Mountain Wheels: Subtle changes produce a more refined and powerful Subaru Outback
The long-running, king-of-mountain-lifestyle vehicle has returned for a sixth-generation revision that you, and everyone you know, are probably going to buy, whether you like it or not.
The 2020 Subaru Outback makes no quantum leaps in design or character, as visual changes are subtle, outside of a toughened-up, literally hiking boot-inspired Onyx XT edition with chunky, blackened bumpers, wheels and trim, one of seven trim levels available. But it will still offer family-oriented buyers who are not quite ready for the Ascent SUV a very pleasant choice, with improved rear-seat space.
Probably the biggest change is the long-awaited return of a turbocharged variant across various trim levels, something Outback hasn’t offered for a decade. Outback’s XT models get a modified version of the Ascent’s engine, a 2.4-liter turbocharged Boxer that generates 260 horsepower and is matched to a high-torque CVT automatic transmission, all of it good for up to 30 highway mpg.
Some of you remember the old, almost-too-powerful 3.0-liter turbo once found in Outback; the good news, especially for high-altitude dwellers, is the impressive extra yank you’ll find when tasked with passing or during full-out Interstate 70 speed sessions.
I put this to the test during a launch event held in far northern California redwood country on a rainforest-styled stretch of Highway 1 that was as twisty as they come — in addition to some very serious off-roading at a 2,200-acre private property near the tony Inn at Newport Ranch.
The Indiana-assembled Outback’s 2020 dimensions are just marginally increased, 1.4 inches longer overall (191.3 total) and about a half-inch wider, but a comprehensive set of underbody and suspension changes and more high-strength steel give it a noticeably more solid ride.
Granted, it’s still a big-ish vehicle, not quite wagon, not quite crossover, and my initial elation in thinking I had landed an upsized WRX (which you might feel on the straightaways) slightly deflated in tight corners. Outback rides on either 17- or 18-inch wheels and still carries over 3,900 pounds in its most gear-loaded variant.
Realistically, most drivers are not going to push it that hard — nor will they attempt to rip the bumpers and mirrors off by dodging trees and rocks on the complex Jeep trails we drove later — but the new Outback will quite competently handle whatever you throw at it. More engine output also means the XT models can tow up to 3,500 pounds; a front-view camera is also available, helpful for cresting hills or, more realistically, avoiding curbs while parking.
Base model power is provided by an available 182-horsepower, 2.5-liter, direct-injection engine borrowed from the new Forester, plus a CVT offering eight virtual speeds and paddle shifters. It did competent, up to 33 mpg during a sea-level highway course, and was also suitable for our take-it-to-the-limits off-road sesh.
Speaking of which, Outback retains its 8.7 inches of ground clearance, with wheels framed in slightly more pronounced wheel arches, and the X-Drive off-road system instantly provides pedal-free hill descent control. A dual-mode system in the XT also dials up sand and mud settings.
Seating is generally comfortable and in addition to cloth or even fancy Nappa leather trims, Subaru has a new, breathable but water-resistant urethane material ideal for wet-bottomed kayakers or chronic drink-spillers.
The extra steel means thinner A-pillars in the windows and, combined with repositioned side mirrors, gives the new Outback excellent forward and side visibility. The standard roof rails feature cool, store-away crossbars and now have open tiedown slots fore and aft for your gargantuan rooftop loads.
Those less interested in the ride and more interested in the doodads will appreciate a new, vertically oriented, iPad-styled Starlink multimedia screen, which incorporates nearly all of the center stack button/knob functionality, with mixed results. A single or a double-stacked set of smaller screens are also options. Outback also now has optional in-cabin Wi-Fi plus a gazillion USB outlets; old-schoolers can add a vertically mounted CD player, if they’d like, or a wireless phone charging pad.
The enhanced, wagonesque storage Outback owners know and love means 75.7 cubic feet of second-row, dropped-cargo space with a wider gate that can accommodate 43.3-inch wide loads between the wheel wells.
It’s also hands-free, accessed by doing sort of a blocking tackle move with your shoulder against the emblem on the liftgate if you have the remote in your pocket, versus the foot sweep everyone else does nowadays.
Pricing remains competitive, with starting prices up only $300 from 2019 models, beginning at $26,645, plus $1,010 in destination charges. Even base models get standard features ranging from the acclaimed EyeSight camera-based safety system to a simple 7-inch touchscreen. The fully loaded Outback Touring XT is priced at $39,695, while the blacked-out and sharp-looking Onyx Edition XT is right in the middle at $34,895. As a guide, the turbocharged models will be about $2,500 more than the standard engine. Anticipate them everywhere, as usual, when they go on sale in September.
Andy Stonehouse’s column “Mountain Wheels” publishes Saturdays in the Summit Daily News. Stonehouse has worked as an editor and writer in Colorado since 1998, focusing on automotive coverage since 2004. He lives in Greeley. Contact him at email@example.com.
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Spoiler alert: There was almost no drama whatsoever during my recent test of the accomplished, practical and even vaguely sexy-looking Hyundai Sonata hybrid.