First Drive: 2020 Subaru Outback Improves an Already Versatile Model

July 29, 2019 by Jerry Hirsch, @Jerryhirsch

Usually when car buyers learn a redesign of their favorite model is about to launch they delay purchasing until the new generation hits dealer lots.

Subaru’s versatile 2019 Outback has defied that convention. Just months before before it is replaced by the sixth-generation Outback, it is beating last year’s sales numbers. In fact, the model has set 10 consecutive annual sales records across two generations.

That’s why Subaru can’t afford to mess up the 2020 Outback. It needs to be better in almost every regard than the vehicle it’s replacing.

A day of driving the all-wheel-drive 2020 Outback on highways north of Fort Bragg, Calif., and dirt tracks in the coastal mountains proved that Subaru doesn’t have anything to worry about.

The new Outback will fulfill the expectations of one of the most demanding sets of owners.

STORM BREAKER

This is a vehicle that will get you home from work in a snowstorm. It won’t crawl rocks, but it can go just about anywhere else off-road to reach remote fishing spots and the best mountain bike trails. That’s an important consideration for Subaru buyers – 15 to 20 percent say they take their vehicles off-roading. Only Jeep has a higher percentage of owners hitting the dirt.

2020 Subaru Outback

A 2020 Subaru Outback zips past the herd. (Photo: Jerry Hirsch/Trucks.com)

The Outback’s all-wheel-drive architecture and its X-Mode rough terrain system make it easy.

There’s also a nifty hill descent-control function that takes over braking and acceleration when heading down a steep incline.

The new Outback has confident road manners, easily navigating miles of twisty mountain roads without excessive body lean or fatiguing steering.

MORE SAFETY FEATURES

The new model is more spacious, gets better fuel economy and is safer. The body is reinforced with high-strength steel and advanced adhesives. Those also stiffen the frame, reducing noise and vibration. The new body absorbs more than 40 percent more energy in front and side crashes than the current model, Subaru said. But in the event of the worst, eight standard airbags, including a driver knee airbag, protect occupants.

The model has Subaru’s EyeSight Driver Assist Technology suite as a standard feature. It includes crash alerts and automatic emergency braking, which Subaru says reduce the rate of rear-end collisions with injuries by up to 85 percent. The system also includes adaptive cruise control with lane centering. The vehicle provides a steering assist when it wanders from its lane.

Those not familiar with the Outback can easily mistake it for a station wagon, among the least popular vehicles in the U.S. But it is really a Swiss army knife meets adventure vehicle.

MATCHES UP

Here’s how the Outback measures up against some of the most popular SUVs and crossovers.

At 191.3 inches, it’s longer than the Chevrolet Equinox, the Ford Edge and the Jeep Grand Cherokee. Its 8.7 inches of ground clearance are best in class, which is why it is a great off-roader. It trails the Edge in front headroom by only 0.1 inch and beats the rest. It has the largest cargo volume with the seats folded down, 78 cubic feet. That’s important for people who regularly pack snowboards, surfboards, bicycles and dogs inside their vehicles.

Outback with rear hatch up.

The 2020 Subaru Outback has lots of space for gear. (Photo: Subaru)

But the Outback maintains a lower profile than a typical SUV. That makes entry and exit easier and improves handling and aerodynamics.

ENGINE CHOICES

Subaru is equipping the new model with two engine choices.

Buyers of the base model get a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers 182 horsepower and 176 pound-feet of torque. It provides 26 mpg in city driving, 33 on the highway and 29 combined.

It’s good, but the second option makes the Outback sing.

Subaru has outfitted XT trim models with a 2.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that delivers 260 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque. It provides 23 mpg in city driving, 30 on the highway and 26 in combined driving. The engine has a 3,500-pound towing capacity, the most of any previous Outback.

Both power plants are so-called boxer engines. Boxer engines are designed so the cylinders lie flat instead of in a V or inline position. The pistons move past each other like arms of sparring boxers.  Subaru says the engine can generate a lot of power from a small, light package. It also can be mounted low in the vehicle to lower the center of gravity and improve handling.

Subaru has mated the engines to a continuously variable transmission. The CVT is a fuel-saving design that occasionally whines when stressed. But the Subaru version is not as bad as similar transmissions from other nameplates such as Nissan or Toyota.

IN THE CABIN

The new Outback has a comfortable, quiet cabin. The windshield and front-door windows are made with a sound-insulating inner film. The glass also is thicker than that of previous models.

A tablet-style, 11.6-inch display anchors the center dash in all but the base trim level. It’s easy to see and operate. The starting trim level has an upper-dash, 7-inch touch screen with audio controls and a lower-dash, 7-inch screen that accesses the climate control system and other controls. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto come standard on all Outbacks.

STARTING PRICE

The 2020 Outback starts at $27,655 including delivery fee. That’s $300 more than the 2019 model. The XT trim models with the turbocharged engine start at $35,905 including delivery fee.

Subaru has the highest brand loyalty of any major automaker with 61.5 percent of its buyers trading in a used Subaru, according to research firm J.D. Power. One way Subaru commands such loyalty is by making sure a new model like the 2020 Outback doesn’t disappoint.

Editor’s note: To facilitate this report, Trucks.com attended an event at which Subaru USA hosted travel and lodging.

John O'Dell May 17, 2019
We set out to see if the EPA’s estimate of 35 miles per gallon for the 2019 Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid holds up in real-world travel.

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