Subaru has always had a bit of a niche following. But when the first Subaru Outback debuted in 1994, both loyalists and new customers swarmed to the Legacy-based wagon like bees to honey. But much like your favorite band, both Subaru and the Outback have gone mainstream in recent years; the company sold just over 700,000 examples of the fifth-generation crossover in five years. So for 2020, the sixth-gen model stays true to the mission.
The visual differences between the 2019 Outback and 2020 Outback are barely noticeable. A minor facelift here and some new sheet metal there gives the crossover a slightly more modern look. But once you start digging into the details, even though not much has changed visually, it's obvious that the new platform and optional turbocharged engine improve drivability – and we’re not just talking on-road.
When it comes to off-roading, the latest Subaru Outback offers more than plenty. Most Americans don't actually need something that can tackle the Rubicon, so much as they want it. What they need instead is a vehicle that's spacious, great to drive daily, and capable over the moderately tough stuff all in one, and the Outback is that vehicle.
On the road, the Outback drives like a normal crossover – which we like. While some hardcore off-road-focused alternatives can feel crude on the pavement, the Subaru is quiet, comfortable, and easygoing. Even though it sits higher off the ground than, say, a Honda Passport (8.7 inches versus 7.5 inches), the Outback doesn’t feel too tall from the driver's seat.
The modern Outback looks more like a normal crossover, too. Though it’s put on some weight in the past two and a half decades (haven't we all), the 2020 model preserves the original's wagon-like cues and modernizes that iconic styling with a new headlight and grille treatment. And on our Onyx Edition XT tester, the blacked-out trim pieces and special wheels add some much-needed edge.
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Inside, the 11.6-inch portrait-oriented screen is the biggest eye-catcher. The massive touchscreen spans virtually the entire height of the dash, top to bottom. There's nice pleather about, too; StarTex vinyl-like material covers the seats, door panels, and portions of the dash. And as far as fake leather goes, this one feels high-quality, looks nice, and most importantly, is water-resistant.
Powering our tester is the optional turbocharged 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine, good for 260 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque. That's a big bump over the base 2.5-liter engine's 182 hp and 176 lb-ft. Paired to a standard continuously variable transmission, that turbocharged engine has more than enough grunt to move the Outback quickly – that is, once you get past the initial bout of turbo lag.
But the Subaru Outback is unique from many other crossovers in that it's just as good off the road as it is on it.
But the Subaru Outback is unique from many other crossovers in that it's just as good off the road as it is on it. No, it doesn't have the transfer cases or locking differentials that you might find in other off-roaders (read: Jeep). But the Outback uses a feature called X-Mode, which uses torque vectoring to manage power at each wheel, at speeds of up to 25 miles per hour and dependent on grip. When necessary, it applies torque to each individual wheel as needed. You can also switch to a more advanced dual-function X-Mode, which applies more torque for situations like deep snow or mud, but even the basic X-Mode function is great on its own.
In our test, though, we don't need much traction at all. Our temporary off-road proving ground is a six-mile stretch of dirt road within Florida’s Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve dotted with mud puddles, rocks, and the occasional fallen tree. This isn't the toughest environment, but it’s just rugged enough for the Outback to prove that it has decent off-road chops.
The first thing we noticed is how well the Outback's 8.7-inch ride height keeps the underbody away from obstacles like fallen trees and deeper mud puddles, both the result of an earlier rainstorm. Nothing even comes close to scraping the Subaru’s underbody, and if it did, the optional under-engine skid plate would protect the Outback’s crucial bits anyway.
The Outback’s 18-inch all-season tires (225/60 R18) are great, too – the crossover can easily bound over sharp rocks without a second look. With X-Mode engaged, it never lacks for grip either. And with the CVT in manual mode – using the paddle shifters behind the steering wheel – the Outback’s turbocharged engine provides decent power to get the vehicle up to speed.
The Outback eagerly plowed through mud puddles and skipped over rocks and fallen branches without hesitation.
Sure, compared to some other body-on-frame off-roaders, the Outback’s suspension travel isn’t phenomenal. Though in Florida, we rarely come across anything more upright than a speed bump, anyway. And while the font-mounted trail camera does help with visibility in especially tricky situations, it’s rather small and low-quality – and so is the Apple CarPlay projection. Blame the 11.6-inch touchscreen, which is long vertically, but narrower than a normal iPhone X horizontally. That leaves little real estate for any projections on the upper half of the screen.
But we had little trouble with the Outback on the trail otherwise. It eagerly plowed through mud puddles and skipped over rocks and fallen branches without hesitation, providing endless comfort in the process. For families wanting a crossover that can conquer both the dirt and the pavement, the Subaru Outback is it.
The base 2020 Subaru Outback costs $26,645. But at that price, you get just the non-turbocharged 2.5-liter engine, manually adjustable cloth seats, and standard 7.0-inch touchscreen. Our Outback has more equipment, but it does cost a good chunk more.
The standard Onyx Edition XT model starts at $34,895, and our tester – with the lone $1,845 larger screen option – asks $37,750 after destination and delivery fees. That may sound pricey, but when looking at the competitive set, the Outback is actually priced well. A comparable Honda Passport Touring costs $39,280, a similarly spec’d Jeep Grand Cherokee Altitude asks $38,490, and the Volvo V60 Cross Country (for you wagon lovers) starts at $45,100.
But the Subaru Outback has an innate charm that those models don’t; there’s a reason it’s had such a following for the past 26 years. And for 2020, the Outback is even more comfortable, more capable, and more likable than ever before.
Gallery: 2020 Subaru Outback Onyx Edition XT: Feature
2020 Subaru Outback XT Onyx Edition