Review: 2020 Subaru Outback
A quarter-century of Sport Utility Wagon
THE PROS & CONS
- The Good: Like an SUV, but better
- The Bad: Occasionally clunky ride
Subaru’s latest Outback is a far cry from the slightly lifted wagon that debuted with the unmistakable voice of Paul Hogan behind it more than 20 years ago. This latest model blurs the line between wagon and SUV more than any other model on the market. Sure that should just mean it’s a crossover, but if you get into the Outback it doesn’t drive like any other crossover. Yet it’s definitely not a car, based on how high you’re sitting and how much space is behind you. Does that make the category-resisting Subaru better at being an SUV, better at being a car, or worse at being both?
For 2020, the Outback has gotten a complete redesign, on an all-new platform compared with the outgoing model. Though we’re not sure how you could tell since it follows the current Subaru trend of new cars that are all but identical to what they’re replacing. Still, the Outback grows slightly on the outside, and that’s where it starts to blur the line into crossover territory more than it already has of late.
At 191.3″ long, it’s actually 0.8 longer than a Honda Passport. It’s only a few inches shorter in height and width, too. With the same amount of headroom front and rear. The Passport’s not some outlier, this Outback is huge, with exterior dimensions right in the middle of the two-row midsize crossover segment.
Yet when you get in, it doesn’t feel huge.
For a start, the floor is lower than most crossovers, despite still having good ground clearance. That means you sit up high, but it’s less of a climb in. You can sit even higher if you’d like, or you can enjoy a driving position that’s more car and less SUV. And more comfortable than either.
On the move, it feels more like a car, too. The Outback is hundreds of kilos lighter than the crossover competition, and that pays dividends in just about every aspect of life with the car. Lighter vehicles can be quicker and more efficient with less power, ride better, and feel more nimble.
I’ve talked at length about this before, but Subaru has a particular way of tuning ride and handling that makes all of its cars (except the new Forester) feel very similar. I credit it to the shock tuning, but also the decision to use tall tires with plenty of sidewall instead of going with low-profile tires on 20-inch wheels like so many other mainstream crossovers. Those big sidewalls absorb all the craters, expansion joints, and crumbling repairs that are endemic to modern roadways in much of the country, and they protect your expensive alloys, too. The Outback, like every Subaru, has suspension tuning that starts out soft and stiffens up. Turn in and it can feel a bit squishy, but stay with it in a corner and it’s more than happy to go quickly. When you hit a bump, that initial shock travel absorbs it, but there’s no floatiness on rebound over dips like you’ll experience in every other competitor.
In short, when you’re driving it, it feels like a slightly softer car. Like a 1970s land yacht but without the wallowing, floating, and need for the suspension to cycle five full times before returning to rest. That makes it more enjoyable than any crossover.
But you’re still sitting higher than you would in a conventional car. Which means that you can still see farther down the road. It gives you the confidence of an SUV with the experience of a car.
This is the XT version, which means it has Subaru’s 2.4L turbocharged flat-four. 260 hp and the trademark Subaru burble, backed by a CVT. Normally I find Subaru’s CVTs among the best, but this example had a noticeable whine, especially when cold, which it was for most of my time with the car. Still, it did the job well, bringing engine revs up snappily when prodding the throttle, avoiding engine droning on long uphill climbs. The turbo four offers plenty of shove across the rev range, with no noticeable lag before the turbocharger started adding boost. The CVT kept revs down on the highway, helping make for a quieter ride. Non-XTs get a 2.5L flat-four making 182 hp.
The Outdoor XT trim is the entry to the turbo engine, and it comes with some features that will be appreciated if you’re planning on actually using it for dirty activities. Like the soft-touch all-weather seat fabric. Subaru calls it weatherproof; it’s easy to wipe off muddy paw prints and melting snow didn’t seem to soak through. The green accent stitching is less functional and a little more strange, though it’s at least unique. Outdoor XT gets unpainted black cladding, which should make you less hesitant to take it through a hedge-lined track, and a front view camera that’s handy when you’re not sure if you can clear that rock or not. The wheels are also black, which gave this particular example an extremely monochromatic look. Maybe a bit of colour isn’t a bad thing here.
So it’s soft and it’s got a turbo, but what can you do with that? How about blasting down a dirt track at something approaching the speed limit, rather than plodding along afraid of every rock and spot of water? Yes please! And the body control is amazing on these surfaces. What about charging through snow that’s over the bottom of the bumpers without a care? Absolutely, and the Outback is definitely one of the best vehicles in the snow I’ve ever driven. Because it offers the best of both sides of the equation: car-like weight means you can still turn and stop when it’s slippery and the extra ground clearance and AWD mean that you have loads of grip. The Outback encourages you to blast through the snow with crisp responses, excellent throttle response, and a stability control system that brings the back end back in line gradually instead of the much more common (and disastrous when it’s slick) sharp and desperate grab of the braking system that makes you look like a first-time driver yanking on the steering wheel like it hadn’t paid a debt. Could it be more fun? Sure, but that’s not really the point. Subaru targets buyers who are looking for fun at the end of the drive as much as during it, unless you’re opting for the WRX. Instead of calling you to the nearest cloverleaf intersection, the Outback delights when you decide to leave terra asphalta and instead decide to run for the frozen, the gravelly, and the muddy.
Subaru has gone big on active safety and driver aids, and the Outback is loaded with them. All 2020 Outbacks get EyeSight, Subaru’s name for their particular suite. It includes adaptive cruise control, pre-collision emergency braking, pre-collision throttle management, and, new this year, lane keeping assist. Unfortunately, the two wide-spread cameras that give EyeSight its eyesight also serve to block the sun visor, which is an issue for anyone sitting high in the vehicle, especially in this low winter sun time of year. Go for a higher-spec car and Subaru adds a driver distraction monitoring system that beeps at you judgingly should it find you looking somewhere that’s not the roadway. Equally important for safety, the Outback has a massive greenhouse offering excellent visibility.
There’s now a massive 11.6-inch portrait-oriented touchscreen to control the infotainment and climate systems, at least on top trims. Lower-spec cars get a stacked pair of 7.0-inch screens. The big screen is responsive and fairly intuitive, with redundant buttons for most controls like the temperature, but Subaru doesn’t seem to have taken advantage of all the real estate. The graphics are large, like they’re just scaled up for the bigger screen instead of increasing the resolution and allowing more things to fit. It also makes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto look tiny, sandwiched into a small portion of all that glass. Thankfully, Subaru has fixed the decision from previous versions of its infotainment system that meant if you were using CarPlay or Android Auto and shut off the ignition, it would turn off the phone and instead play the radio at high volume.
This next-gen Outback has styling changes so subtle that we’re not sure if even the designers could tell which generation was sitting in front of them, but under the skin as well as inside, there’s little doubt that this is a completely new car. It’s got plenty of power, car-like fuel economy, and car-like space, but it also has crossover views, crossover capability, and crossover space. You probably still won’t call it a crossover, but the 2020 Subaru Outback is much more than just a wagon. Now go find some snow or some forest.
2020 Subaru Outback Outdoor XT
BODY STYLE: 5-door wagon
CONFIGURATION: Front-engine, all-wheel drive
ENGINE: 2.4-L I4 turbocharged, 260 hp, 277 lb-ft of torque
TRANSMISSION: continuously variable automatic
FUEL ECONOMY: (regular Gasoline in L/100 km) 10.7 city; 7.9 highway; 9.1 combined
OBSERVED FUEL ECONOMY: 8.2 L/100 km mixed driving
CARGO CAPACITY: 920 L with rear seats up, 2,144 L total
Outdoor XT $38,695,
Limited XT $41,795,
Premier XT $43,795.
As Tested $38,695 not including $1,800 freight.