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2020 Subaru Outback First Drive Review: All New and Even Better

Everything the faithful loved—plus even more to win over new fans.

In a state as popular and populous as California, the idea of finding pristine coastline unmolested by waterfront property development, throngs of tourists, and overpriced hotels is as difficult as finding cheap rent in Beverly Hills. Travel far enough north, however, and you'll encounter a rugged and very wild strip of mostly untouched shoreline appropriately referred to as the Lost Coast—an area we've been eagerly exploring in the new 2020 Subaru Outback.

The area's title is well-earned. As a result of depopulation in the early 20th century and mountainous topography deemed too challenging to pave even for Caltrans, the Lost Coast between Rockport and Ferndale is treacherous and can only be reached by traversing an assortment of hiking paths and challenging fire trails that spit capable 4x4s out onto an inhospitable—but serene—beachhead.

It's here in this largely inaccessible territory that Subaru gave us our first go in what is arguably the most accessible vehicle in its lineup, save perhaps the Forester. Unveiled at the 2019 New York auto show, the sixth-generation Outback is the latest in a long line of what has become the torchbearer for modern Subaru.

While it's a quintessential Subaru, the latest Outback isn't necessarily an essential redesign. Even with the 2020 Outback already out of the bag, dealers moved a whopping 17,500 of the present-generation in the last month alone, a jump of 8.9 percent. This follows what Subaru of America said was its best June ever, with overall sales up 2.1 percent. It's no wonder 2018 saw the two millionth Outback built; you should see the three millionth in a couple years.

How It's Changed

Even Japan must have a translation for "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Following in the footsteps of the recently redesigned Forester, the 2020 Subaru Outback doesn't appear wildly different than the outgoing model. Visually, they're almost identical twins, with the exception of some small updates the the front and rear fascias and to the black plastic trim running down the length of the car. The new car is a bit bigger, but not by much; it's 1.4 inches longer and 0.6 inch wider, with 0.1 inch and 1.4 inches added to the front and rear overhangs. Height, wheelbase, and front track are unchanged, but the rear track grows by 0.6 inch. Usually, we'd call this sort of thing uninspired, but who cares? Certainly not Subaru's hyper-loyal customer base. Hundreds of hours were likely spent analyzing customer feedback, and keeping things right where they were probably topped the list. Remember New Coke?

It's on the inside where the new Outback received the lion's share of stylistic attention. Every trim but the basest-of-base models has a large, 11.6-inch tablet-style infotainment display with an updated Starlink operating system, available with optional TomTom-powered navigation. Regardless of trim, all 2020 Outbacks arrive with standard Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. Even in a relatively lower spec, the cabin is a well-finished place to spend a few hours; in the higher, loaded-out trims, it felt requisitely upscale with optional Nappa leather and package-specific trim. Like the outgoing model, the Subaru EyeSight safety system is standard on all Outbacks, with extra safety features like LED headlights, blind-spot monitoring, a head-up display, reverse braking, and front-view camera optional or trim-specific.

Major Changes You Can't See

So while there are some changes to what you see, use, and touch, its what's underneath the Outback's familiar skin that received the most substantial updates. This marks the vehicle's transition to the vaunted Subaru Global Platform (SGP), a modular construction architecture shared between Forester, Impreza, Ascent, and now Outback. The skeleton was developed to improve rigidity, handling, ride refinement, and reduce cabin noise. Subaru claims massive improvements in structural flex in all directions, as well as in front suspension and rear subframe rigidity. It also is said to absorb 40 percent more energy in front and side impacts, greatly increasing safety in the event of crash.

Both of the 2020 Outback's powertrain options are updated as well. The base 2.5-liter naturally aspirated flat-four is marginally more powerful and pushes out 182 horsepower and 176 lb-ft of torque, boosts of 7 horses and 2 lb-ft. Subaru lifted this powerplant from the updated Forester, and as such, claims 90 percent of the componentry is either new or updated, including a new direct-injection system. Gone is the Outback's old, thirsty 3.6-liter flat-six optional engine, replaced with the punchy 2.4-liter turbocharged flat-four from the Ascent and installed in Outback XTs. As novel as a non-Porsche flat-six is, the EZ-series was neither as efficient nor as powerful as most of its competitors, so for once we're not sad to see a big sixer replaced with a turbo four. Of course, a continuously variable transmission (with 8 simulated gears if you want to "shift" it) and Subaru's signature all-wheel-drive are both standard, regardless of engine choice.

The Engines

Let's start with the base engine. I wasn't particularly the biggest fan of the FB25 in the Forester; even for a regular workaday crossover, I found it a little unrefined and thrashy. I'm happy to report that thanks to thicker sound-insulated glass and upgraded weather sealing, its character is noticeably better in the 2020 Outback, as is acceleration and passing power. Figure on something between 8.5 and 9.0 seconds for the all-important zero-to-60-mph sprint, which should be more than adequate for the majority of buyers. Keep your foot out of it, and Subaru claims you'll see 33 mpg on the highway and around 600 miles of range.

The 2.4-liter FA24F turbo-four is markedly more interesting. Not that the Outback necessarily needed a "premium" engine at all, considering the Forester dropped the turbo for the new generation after the old car's turbo take rate sat at an abysmal five percent. Let's not ask to many questions, and just be glad we can get more muscle. It's quite punchy, sending 260 horsepower and a thick 277 lb-ft of torque to all four wheels. Acceleration is strong and will have you scampering up that icy mountain road to your Colorado cabin posthaste. Like the base engine, sound dampening is much improved over the previous generation.

The Drive Impressions

It certainly rides and handles better, thanks to the SGP platform and a new lighter suspension setup that includes upgraded front internal-rebound springs, aluminum lower control arms, and beefier front and rear stabilizer bars. Steering, braking, and general inputs are well measured for the segment. As irrelevant as these metrics may seem for a wagonish crossover, we'd argue that a vehicle aimed at a kayak-hauling, alpine-hiking, sightseeing demographic is more likely to see curvy mountain passes and tricky dirt switchbacks than wannabes in the Chevy Blazer and Ford Edge.

These active lifestylers also like to drop a wheel off the beaten path. Since we travelled all the way north to California's Fort Bragg for the drive, half of the day's route took place in the overgrown and sometimes treacherous 4x4 trails that snake through the coastal mountains. We started in a straw-colored field filled with invisible axle-twisting divots, then made our way up seemingly unused ATV paths and hairpin inclines that for the inexperienced overlander would seem impassable by anything lacking all-terrain tires and locking hubs.

Our trepidations aside, the trail guide was confident as he raced ahead out of sight in his Forester Sport, so I pushed the bone-stock Outback through some terrain that would have challenged a Trailhawk-spec Jeep. Its 8.7 inches of ground clearance prevented any bottoming out, and when inclines became noticeably precarious, X-Mode's hill-descent control made sure the roof racks remained shiny. A few times when we became momentarily stuck on hilariously uneven ground, steady throttle allowed the clever all-wheel-drive system to send power to the correct wheels. With a small lift and some knobbier rubber, the Outback would be unstoppable through anything short of Moab's Metal Masher.

In keeping with appearances, pricing isn't drastically different either. The base model 2020 Subaru Outback starts at $27,655, just $335 more than the outgoing generation. The Premium starts at $29,905 and is right above base trim, adding the bigger infotainment screen and keyless entry. The new Onyx Edition XT is next, stickering for $35,905. This is a special-edition package that darkens the exterior trim and adds water-repellant upholstery and additional settings in X-Mode. For extra luxe, buyers can opt for the $34,455 Limited or $38,355 Touring, the former adding the aforementioned extra safety features, nicer wheels, and automatic rear tailgate.

So there you have it. America's most popular wagon is back with a familiar face, a better interior, nicer engines, and more refinement than ever. For Subaru loyalists, your latest and greatest champion is here. For new-car buyers looking for something practical and right-sized, it just might be time to drink the Kool-Aid—or, perhaps more appropriately, the Kombucha.


2020 Subaru Outback Specifications

ON SALE Fall 2019
PRICE $27,655 (base)
ENGINE 2.5L DOHC 16-valve H-4, 182 hp @ 5,800 rpm, 176 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm; 2.4L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve H-4; 260 hp @ 5,600 rpm, 277 lb-ft @ 2,000-4,800 rpm
TRANSMISSION Continuously variable automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD hatchback
EPA MILEAGE 23-26/30-33 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 191.3 x 73.0 x 66.1 in
WHEELBASE 108.1 in
WEIGHT 3,634 lb (base)
0-60 MPH N/A