American consumers have a cognitive dissonance when it comes to wagons and the Subaru Outback. On the one hand, wagon sales have seen decades of decline since the heady days where the long-roof was a family's preferred vehicle. On the other, Subaru can't build enough of these damn things, which try to hide their lifted wagon-ness even less than most crossovers.
Subaru sold 181,000 Outbacks in 2019, and after spending a week with the redesigned 2020 Outback, that number doesn't seem likely to decline even as auto sales contract industry wide. This lifted wagon remains a safe and comfortable family hauler that adds smarter technology and some welcomed design updates.
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One thing the Subaru Outback is not is exciting to look at. In fact, an exceedingly light styling overhaul as part of its most recent redesign makes the new Outback challenging to spot in a crowd of older models. That's not to say the 2020 Outback isn't attractive, particularly with our Onyx Edition tester's blacked-out trim.
Using the tried-and-tested approach of replacing silver or chrome trim with glossy black, the Onyx Edition looks sportier and more assertive, particularly in a lighter shade of paint, like Crystal White or Ice Silver. Gloss black replacements for the grille, badges, mirror caps, and roof rack work as well on the Outback as on any other vehicle, making the Onyx Edition the trim to have for the style conscious. Customers focused on style will need to get past the Outback's anonymous appearance, which even the Onyx Edition can't hide, though.
Bigger changes are afoot in the redesigned Outback's cabin. Subaru fitted a large, portrait-oriented infotainment front and center and then made significant upgrades to the cabin materials to yield a driving environment that's much easier on the eyes. Soft-touch materials abound, while the moisture-resistant vinyl upholstery feels far better in the colder climes of Michigan than it did in summery northern California, where we originally tested the new Outback. Leather remains available on higher-end trims.
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A spacious cabin filled with four comfortable seats (the Outback seats five, but there isn't a vehicle on the market that has a comfortable middle seat), a quiet and composed ride, and a big cargo hold are Outback hallmarks, so it's little surprise to see the 2020 model earning such a high comfort score.
Those front chairs are supportive and well-cushioned. You sit these seats in much the same way you would a favorite desk chair, simply plopping down, letting the material cosset you, and enjoying an impressive view from the front, back, and sides. The back seats are nearly as comfortable, with ample leg and headroom for two adults, even with taller passengers in front. And if you pop the rear hatch, there's a capacious cargo hold that offers at least 32.5 cubic feet of cargo space. Flip the rear seats down and there's a cavernous 75.7 cubes available, which along with the low rear bumper height and large aperture, makes the Outback versatile, despite its ultra-manageable footprint. The comfortable cabin is suitably quiet, too. The Outback, despite a noisy engine, does an adequate job of minimizing road and wind noise, even at higher speeds.
The crown jewel of the new Outback's cabin is an 11.6-inch portrait-style touchscreen infotainment system. It's a gorgeous setup, with crisp graphics and an attractive layout. But we had issues during testing with the response time, even after the system warmed up, and learning the collection of menus and settings is tougher than in some competitors. For example, making more than one button press to activate the heated seats is annoying. That said, for sheer screen real estate alone, the Outback's new system is hard to beat.
The Outback Onyx Edition XT comes well equipped, but the real appeal of this package is that it's the cheapest way to score a turbocharged engine. That means sacrificing some of the gear from the slightly more affordable, naturally aspirated Outback Limited. The Onyx Edition sacrifices active LED front lights that move left and right to illuminate the road through corners, a memory function for the front seats, an (optional) heated steering wheel, and a Harmon Kardon audio system in exchange for its turbocharged power.
The Onyx Edition does have some appealing standard features, though. Heated front and rear seats are a godsend in the frostier climates where the Outback is most popular. The standard 11.6-inch display and an optional sunroof help matters, too.
The Outback Onyx Edition XT is, as we've said, the most affordable way to score a turbocharged Outback. In place of the naturally aspirated 2.5-liter flat-four sits a turbocharged 2.4-liter flat-four with 260 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of torque. Drivers with a heavier foot will appreciate the additional 78 hp and 101 lb-ft of torque, although it hardly feels necessary. The XT is fun in a straight line, but we'd trade the extra power for more equipment.
Ignore our suggestion and you'll find a lifted wagon that accelerates eagerly off the line after an initial bout of turbo lag, with few gaps in a torque curve that offers peak twist from 2,000 to 4,800 rpm. The turbocharged boxer feels willing even at higher engine speeds, where it still offers a refined, pleasant note. Ultimately, the best reason for opting into the Outback XT might be its increased towing capacity – the turbocharged model can handle up to 3,500 pounds, compared to the 2,700-pound rating for the non-turbo model.
Every Outback comes standard with a continuously variable transmission that's adequate in everyday conditions. Subaru solved the worst ills of the CVT (rubber-band-like revving, holding revs too high) long ago, and offers a pleasant gearbox that responds willingly and only holds revs as long as necessary.
As a lifted, family focused wagon, it's hardly a surprise that the Outback doesn't earn any merits for its handling. The Subaru is competent and composed through corners, with predictable, relaxed body motions. The steering is light and easy to manage, but neither it nor the chassis delivers much in the way of feedback. That said, most Outback customers will find its behavior through bends more than adequate.
Subaru's exceptional Eyesight active safety suite comes standard on every Outback model, although lesser trims include a more basic setup. The Onyx Edition XT, as well as the base model, Premium, and naturally aspirated Limited, lack Eyesight's (oversensitive, in our opinion) distraction mitigation system. Rear automatic emergency braking is available, but only as part of the same $1,845 option pack that includes a sunroof and a navigation function for the 11.6-inch display.
Even with those absences, the Onyx Edition XT's safety suite is impressive. Fixed LED headlights with automatic high beams, lane-keep assist, forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and adaptive cruise control all come standard. That said, as with the cars we drove at the Outback's launch, Eyesight is too sensitive. The lane-keep assist was particularly annoying, flashing warnings if we strayed too close to lane markers – yes, that's its job, but the warnings arrived even if there was no danger of us straying from our lane. We've said it before, and we'll say it again: Subaru needs to allow owners to adjust the system's sensitivity.
The Outback's turbocharged engine returns an EPA-estimated 23 miles per gallon city, 30 mpg highway, and 26 mpg combined. Regardless of engine, though, the Outback will happily sip 87-octane fuel. Our testing saw figures closer to the city estimates, although we tested predominantly at around-town speeds, so not much of a surprise at that.
Prices for the Outback start at $26,645, while the Onyx Edition XT carries a starting price of $34,895. That doesn't feel unreasonable for what's on offer, but customers will need to ask themselves if the Onyx Edition's turbocharged engine and blacked-out style is worth the $1,450 premium it carries over the Outback Limited, a trim that offers less power but better equipment. Getting the Limited's equipment and the Onyx's engine demands an additional $2,850 over our tester's starting price.
As for optional goodies, our tester carried the only one available: the aforementioned $1,845 option pack that adds rear automatic emergency braking, a sunroof, and navigation. The as-tested price was $37,750, including a $1,010 destination charge.
Picking a competitor for the Outback is something of a challenge, as it doesn't fit the traditional crossover mold. The Buick Regal TourX is a logical alternative, although the American brand failed to convince consumers of that and is putting the attractive wagon out to pasture. Even then, the Outback undercuts the Regal's base price by $2,725. Building a Regal that can match the Outback's active safety suite is challenging, requiring the range-topping Essence trim ($35,995) and two option packages that bring the total price to $38,910.
Gallery: 2020 Subaru Outback: First Drive
2020 Subaru Outback XT Onyx Edition