Getting Some Seat Time in the New Subaru Outback

subaru outback
Courtesy of Subaru

Spend much time in pretty much any mountain town, coastal town, desert town, or, hmm, any town, really, where there are lots of people doing lots of things outdoors, and you will see them: Subaru Outbacks (sometimes seemingly outnumbering people).

Many plastered with national parks stickers, most with racks for skis, bikes, snowboards, kayaks. Some lifted and kitted out with chunky all-terrain tires and off-road lights, others sparking clean with a tweed-clad professor driving along on leather seats. Partially because of a near-total lack of competition, the all-wheel-drive Outback absolutely crushes the wagon-ish, off-road capable, super-safe car market.

Subaru has sold more than 2 million Outbacks since they debuted as the Legacy Outback in the mid 1990s. Last year alone they sold nearly 200,000 of them. This is a car with a legendarily obsessed customer base (full disclosure, I own a 2016 Outback) and a reputation as plucky, go-anywhere gear haulers, with drivers who put them through the wringer. The point is, there’s not a big demand for change with a car like this. There’s no need to futz too much with an already winning formula.

This is why when Subaru invited me to drive the new 2020 Outbacks in Northern California recently, I jumped at the chance (more disclosure – they plied the journalists in attendance with great food and comfy beds) to see if the brand was just going to fine-tune what already worked, or bring a whole new game (perhaps foolishly) to town.

subaru outback
Courtesy of Subaru

If you like the current fifth-generation styling of the Outback, I have terrific news for you: you can barely tell the difference between the 2019 and the 2020. The new model is a little more pinched and angular in the front and the back, but unless you spend a whole lotta time slobbering over Outbacks, you ain’t gonna tell ‘em apart easily.

This is still a car that screams: “YOU DON’T NEED A TRUCK OR AN SUV TO HAUL YOUR KIDS AND YOUR CRAP.” It’s still a wagon. Subaru has resisted any urge they may have had to blow up this thing into the size of a Ford Explorer, or chunk it up like the new Toyota RAV4.

There are changes, though. The big ones first: New for 2020, the Outback rides around on Subaru’s Global Platform, a chassis that the Impreza and (I wanna say) Crosstrek, has used for a couple years now. It’s lighter, stronger, and quite a bit stiffer than the outgoing chassis. It can also absorb 40% more energy in a crash, which is certainly impressive for a car that’s already about as safe as they get.

When driving, this translates to an impressively refined feel, with little body roll, at least for a car this big. On the highway and twisty pavement, the car feels planted, secure, and perhaps a little boring, but in the best possible way.

In the dirt, wow, the stiffness of the chassis leaps out at you. Off-camber pitches nosing into (and crawling out of) big pits, hitting ruts at speed – it’s composed and stable with no creaking, no obvious twisting feelings. You can drive this thing over nasty, rutted-out two-tracks and forget you’re not rolling through a parking lot. Anybody could drive one off-road.

The second big change is a turbocharged four-banger, something every Outback owner has wanted for years now. It’s a 2.4-liter boxer engine (of course), cranking out 260 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of torque. The 2.5-liter with no turbo, is still available, albeit with only 182 horsepower, and 176 lb-ft of torque. For years the Outback also came with a thirstier 3.6-liter 6-cylinder motor, but that’s been put out to pasture.

subaru outback
Courtesy of Subaru

Yes, thank God there’s a turbo, but also, meh, the 2.5 is fine. Thanks to the CVT transmission, love it or hate it, even the 2.5 is a pleasant highway cruiser, easily settling in at 80 mph while only turning over 2,000 rpms or so. There’s definitely more get-up with the turbo, but that’s not why you bought the Outback anyway, remember? If you want fast, get an Audi.

The turbo comes with a minor gas penalty – 23 mpg city and 30 mpg highway for that baddie, 26 and 33 for the 2.5.

You get a new trim package in 2020 too, the Onyx Edition XT. For a car that’s already off-road ready out of the box, this version is, um, more so. It comes with dual-function X-Mode, Subaru’s traction-aiding software that’s standard on all models (only the Onyx gets the dual). All that really means is you get to choose between regular-ole X-Mode, and snow/mud X-Mode. I drove the course in regular X-Mode, ignoring signs to switch to the mud version even when hitting mud, and the car was fine. This is already a rig that handles itself in the nasty stuff, it’s not clear that the dual-function is useful or worth the extra cost.

subaru outback
Courtesy of Subaru

The Onyx does also come with black wheels and black badging, but so can the Base model, if you invest in a few cans of Plasti Dip. What’s also kinda cool is the waterproof seat material and full-size spare tire in the Onyx as well – Nice touches if you’re actually going to use them.

There is one other noteworthy change, a MASSIVE 11.6-inch Tesla-sized touchscreen. This looks cool until you try to use it. I personally hated it. Using dual-function X-Mode, for example, requires a few taps and screen swipes and isn’t easy to find.

Wanna heat the seats? You’re gonna look like your piloting a starship for a few seconds as you navigate through several screens of glowing icons. On my 2016, X-Mode is a physical, standalone button, as are the seat warmers. This was not something that needed changing, in my humble opinion.

Everything else though, are iterative changes that work and that make total sense. The rear hatch is lighter and faster and opens with a wave of the hand. The interior is nicer and more stylish, and a tad more up-market. The fog lights are vertical slits instead of round orbs, and it’s two inches longer offering juuuuuuuust a touch more space.

subaru outback
Courtesy of Subaru

Pricing starts at $26,645 for the base, and tops out at $39,695 for the Touring XT. The adventure-y Onyx XT is $34,895. As usual with the Outback, I’d say the Premium with alloy wheels, fog lamps, cloth seats but nice leatherette touch points is the call, at $28,895.

Overall, Subaru has done the smart thing here. If you love Outbacks, they haven’t screwed with any of the things you love. If you thought they’re dorky, you might be tempted by the slightly refined lines. If you wanted more power, well, there’s a turbo.

For my money, I’m not sure you wouldn’t be better off with a certified pre-owned Limited from 2018, or even a brand new 2019 that dealers will be eager to get off the lot.

This was already a terrific car … A terrific adventure car. They just made it a little bit better. How much that “little” is worth it, is up to you.

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