More than anything else Subaru builds, the Outback is the face of the brand, so it was with great fanfare that Subaru introduced the redesigned 2020 version of its favorite and most important child. The 2019 New York International Auto Show reveal featured an outdoorsy two-story set that resembled the entrance to a Bass Pro Shop. The unveiling was accompanied by images on a giant screen of U.S. national parks, a soundtrack of Ray Charles singing “America,” and snapshots of owners living all-American and outdoorsy lives with their beloved Outbacks of earlier generations.
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It was a heartwarming reminder of simpler times in simpler Outbacks. The rugged and slightly eccentric little wagon has grown up into a bigger, fancier and more sophisticated machine. The upscale 2020 Outback Limited, Touring and new black-wheeled Onyx Edition XT trim levels shown off in the wilds of Manhattan now are glampers juxtaposed with those images of simpler outdoor adventures.
Not that I’m complaining. As with most of its competition — primarily two-row mid-size SUVs, since mainstream wagons, even high-riding and cladded versions, are all but extinct — most of their miles will be on paved roads in traffic. So the 2020’s nicer interior, added comforts and more sophisticated tech (not to mention its boatload of standard safety features) will make it a better daily companion and family hauler.
The new styling is a gentle evolution of the previous generation — just enough that Subaru fans, at least, will see you have the new one. Critics, most of whom would never actually consider an Outback, will object, but this vehicle never has been nor likely ever will be a slave to fashion. I’m glad the budget went to a new platform, interior upgrades and much-updated tech.
The brakes thankfully grew in size, with the wheelbase only about an inch longer. It was already plenty roomy for five and lots of gear, even without using the roof rack. But the structure is new and I have high hopes for the much-needed improvements in ride, handling and cabin noise levels shown by other redesigned Subarus that have moved to the company’s new and more rigid global platform.
The interior design also seems familiar, just a lot nicer and more high-tech. The Touring gets fancier leather and trim that is more upscale in look and feel. The five seats gather around a new 11.6-inch screen oriented vertically, a la Volvo and Tesla, in the center of the dash. It’s a focal point, like the modern-day equivalent of a campfire, and it takes over most of the multimedia and climate control functions, cleaning up a formerly busy dashboard. It’s democratically standard on all but the base trim level. The new design also is in the related and redone 2020 Subaru Legacy mid-size sedan, but you might have missed it since it got a much lower-key unveiling in Chicago in February. (A Subaru spokeswoman assured me that Subaru loves all its children, even the sedans.)
I also have high hopes for the new-to-Outback 260-horsepower, 2.4-liter turbo four-cylinder option that performs well in the new Subaru Ascent three-row SUV. The base 2.5-liter flat-four is a little overmatched by the Outback’s heft unless your expectations are modest, but the former flat-six power upgrade was an inefficient alternative. Capable torque-vectoring all-wheel drive is standard with both, and so is a continuously variable automatic transmission, proving you can’t have everything.
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A couple of other notes from my first look: A new hands-free power liftgate has been added and unlike some others, it operates neither by an awkward kick nor by standing near it (which can be unintentional). Rather, you put a hand (or elbow if your hands are full) in close proximity to the Subaru logo on the liftgate and it’s “open sesame.” And the new Onyx Edition XT trim adds some more rugged appearance items (flashy chiseled black wheels, for one) but also a functional one with a luxurious-looking but cleanable and water-resistant synthetic leather upholstery.
The Outback tall wagon remains something of a unicorn, but the 2020 offers a lot of new and mainstream details for wider appeal.
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