Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: January 23, 2020
Subaru’s perineally popular wagon, the Outback, enters its sixth-generation in 2020 and with it, an entire overhaul. The new Outback sits on a stiffer platform that currently underpins the Legacy, stretching the length and width by a few millimetres. Further additions include a larger suite of standard features, hands-free power liftgate, vertically-oriented touchscreen, a new 2.4-litre turbocharged flat-four engine, and expanded trims like the Outdoor XT.
Despite the flurry of changes, Subaru was keen to retain as much of the Outback’s core essence as possible by keeping the same conservative styling, Subaru’s full-time symmetrical all-wheel drive system, an impressive 220 mm of ground clearance, and hill descent control. Why risk a radical overhaul when the formula is churning in sales like clockwork? Besides, the Outback accounts for the majority of wagon sales in Canada, if you can even call it a wagon. Subaru likes to call it an SUV - I guess that sounds better to the accountants. In fact, the Outback is more of a hybrid between a wagon and an SUV, with an expansive trunk area, a long roofline, and broad proportions. That compromise pays dividends to its car-like handling, where its relatively low center of gravity allows the Outback to change directions quickly and with less body roll than a Forester.
There are two sets of engines available for the Outback. The standard 2.5-litre naturally aspirated flat-four cylinder engine has been carried over but significantly reworked to produce more power, 182 hp and 176 lb-ft to be exact. Hopping up to any of the XT trims nets you the juicier 2.4-litre turbocharged flat-four, which is also found in the Legacy and Ascent but not the Forester, and punches out a respectable 260 hp and 277 lb-ft. Both engines are routed through a Continuously Variable Transmission.
New to the Outback family is the Outdoor XT trim. Think of it as an off-road-ready variant, much like Rubicon is to the Jeep Wrangler, or TRD to the Toyota 4Runner. That means blacked out exterior elements on the grill, roof rails, mirror caps, and unique 18-inch wheels. The Outdoor XT further adds a front-facing camera, all-weather seats wrapped in a water-repellent material (which is incredibly soft and feels just like an overly synthetic leather), heavy-duty floor mats, and a full-size spare tire under the trunk floor. The powertrain remains the same but the Outdoor XT receives additional driving modes - Snow/Dirt, and Deep Snow/Mud - accessed through the X-Mode screen.
The Outdoor XT is the trim we had the opportunity to drive, and while the turbo-four delivers impressive acceleration off the line, it becomes sluggish mid-range, and taps out rather quickly after 5,000 rpm. It’s a willing motor and the CVT does its best to utilize every horse available, but it never feels as energetic as its output suggests. Be that as it may, the powertrain is one smooth operator. You won’t get a sudden kick in the back under hard acceleration. Instead, the turbo-four gently glides up its revs for one polished ride up to the redline, and gear shifts are never interrupted because well, there are no gears.
We are this close to being in love with the Outback. This close. But there’s one thing that keeps it from being our perfect do-it-all family hauler, and that’s the electrically-assisted steering. Hyper-sensitive and boosted to the point of it feeling like a Playstation gaming wheel, there is absolutely no consistent to its rotation. Subarus used to have great steering feel - the WRX we recently drove is proof in the pudding. Now it’s numb, vague, and terribly inconsistent. Even a slight twitch from the center flings the Outback in another direction, and yes you can course correct but the steering is so sensitive that you constantly see-saw back and forth until its pointing straight, and nowhere is it more evident than on the highway at triple digit speeds.
Furthermore, the CVT largely zaps the fun out of any driving sojourn, and despite its ability to simulate eight phony gears via the paddle shifters, it does little to excite but is much quieter and less intrusive than before thanks to a better insulated interior. On the bright side, both engines are engineered to run on regular 87-octane fuel including the turbo-four that we drove. Not bad considering we also averaged an impressive 11.0 L/100km on a mix of both city and highway roads.
The interior remains a dim and functional place without many upscale touches, but the Outback does receive a few notable aesthetic upgrades. A 7-inch display is found on the base Outback Convenience trim, while every other trim gets the new and larger 11.6-inch touchscreen, which is now vertically oriented and merges the outgoing model’s dash and center screen together. Much like the vertical units in the Toyota Prius and RAM 1500, the screen is bright, offers crisp graphics, and there are hard buttons and dials flanking each side of the screen for the more frequently used inputs. Switching from physical dials to buttons for the HVAC, at least in my opinion, feels like a step in the wrong direction for a target market that doesn’t like change, but I understand the integration demanded by the larger screen and precious cabin real estate. There just isn’t any replacement for the swift effortless action commanded by a hard dial, but Subaru tries to remedy that with a handful of shortcut screen prompts.
As with every Subaru, outward visibility is excellent thanks to the impossibly thin A-pillars and a widened front windshield. Occupants are also protected with the standard suite of safety features, including adaptive cruise control with lane centering assist. The Outback’s elongation for 2020 mostly went to rear seat legroom, which offers more than enough wiggle space for my six-foot figure to be seated comfortably on long journeys. Headroom is excellent. Subaru is also keen to point out the slightly wider rear gate opening and the quieter interior thanks to better insulated areas and thicker, sound-insulated glass. As we didn’t notice the CVT buzzing and droning in our ears like we normally do on other Subaru models, we consider that claim the truth.
The Outback may not be as big of a cash cow as the Forester or Crosstrek but its nameplate remains one of the most iconic, and its expert blend of all-weather traction and impressive interior space allows it to be a versatile companion for any kind of buyer. The 2020 Outback retains its core essence of familiarity as a dependable and versatile wagon, but now with more features, better off-road capability, and a spicier powertrain.
Model: 2020 Subaru Outback Outdoor XT
Base Price: $38,695
Price as Tested: $38,695
Curb weight (kg):
Engine: 2.4-litre turbocharged inline-four
Horsepower: 260 hp @ 5,600 rpm
Torque: 277 lb-ft @ 2,000 rpm
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, AWD
Fuel Consumption ( City / Highway / Combined ) L/100km:
Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 11.0