The 2020 Subaru Outback is the sixth generation of the Legacy-based version of the car. There’s a 260 horsepower turbocharged engine that’s available this time, and there’s a bigger screen in the middle. Otherwise, it’s mostly a collection of small refinements—perhaps wisely, Subaru didn’t go out of its way to try and fix problems that don’t exist.
(Full Disclosure: Subaru flew me to California and made food and drink available as sustenance, so that I could drive the new Outback for a day. My driving partner was Mike Spinelli, founding editor of Jalopnik. If you’re reading this, Mike, please stop immediately and get a life. You drove the exact same car as me. Why are you reading this? You know what the the damn thing is like.)
Subaru says their market research tells it that the people who buy Outbacks are about exactly as you would expect: well-educated and solidly middle- to upper-middle class. They’re also people who do more research than most before making a car-buying decision, according to Subaru. They’re also people who care about MPG, not CVT. So complain all you want about the transmission, but Subaru knows what it’s doing here, at least in terms of the actual business of selling cars.
What is the Outback? Is it an SUV? Is it a crossover? Is it a station wagon? Is it perhaps just a... car? It began life almost 30 years ago as a tweaked version of the Legacy wagon, featuring that 1990s offroady staple look, plastic body cladding. But by now it’s morphed almost entirely into its own unique thing, in a segment that Subaru basically has to themselves, with the recent death of the Volkswagen Golf Alltrack.
The Audi A4 Allroad is still kicking around, I suppose, but, let’s be honest, no one ever really thinks about it. You definitely didn’t. And then there’s something like the Volvo V60 Cross Country, which is in the conversation for sure, but is more expensive. The Outback slays them all when it comes to sales, in any case, with nearly 200,000 sold last year, a number which has almost doubled in 10 years.
But might you also consider that the Outback has better ground clearance (8.7 inches) than the Ford Explorer (7.9 inches), Chevy Equinox (7.6 inches), and even the Jeep Grand Cherokee (8.6 inches) but looks, in person, like basically what it started life as, a station wagon? Everything in life has become utterly meaningless, in other words, and Subaru doesn’t really want to put a name on it, either, internally comparing it to all manner of SUVs, crossovers, and wagons.
I will henceforth be referring to the Outback as a “car.”
The (new to the Outback) 2.4-liter, 260 horsepower, turbocharged four-cylinder engine (originally introduced in the 2019 Ascent) is good, and I can report that it’s even a bit punchy on the road. The 2.5-liter, 182 horsepower, naturally-aspirated four-cylinder is less punchy, which should be obvious from the math, but still adequate, but I can imagine a family of four with attendant luggage and towing (anything) might change that equation a bit.
The 2.4-liter engine gets 26 MPG combined in the EPA’s tests, and the 2.5-liter gets 29 MPG combined, which is better but not show-stoppingly so, thus I imagine that decision for most buyers will probably come down to price. Here are those prices between the various trims, with the XT models the ones that come with the more powerful engine:
The CVT transmission is standard on all models, as is Subaru’s all-wheel-drive system which, continuously varies how much power it sends to the front and rear wheels to optimize traction. The car’s X-Mode, which can vary how much power is sent to individual wheels in an effort to control wheel spin, can be activated for off-road or snowy conditions, just like in tons of all-wheel-drive cars nowadays. In my time using X-Mode on an off-road course Subaru set us up with, that system handled a variety of dirt, mud, and rocky surfaces with aplomb.
You get 17-inch tires on the base model, with 18-inch tires on the more expensive trims. The Outback’s weight has gone up a tiny bit compared to 2019, but even the Touring XT trim, with all the bells and whistles, manages to come in under 4,000 pounds, or 3,937 pounds to be precise. Towing capacity with the 182 hp engine is 2,700 pounds; that number goes up to 3,500 pounds for the 260 hp engine.
I loved the Onyx Edition. Loved it. It’s got the more powerful engine, for one thing, but it’s also got a bunch of other cool shit on it, like black wheels and more black everywhere, like on the mirrors. It’s also got seats that are covered in water-repellant material called StarTex that also, Subaru says, gets less hot in direct sunlight than other seat fabrics. So if it’s absolutely boiling out at least your seats, and thus your seat, might not be boiling as well.
The Onyx Edition also has even more X-Mode, meaning settings for snow/dirt and deep snow/mud. I only tested that mode sporadically, and I’m sure they are slightly better in those conditions, but the advantage here is bragging rights. You have multiple X-Modes. The Lessers have one.
It’s also got a full-size spare tire which, frankly, all cars should have. Imagine being off-road and you blow a tire and all you have is a donut.
And did you notice the price? The Onyx Edition’s base price is $34,895, which is not cheap, but is less than Touring trim’s base price ($37,345) when that car has the weaker engine. Anyone who buys the 2020 Outback and doesn’t get the Onyx Edition is making a grave mistake, in my opinion.
The car handled well, even on a fairly demanding off-road course with steep inclines and deep mud that Subaru put us on. That course included a few portions that got wheels in the air, and was probably more rigorous than it needed to be (and I’m assuming a few cars didn’t totally survive given the driving skills of auto writers, which aren’t great) but that was in the end to the new Outback’s benefit. If it could handle an up-and-down off-road course being driven by idiots, it could definitely handle much milder courses it will more realistically face driven by someone who actually cares about the car (i.e. an owner and not some stupid auto writer).
I also almost forgot to mention that you can get a CD player in this car. Compact discs! In 2019!
The lane keeping systems, and the driver attention system, which nudges you to pay attention if it sense that your eyes are off the road, can be annoying. They sometimes inaccurately urged me to center the car or keep my eyes on the road, when the car was either fairly center or when my eyes were actually on the road.
The driver attention system is part of the car’s facial recognition system, which uses infrared wavelengths to scan your face. I personally am mostly unbothered by facial-recognition technology, but I could see this being a turn-off for some, even though the system doesn’t use a camera and Subaru says the information doesn’t leave your car.
And then there is the touchscreen, the very concept of which I don’t love. This one (an 11.6-inch vertical) suffered from the same limitations they all seem to. It didn’t always register the right button when I touched it. And it is so big that it’s virtually inviting the driver to mess with it while driving, even though there is warning at ignition not to do that. All that said, the actual design of the menus and OS was less annoying to operate than most, and Subaru said that they also kept a number of physical controls and knobs in part because of feedback from owners in the snow belt who frequently wear gloves.
Whenever a non-car-enthusiast friend asks me what kind of car they should get, my stock answer is usually a Ford Flex, a great car. But barring people who don’t want a weirdo Ford retro-wagon-SUV-thing that’s been in production since approximately 1763, I tell them to get a Subaru. Get a Crosstrek, unless you want something bigger, in which case get a Forester, unless you want something even bigger, in which case get an Outback, unless you want something even more bigger, in which case get an Ascent. (Do not get an Ascent, an Ascent is too big.)
The reason is that station-wagon/crossover/SUV/whatever-the-hell-they-are line of Subarus is versatile as hell and almost transparently designed for non-car-enthusiasts; the Outback has been underpowered, but that seemingly hasn’t bothered its buyers, nor has the CVT. And, in any case, Outbacks haven’t been cool since the second Bush administration, and this new one isn’t going to change that. The Onyx Edition is the closest the 2020 Outback even approaches cool (and is the one I would buy) but Subaru knows that it doesn’t have to really try in that department.
That’s because the Outback is already good enough for its loyalists, a car that carved its own niche space in the market, and a car that—even in a time when no one wants to buy a station wagon—is still doing all right for itself despite the headwinds.
At one point, a Subaru rep compared the styling of the new Outback to a mullet, while also saying it was modeled after a hiking boot. Business on top, party at the bottom, I guess. Or maybe they meant the party was on top and business was on the bottom. I don’t know. I got their drift, at any rate. This car is supposed to be the best of both worlds. It mostly succeeds.