual snowfall of more than 400 inches, getting up and down Snoqualmie Summit can be gnarly at times — one of the reasons Subarus are so popular here. But I headed up on a cold, sunny fall day, some of the last nice weather before the snow sets in.
And how did the engine do? The right word would be: fine. There was power enough. The higher I went, the more the speed wanted to drop off, the more I urged it forward. Soon my foot was pretty far into it, but there was some pedal to spare, and when goosed back up to speed the engine responded with a willing snarl. "Gearing down" the CVT with the paddle shifters helped at times. You're definitely aware you're climbing.
The greater challenge was not the incline, but the crosswinds. There was a pretty hard blow, stiff enough that some of the semis were pulled over until it passed. SUVs and pickups were getting pushed around. But this is one of the many situations in which a wagon outshines an SUV, with a more carlike profile presenting less surface area to the wind. The Outback’s light steering, though, meant a gust could give the wagon a shove before a correction could be made. It's not a big box on wheels, yet the Outback has plenty of space for five, and a maximum cargo capacity of 75.7 cubic feet with the rear seats down, virtually identical to the excellent CR-V.
At the summit, the weather was 25 degrees and sunny, with the Outback stopped in a ski-area parking lot that about three weeks hence will be filled with thousands more Outbacks. There was a mean bite to the wind that discouraged loitering, so down the mountain we went, making 31.7 mpg on the round trip. I've no doubt the mileage would have been better without the wind or the lowland traffic.
From mountains to Sound, the base Subaru engine is enough to get the job done. If you want more power, it's available for purchase. I probably would. But you’ll spend more, and you’ll burn more gas with the turbo. Most Outback buyers will likely just take the base engine, count their savings, and enjoy a perennially well-rounded, high-riding, comfortable anti-SUV.