For decades now, Subaru’s Outback has been a reliable, durable and capable option for outdoorsy types who want something smaller and nimbler than an SUV, and the latest generation continues to carry that flag. The 2020 Outback is better in every meaningful way, without giving in to bloat or erosion of character — a common trap many carmakers’ favored models fall into. It’s also more efficient, better-looking and smarter than its predecessor, and just as fun. Most critically: It’s still the kind of car you can see yourself getting dirty, bashing around and sleeping in should the need arise.
The Good: As a non-fan of the continuously variable transmission (CVT) — the kind that dispenses with gears in favor of a sliding range of ratios — I found myself surprised by how much I didn’t notice this one. That’s a good thing. CVTs are typically limp and high-revving, but Subaru’s new Lineartronic mimics an eight-speed gearbox nicely. Also, the car’s optional vertical infotainment display is a nice bit of modernization, while the Onyx XT trim delivers a cool and distinctive visual look, as well as a full-sized spare tire at enthusiasts’ request (lest they bust a tire on the trail and have to limp out on a donut).
Speaking of: the Outback’s off-road chops remain terrific. I did things with this I’d never attempt in anything short of a Wrangler, honestly.
Who It’s For: Though a virtual afterthought in terms of global carmaker market share — a stat the company is fighting to improve — Subaru maintains a devoted following among about as wide a collection of audiences a company could hope for. You have the flat-brimmed import tuners who lust for the tightly-wound WRX STI, the crusty New England salts who relish a good snowstorm to show off their Imprezas’ prowess, and the newest members of the fold: the hardcore overland crowd that mods Outbacks and Crosstreks for maximum roof-tent off-road-ability.
The Outback will still appeal to the faithful Subaru fans, and Outback aficionados in particular — but it should also be given a good look by those weighing crossovers and SUVs. This is one of the most capable cars on the road (and trail), and it deserves a bigger slice of the pie.
Watch Out For: The CVT. Though I praised it above, and it is barely noticeable, there are times when the precision of actual gear selection comes in handy, particularly while off-roading. If you want to linger in a gear while grinding up a hill or force it down to a specific ratio to muscle over an obstacle, there’s comfort in doing things by the numbers. Also, no CVT on Earth can really be described as peppy. But most people won’t notice these deficiencies, so it’s generally an acceptable compromise for average drivers.
Alternatives: When it comes to off-roadable wagons, there isn’t much. The Audi A4 Allroad is certainly competitive, but it’s far pricier. Otherwise, you have to look at the likes of the Honda CR-V and the Ford Escape. These are perfectly excellent crossovers, but they don’t have quite the ground clearance or the overall off-road-ability that the Subie brings to the table.
Review: During a media presentation at the car’s launch in Mendocino, California — closer to Oregon than the Bay Area– company reps showed a timeline of the model’s progress through the years. The Outback is now in its sixth generation after being launched in 1994, with a little help from everyone’s favorite Aussie, Crocodile Dundee (a.k.a. Paul Hogan).
His involvement faded after the vehicle’s debut years, since it proved virtually an immediate hit amongst those resisting SUVs but still hankering for their capability. The newest edition is, of course, larger and pricier than the first-gen, but not by much. (The new one is also only $300 more expensive than its predecessor.) It’s still an Outback at heart, something Subaru should be commended for.
This time out, you do get more for your money, as Subaru’s engineers have taken steps to modernize their flagship’s offerings. It still has the requisite Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system, as well as the X-Mode dynamic control system (which includes hill descent control) and the recently-added EyeSight driver-assist system. Added into the mix now, though, is a spacious 11.6-inch infotainment screen, a distraction-monitoring system to ensure your attention isn’t wandering and a front-view monitor ideal for inspecting terrain on the trail or more mundane tasks such as parking.
Mendocino sits at the southern end of what’s known as the Lost Coast, a region of remote, largely-unpopulated California too steep and inhospitable for much development, including roads. In fact, the famed S.R.1 — the Pacific Coast Highway — cuts sharply inland right there and hooks up with US 101 north, effectively ending the coastal experience.
We got a sense of that inhospitable terrain during some off-roading in the hills in and around the region’s redwood trees, included a shallow water crossing, plenty of rocky terrain, and most notably some steep switchbacks that arced menacingly upward and backwards. Yet the Outback managed them all without breaking a sweat, and with barely any wheelspin, either. The only time we did encounter trouble was in a dip in the trail that the car could become stuck in if you don’t hit it with some momentum. But when that did happen, simply staying on the throttle helped power out of with no trouble. X-Mode managed the traction and downhill speed predictably and reliably.
Back on the road, the car continued to show its strengths — as well as a few weaknesses. It’s quieter than the previous model to the tune of three decibels thanks to sound-insulated glass and new weather-stripping, and its new lane-centering system works very well, helping minimize fatigue and momentary lapses on longer drives. Its newly-retuned suspension helps absorb the steady sway of the coastal roads, with MacPherson struts and a new 23mm hollow stabilizer bar up front and a double-wishbone rear layout.
But where the suspension wins, the engines mostly fizzle. Even the turbocharged 260-hp engine felt a bit uninspired, perhaps due (again) to the CVT to which it was mated. The 182-hp non-turbocharged 2.5-liter engine gets the job done, but little more. Both have grunt, make no mistake, as evidenced by their ability to tackle steep dirt-track ascents — but on the highway, the thing just doesn’t sing. Of course, the car hits so many other notes just right that it can be forgiven for not being a dragster.
Verdict: The 2020 Subaru Outback is a solid improvement that doesn’t compromise the model’s not-insignificant legacy. The CVT is its weakest point, and it’s barely even that. When you take this car off-road, though, scrambling up hairpin turns along craggy two-tracks, it truly comes into its own — and you realize what a scrappy champ this thing is. Over the years, the Outback has filled a niche in a way that essentially no manufacturer has, save for occasional premium wagons like the Audi Allroad — and it looks like it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
2020 Subaru Outback Key Specs
Powertrain: 2.5-liter boxer-four / 2.4-liter turbocharged boxer-four; continuously-variable transmission; all-wheel-drive
Horsepower: 182 / 260
Torque: 176 /277
Cargo Capacity: 3.25 cubic feet (75.7 with rear seat lowered)
Fuel Economy: 25 mpg city / 30 mpg highway (2.5-liter); 23 mpg city / 30 mpg highway (2.4-liter turbo)
Subaru hosted us and provided this product for review.
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