First introduced in 1994, the Subaru Outback is a high-riding, midsize 4-door wagon. Sharing chassis and engines with the Legacy sedan, Outback is completely redesigned for 2020. Changes include additional safety features, more powerful engines, redesigned interior and an available 11.6-inch touch screen for the infotainment system. As before, it comes standard with all-wheel drive. Competitors include the Audi A4 Allroad, Buick Regal TourX and Volvo V60 Cross Country. Of course, potential Outback buyers may be considering compact to midsize crossovers like the Chevrolet Equinox, Honda CR-V, Nissan Rogue, Toyota RAV4 and Subaru's own Forester.
Exterior styling is similar to the 2019 model, but the 2020 Outback rides an all-new platform that's stiffer and, according to Subaru, provides significantly better frontal crash protection. The vehicle is about 1.5 inches longer than last year, with most of the additional length going into rear-seat leg room.
Outback trim levels include base, Premium, Limited, Touring, Onyx Edition XT, Limited XT and Touring XT. The base, Premium, Limited and Touring come with a 182-horsepower (up 7 from last year) 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine. XT models come with a turbocharged 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 260 horsepower, up 4 from the 3.6-lliter V6 that was used last year. Both engines pair with a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) and all-wheel drive.
Prices start at $26,645 for the base model and climb to $39,695 for the Touring XT. Standard equipment includes LED headlights, keyless entry, 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system with support for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, rearview camera, Bluetooth and adaptive cruise control, front collision warning with automatic emergency braking and lane keeping assist. Stepping up to Premium brings auto climate control and 11.6-inch touch screen.
Subaru's four-cylinder engines in the Outback are "Boxer" designs, meaning the cylinders are horizontally opposed. Sometimes called a flat engine, the Boxer design allows the engine to sit lower in the chassis providing for a lower center of gravity. The only mainstream automakers to currently offer flat engines are Subaru and Porsche. (Toyota does offer a flat four in the 86, but that's a Subaru design.)
The base 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine provides modest acceleration in the 3,800-pound Outback. When necessary the engine/CVT combo will push the Outback from 0 to 60 MPH in about 9.0 seconds. That's near the bottom of the class. Worse yet, the ever-so-smooth CVT dulls passing response somewhat. Thankfully, there is a turbocharged engine option for those who want more power. The 260-hp turbo four provides significantly better acceleration at all speeds. It can push the Outback from 0 to 60 mph in 6.5 seconds. More importantly, the turbo mill brings much-needed extra thrust when performing a pass. Unfortunately, both engines are a bit lumpy at idle and shudder when starting up at stoplights.
On the plus side, the 2.5 engine is very fuel efficient. EPA ratings are 26 MPG city, 33 MPG highway and 29 MPG overall. As expected, there's an economy penalty with the turbo motor, which has EPA ratings of 23/30/26 MPG. Thankfully, the Outback's real-world fuel economy easily matches or exceeds the EPA's numbers. In routine suburban commuting, it's easy to top 30 MPG with either engine -- approaching 35 MPG on the base engine. Plus, the Outback's large 18.5-gallon fuel tank means a driving range that approaches 600 miles. Both engines run fine on regular-grade gasoline.
Subaru's Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive comes standard on all models. It requires no input from the driver and works seamlessly to send power to the wheels with the most grip. In addition to traction control, off-road capability is boosted with hill-descent control, hill-holder and X-Mode, which optimizes all powertrain components to reduce wheelspin on extremely slippery surfaces. In the wild, Subaru's all-wheel-drive system performs very well on and off road. Add to that 8.7 inches of ground clearance, and the Outback is considerably more capable off road than many competitors.
From a driver's perspective the Outback isn't the most exciting car. The softly sprung, long-travel suspension is tuned for on-road comfort and off-road control meaning there's little road feel and only adequate dry-road grip. The suspension does an excellent job of filtering out harsh impacts but sometimes bounds and bounces on rough roads.
Steering and brake action are greatly improved for 2020. The steering in the previous model lacked road feel, but revisions to the rack and the stiffer chassis makes the steering on the 2020 Outback much sharper and in tune with competitive offerings. Brakes have good stopping power and an easy-to-modulate pedal, making smooth stops a breeze. Interior noise levels are nicely muted with just a touch of wind noise at extra-legal highway speeds. This is perhaps due to the standard roof rack, tall build or largish side-view mirrors.
The Outback shares an interior with the also-new Subaru Legacy sedan. The design is fresh and modern and places function ahead of form with materials and finishes that are appropriate for the class. That means drivers face a large twin-dial setup that's readable and augmented by a small programmable information screen. Still traditional in design, the center stack is dominated by the available 11.6-inch touch screen. Even lower level models get dual 7.0-inch screens. Thankfully, the instrument cluster consists of traditional dials that surround a center information screen.
The overstuffed front seats are very comfortable and offer good support for long-haul commuting. Though they are not deeply contoured and the available leather can grow slippery when the road gets a bit twisty. The rear seats are quite comfortable as well and the additional leg room for 2020 is a welcome improvement. In fact, head and leg room are class leading. Entry and exit is easy thanks to a "just right" step in height and large door openings. Outward visibility is excellent.
On the tech side of things, Subaru left no stone unturned in the 2020 redesign. In addition to Subaru's EyeSight forward collision warning system, the new Outback offers blind-spot detection, rear cross-traffic alert and Subaru's new DriverFocus distraction mitigation system. Also standard is Android Auto and Apple Car Play and Subaru's Starlink infotainment system. Altogether, it is an impressive array of features that mostly work well to keep passengers safe and entertained.
The DriverFocus system actually monitors the driver's eyes and beeps when the driver appears distracted. It can also detect driver fatigue and prompt for rest breaks. The system can be annoying at first because it forces drivers to keep their eyes on the road, but quickly you realize it is for your own good.
Being a true wagon gives the outback a leg up on many hatchback competitors in that it has a cavernous cargo hold. Total capacity is 75.7 cubic feet, but even with the rear seats in use there's 32.5 cubic feet. The hatch opening is large and there's power assist if you so wish. Interior storage is just average with a few open and covered bins throughout. It would be nice if there were a little more room in the center-stack/console area to hold your phone when connected with Android Auto or Apple Car Play.
Bottom Line -- Subaru's Outback is the original high-built all-wheel-drive wagon. It makes just as much sense today as it did when it was introduced in 1994. Outback offers versatility, good cargo and passenger room, go-anywhere all-wheel drive, and above-average fuel economy for the class. Shortcomings include a vehicle that isn't very dynamically stimulating from behind the wheel. Overall, it's hard to top the Outback's blend of utility and frugality and the reasonable starting price certainly makes it even more appealing.