The verdict: The new Subaru Outback may not look terribly new, but it is — and it’s the best one Subaru has ever made.
Versus the competition: It has some impressive SUV competitors, but when you factor in the Subaru’s value-leading pricing, it’s hard to find one that drives as well as the Outback, includes as much equipment and costs so little to own and operate.
Two decades ago, when Subaru took its Legacy wagon and jacked it up, slapped on plastic cladding and gave it an outdoorsy name, nobody imagined the Subaru Outback would become the automaker’s most beloved, best-selling model. I drove an all-new sixth-generation 2020 Outback in Northern California at a Subaru media event, and all I can say is this: If you’re a fan of the current Outback, wait till you get behind the wheel of this one — you’re going to absolutely love it. (Per our ethics policy, Cars.com pays for its own lodging and airfare at such automaker-sponsored events.)
Looks the Same, Feels Completely Different
The redesigned 2020 Outback barely looks different from the outgoing model, with just a few slightly updated, vaguely evolutionary design cues in its chunky, hiking-boot styling. But fiercely loyal Outback customers don’t care — they like the way the Outback looks just fine; the old one was still selling in record numbers even as the new one was just a few weeks away.
To be fair, the design works. Selective use of high-strength steel keeps the pillars thin for excellent outward visibility. The beltline remains low for a commanding view over the hood or to the sides. And the hiking boot analogy really does work for the Outback, with a chunky plastic lower portion and a sleek, colorful upper one, just like what its customers tend to wear on their feet. But the magic of the new 2020 Outback isn’t in the way it looks, it’s in how it drives.
Punching Above Its Class
Thanks to an all-new platform, torsional rigidity is up an almost unbelievable 70 percent, which gave engineers a steadfast foundation on which to build the suspension, steering and braking systems. Put simply, the Outback drives like a premium luxury vehicle. Think Audi A6 or Volvo V90 wagon, not SUV competitors like the Chevrolet Blazer, Hyundai Santa Fe or Jeep Grand Cherokee. The Outback’s body control is exceptional, with ride and handling that feels sophisticated in a way I haven’t experienced before in a Subaru product. Subaru’s Ascent three-row SUV is pretty good, but its bulk prevents it from being enjoyable to drive. Not so in the Outback; while the steering isn’t huge on feel or feedback, it does have firmness, heft, accuracy and a surprisingly quick steering ratio that makes the car feel nimble.
That outstanding platform and suspension are matched by equally good powertrains. The base engine is a 182-horsepower, 2.5-liter flat-four-cylinder making 176 pounds-feet of torque. It’s mated to a continuously variable automatic transmission, and as with most Subarus, all-wheel drive is standard. The engine is perfectly matched to the transmission and temperament of the car. It never felt slow or ponderous, never felt like it was in the wrong “gear” (not that it has any traditional fixed gears), never struggled from a standing start or felt like it wasn’t ready to perform. It’s quiet, too; cruising along through the hushed redwood forests of Northern California, it was easygoing and almost silent.
My only quibble with the engine was during off-road excursions, when its low-speed X-Mode off-road mode was engaged. It’s there that the accelerator response gets a little too sensitive, making it difficult to drive smoothly across broken terrain or open fields. Admittedly, this isn’t something most Outback drivers are likely to do every day, but enough owners do use their cars off-road to make this a notable characteristic.
If you’re looking for more power, Subaru has you covered. The Outback’s optional powertrain (standard on Outback XT trims) is a turbocharged 2.4-liter flat-four that makes a healthy 260 hp and 277 pounds-feet of torque. The old 3.6-liter flat-six-cylinder engine has been discontinued. The turbo four’s grunt is noticeable, providing immediate response and brisk acceleration with less input from the accelerator pedal. But honestly, the base engine is so good and provides enough motivating force that the only reason to spend money on the more powerful engine is if you live at elevations where turbocharging helps you get up hills and mountains — or if you plan on towing.
The 2020 Outback with the turbo engine can tow 3,500 pounds when properly equipped, while the base 2.5-liter engine can haul 2,700 pounds. The base engine has decent EPA fuel economy ratings (26/33/29 mpg city/highway/combined), and the turbocharged engine takes a 3-mpg hit to all figures. Note that still means the more powerful motor is rated 30 mpg on the highway. The extra power the turbo engine provides is fun, but it’s simply not needed in the Outback — and that’s the first time I’ve ever said that about any Subaru.
Upgraded Interior, State-of-the-Art Multimedia
Inside, the 2020 Outback features the same mix of comfort, space and versatility that has made it a perennial favorite of our staff. Subaru has had this recipe right for a while now, and the new model simply had to maintain that combination — which it does. The seats are comfortable up front and in back, with plenty of legroom. The backseat is firmer than expected and sits slightly raised, providing stadium-style seating to help passengers see out the windshield.
New for 2020 is a trim level called the Onyx Edition XT, which brings blacked-out trim to the exterior but, more importantly, brings a new neoprene-based upholstery that Subaru calls StarTex. StarTex seats are a multihued gray with blue stitching, and while it doesn’t exactly feel like leather or neoprene (the material wetsuits are typically made from), it’s supposedly highly water-resistant — perfect for outdoorsy types coming in from surfing or kayaking. The optional Nappa leather surfaces on Touring trim levels are quite nice — not exactly luxury-brand levels of opulence, but pleasantly premium for sure.
But the real news inside is the big 11.6-inch tablet-style multimedia display on higher trims. Subaru joins the ranks of Tesla, Ram, Volvo and Ford with this big, vertically oriented touchscreen. (Base Outbacks use two 7-inch touchscreen panels, one for multimedia and the other for climate controls; Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard on both systems.)
While the system in Ram trucks is done well, it still splits a lot of functions into two areas despite having one large screen. The Volvo system is a bit monochromatic and can be slow to engage. But Subaru’s system is fantastic, using big, colorful icons that are simple to find and engage at a glance. The entire panel is customizable for icon location and shortcut icons, enabling you to arrange the large panel to do whatever you need it to. Opt for the navigation-equipped unit on top trim levels and the map can be expanded to fill the entire screen. It may take a little while to get familiar with how to customize it, but once they do, owners will be able to create a screen unique to their vehicle that works best for them, just as personal mobile electronics do.
Carry More Stuff
Along with the Outback’s new platform comes a boost in nearly all dimensions, but the numbers don’t reflect that. From 2019 to 2020, Subaru changed how it measures cargo volume in order to conform to a new industry specification standard. As a result, on paper it looks like the Outback has lost volume inside, dropping from 35.5 to 32.5 cubic feet of cargo room behind the rear seats, but in reality, it has gained room for both passengers and cargo — it’s simply being measured differently, Subaru says. For example, measured by the old standard, the 2020 Outback’s maximum cargo space would have been 78 cubic feet, up from 73.3 cubic feet for the 2019. By the new standard, the 2020 measures 75.7 cubic feet.
The car’s novel roof rack has been retained, featuring crossbars integrated into the side rails that you can swing out and lock when necessary. The Outback’s low roof is one key to its popularity with buyers — unlike on a taller SUV, mounting bikes or boats or camping gear on the Outback’s roof is easy thanks to its lower overall stature.
What’s interesting is that the Outback features more interior room than a number of popular traditional-style two-row SUVs: The 32.5 cubic feet of cargo space behind the backseat is more than in the Chevrolet Blazer (30.5 cubic feet), and its overall volume beats both the Blazer (64.2 cubic feet) and the latest Hyundai Santa Fe (71.3 cubic feet). The Honda Passport outdoes it for interior room, however, with a massive 50.5 cubic feet behind the backseat and 100.7 cubic feet overall.
Off the Beaten Path
A good number of Outback owners use their vehicles for off-pavement activities, and although it might be surprising to hear, the Outback is a capable off-road machine. It has 8.7 inches of ground clearance, which is more than a past-generation base Jeep Wrangler Sport with 16-inch wheels. Subaru provided a challenging two-track off-road course through a private ranch in the hills around Northern California’s “Lost Coast” region to show off the car’s X-Mode software, which changes the car’s standard all-wheel drive to aid in sticky situations. For slippery conditions, a new dual-mode X-Mode function adds a Deep Snow/Mud setting to the Snow/Dirt system, but it’s only available on the Onyx Edition XT trim; why it can’t be had across the board is a mystery.
But even without the new dual-mode function, the Outback will go places you might not think it could. A front-mounted trail camera helps when your vehicle’s nose is in the air and you can’t see where the trail goes, but the car does have limitations: While it has some underbody protection, it doesn’t have the massive skid plates of a true off-roader like a Jeep Wrangler (though Subaru will sell you additional protection from its accessory parts catalog). It also has fairly long front and rear overhangs, and its long wheelbase makes for a milder breakover angle. It’ll go over the river and through some pretty serious woods, just don’t get too carried away.
Safety at No Additional Cost
The 2020 Outback hasn’t yet been tested for crashworthiness by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration as of this writing, but Subaru is aiming to continue the 2019 model’s Top Safety Pick Plus IIHS status and five-star NHTSA rating. The Outback gets Subaru’s EyeSight safety system standard, featuring forward collision alert, automatic emergency braking, lane keep assist, adaptive cruise control and more. The DriverFocus system first seen in the 2019 Subaru Forester is here, too, using facial recognition technology to alert drivers to distractions or dozing; it’s optional on Limited models and standard on the Touring. It’s also used to set seat memory, mirror position, climate settings and even a programmable personal greeting for different drivers.
Unlike many competitors, the company doesn’t make you pay extra for this extraordinary level of safety, but if you want even more, you can add a blind spot warning system with cross-traffic alert, keyless entry and push-button start, much of which is standard on upper trim levels.
All of that adds to the Outback’s overall stellar value proposition. The base price for a 2020 Outback is just about $300 more than an outgoing 2019 model, starting at $27,655 (all prices include destination). I drove two well-equipped versions: an Outback Touring with the base engine ($38,355 as tested) and an Outback Onyx XT ($37,750). Loaded up with everything, the Outback tops out at just under $41,000.
Those are stunning prices in a world of competitors now easily pushing $50,000 or more for their loaded-up two-row SUVs. The latest Chevrolet Blazer and Jeep Grand Cherokee can easily go north of $53,000 in premium trims, for instance, and the Nissan Murano and Ford Edge often sell in the high-$40,000 range. For the money, the Outback represents a tremendous value, an outstanding driving experience and a useful utility vehicle loaded with safety tech.
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