The early success of the Subaru Outback as a family vehicle is incomprehensible. Arriving at a time when minivan love was at its strongest and body-on-frame sport utility vehicles were all the rage, this lifted wagon was an oddity in a market where families were very happy with their Ford Explorers and Chrysler Town and Countrys. But the Outback was a resounding success when it debuted in 1994, initiating hundreds of thousands of drivers to the Subaru way of life.
Now, 26 model years later, the Subaru Outback’s runaway success is no secret as the lifted wagon enters its sixth generation, following up on the fifth generation vehicle that found homes with 700,000 consumers over just five model years. With such big shoes to fill, Subaru’s relatively conservative approach to the 2020 model makes sense. Featuring modest aesthetic changes, tech enhancements, a more modern and powerful optional engine, and countless quality of life improvements, the 2020 Outback makes this popular lifted wagon even better.
Despite a redesign, the changes to the exterior are so subtle that the first real inkling of change comes when entering the cabin, where Subaru updated the dash layout with a cleaner design. Gone are smatterings of buttons on the center stack, center console, headliner, and wherever else there’s space – Subaru consolidated most of the controls and buttons in the center stack. While base Outbacks will get twin 7.0-inch touchscreens (the upper is for infotainment and the lower is for climate controls), every other trim gets a lovely single 11.6-inch portrait-oriented display that marries the infotainment and climate controls.
Importantly – and despite the big, new display – Subaru retained traditional controls for the most important functions. There are knobs for adjusting the volume and tuning the radio and physical buttons for increasing and decreasing the temperature. This is a company that’s learned from its rivals’ misfortune. Much like Fiat Chrysler’s Uconnect system, it’s easy to use the Outback’s infotainment features without actually using the touchscreen.
Even if you do dig into that hearty display, the interface is plenty pleasing. According to Subaru, it used two independent processors – one for the infotainment functions and another for the climate controls – to ensure immediate responses and predictable behavior. While not as quick as Uconnect, the brand’s new display is nipping at FCA’s heels.
The rest of the cabin is pretty special, too. Our mid-range Outback Touring featured lovely perforated leather upholstery on the seats and plenty of attractive leather on the dash and door panels. While these hides looked good, they felt great because of how liberally Subaru padded the major touch points. The door pockets, armrest, and the lid of the center console’s cubby are extremely nice places to rest your arm. It’s inarguably a tiny touch, but this padding pays dividends on long drives, which is precisely what Subaru builds the Outback for: loading up families and gear and setting out for the countryside.
Importantly – and despite the big, new display – Subaru retained traditional controls for the most important functions.
Whether seated in the front buckets or the rear bench, the Outback’s chairs are fine places to while away miles. The front seats on our Touring tester were impressively supportive and had the kind of long-haul comfort road trippers love. A thigh extension on the driver’s-side seat is a nice touch and an uncommon addition to Japanese cars outside of luxury models. The Onyx Edition we switched into later in the day wasn’t as comfortable, thanks in large part to its water-resistant seat upholstery, which lacked breathability, while the seat itself was missing the thigh extension.
Such a popular vehicle with outdoor enthusiasts can’t go backwards on capability and versatility. That means there’s more cargo space than before, although that statement requires some explanation. The 2019 Outback had 35.5 cubic feet of cargo space with the second-row up and 75.3 cubes with the rear seats folded, while the 2020 model has 32.5 cubic feet with the seats up and a max of 75.7. But make no mistake, the 2020 is more capacious, and that’s because the measurements for this year follow a new SAE standard that will eventually take hold across the industry. Measured with the same ruler as the 2019 model, the 2020 Outback has 37.1 and 78 cubes, respectively.
That space is impressively versatile, too. Innovative tweaks to the Outback’s frame help increase the amount of space between the rear wheel arches to 43.3 inches. But beyond simple dimensions, the 2020 Outback is easier to load up thanks to a power liftgate (standard on all but the base model) that opens simply by holding a hand in front of the Subaru badge with the key in your pocket. And if the cargo area is still too small, Subaru made clever changes to the standard roof rails; integrated tie-down points and crossbars that stow inside the rails themselves make hauling gear on the roof easier than ever.
Once loaded down, the Outback is impressively capable. Packing as much ground clearance as a Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk (8.7 inches), standard all-wheel drive (because Subaru), and Subaru’s trick X-Mode off-road-driving mode, the Outback’s capability is far in excess of what most consumers will need.
While no automaker will ever set a car up to fail, it’s worth mentioning that our off-road test route was still no joke. And yet, the Outback negotiated steep inclines and declines, small streams, and plenty of mud and ruts with ease. Only once during our testing did it really struggle, and that was only for a moment in a deep, muddy rut. A brief failing that’s more a fault of the road-friendly tires than anything else.
The Outback negotiated steep inclines and declines, small streams, and plenty of mud and ruts with ease.
We did have a few items on our Outback wish list, though, and that starts with its hill-descent control. The system activates when X-Mode is switched on, but we couldn’t find a way to adjust the downhill coasting speed. Too often, we found ourselves heading downhill at a higher speed than we felt comfortable with. The optional underbody guards, available on the Premium, are also a smart buy, as the Outback’s approach and departure angles are lacking compared to dedicated off-roaders. At 18.6 degrees on approach and 21.7 degrees on departure, the Subaru can’t match the approach and departure angles of even lesser Cherokee models, let alone the Trailhawk.
On paved roads, the Outback feels substantial and composed, cornering flatly and predictably. Despite the amount of ground clearance, there’s not an unacceptable amount of body roll. Push hard and this wagon defaults to progressive, easy-to-manage understeer, although you really need to hustle to provoke it. The steering rack has the right amount of weight, even if it’s largely devoid of feedback. Present the Outback with a rougher surface and the four-wheel-independent suspension and 60-series tires shrug it off with ease. There’s little suspension noise and only minor amounts of tire roar or wind noise. We’d have little issue putting the Outback to work as a daily commuter.
Subaru will continue to offer the Outback with two engine options. The base model, and what the company expects to be the most popular choice, is a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter flat-four-cylinder that produces 182 horsepower and 176 pound-feet of torque. It’s a pleasant engine, feeling more refined than the last Subaru boxer your author drove (a Forester), with less of the harsh buzziness that typified that engine. The base engine isn’t an especially powerful partner, though, tasked as it is with hustling around approximately 3,700 pounds of Japanese crossover.
If power is a high priority, the Outback remains available with a beefier engine. The new turbocharged 2.4-liter four-cylinder replaces the old 3.6-liter flat-six-cylinder and packs a robust 260 hp and 277 lb-ft of torque. That’s only four horsepower more but a significant 30 pound-feet of torque more than the previous flat-six. The turbocharged Outback XT is still significantly quicker, with more accessible power and a more energetic character. But we did notice a degree of turbo lag from this engine while zipping around the twisting roads of California’s Lost Coast. Slipping the gear lever into manual mode and forcing the continuously variable transmission to keep the revs up solved the problem, for the most part. Aside from that minor annoyance, the turbo 2.4-liter flat-four is a likable setup, with ample grunt and a 3,500-pound towing capacity.
The turbocharged Outback XT is still significantly quicker, with more accessible power and a more energetic character.
For families, though, it’s the Outback’s impressive safety suite that may be its most important feature. Subaru’s EyeSight active safety system is standard on every trim, packing full-speed adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, forward collision warning, and automatic emergency braking. Blind-spot monitoring with rear cross-traffic alert is standard on every trim but the Outback’s base variant, while the DriverFocus system makes sure the Outback’s pilot keeps his or her eyes on the road. The latter is standard on the Touring and optional on the Limited. That said, we found it a little too sensitive – the system barked at us if our eyes were off the road for too long, which isn’t bad in and of itself, but the threshold for cueing an alert is too low.
Subaru’s smart, thoughtful updates to an already successful package bode well for customers looking for a four-wheeled addition to the family. That the 2020 Outback feels so familiar may make it a little less exciting to the buying public, but combined with so many new features, there’s little doubt that this lifted wagon will carry on its long and successful sales run.
Gallery: 2020 Subaru Outback: First Drive
2020 Subaru Outback Limited