Driving the 2020 Outback: Subaru Gives the People What They Want

Subaru struck gold in 2009 when it dramatically redesigned the Outback for 2010. But when a model is so well-loved and so integral to your brand, it’s best to take a careful approach when building an all-new version. After all, lightning rarely strikes twice. With a clear blueprint of what shoppers want, Subaru has designed the all-new 2020 Outback as an evolution, rather than a revolution.

At first glance, the new Outback looks… a lot like the last Outback. Small changes include vertical LED fog lights that now grace the front fascia on all but the Base trim and the “Outback” logo has moved from the front-door sills to the rear-door sills. The integrated roof rails now feature cut-outs at the front and back, usable as tie-down points for extra cargo.

If the previous-generation Outback suffered from one major criticism, it was that its 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine was too weak, and the optional 3.6-liter horizontally opposed 6-cylinder (H6) too thirsty. The boxer-style engines were particularly problematic at high elevations (not a good thing in Colorado, which is one of the brand’s biggest markets).

For 2020, the biggest change can be found in the XT trims, which are back for the first time since 2009. Look under the hood of the XT trim and you’ll find the 7-passenger Subaru Ascent’s 2.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder. With 260 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque, this engine replaces the old 3.6-liter, making it Subaru’s answer to high-altitude residents’ complaints regarding sluggish acceleration and poor passing power.

While the XT engine doesn’t turn the Outback into a performance wagon, it should quiet the critics. Power comes on quickly and motivates the Outback easily, but not excitingly. It’s the right engine for drivers living above a few thousand feet.

But what do the other Outback shoppers want? Ask around, and you’ll likely hear some similar answers: safety, practicality, and value.

Now built on Subaru’s Global Platform (SGP), the 2020 Outback should join 8 other Subaru models currently on the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s (IIHS) Top Safety Pick+ list. The new platform increases subframe rigidity by 100% over the outgoing model and offers 40% greater protection in front and side impacts.

Subaru offers its camera-based EyeSight advanced safety systems, which include automatic emergency braking and advanced adaptive cruise control with lane-centering technology, as standard equipment on every Outback. The latter allows drivers to enjoy semi-autonomous driving, and the fact that it’s standard as a part of the Base trim’s starting MSRP of $26,645 (plus a $1,010 destination fee) is impressive.

Non-forward-facing safety systems, like blind-spot monitoring and rear automatic emergency braking, will be available at an additional cost, either via high trim levels or options packages.

Similarly, Subaru’s reserves its driver-attention monitor, DriverFocus, for more expensive trims; the system uses facial recognition technology to look for signs of distracted or drowsy driving and comes as an option on the Limited and standard on the Touring, Limited XT, and Touring XT.

The 2020 Outback also continues as a standout in terms of practicality. The merits of its symmetrical all-wheel-drive (AWD) system have been covered at length (for two decades, no less), and the vehicle’s wagon-meets-crossover form factor allows for huge amounts of cargo volume; 32.5 cubic feet behind the rear seat and 75.7 cubic feet with the rear seat folded. The new Outback also showcases increased rear-seat legroom. With good fuel economy—up to 33 miles per gallon on the highway—the Outback would make a fantastic option for rideshare drivers living in rural, wintry regions.

And value? The 2020 Outback offers as much bang for your buck as any vehicle on sale today. Even the top-level Touring XT trim rings in under $41,000, delivery charge included. There are a few disappointing omissions—you can’t buy an Outback with a head-up display (HUD), and Subaru has chosen to preserve headroom at the expense of a panoramic moonroof—but the Outback includes more standard equipment at lower trim levels than many of its competitors. The startlingly crisp 11.6-inch touchscreen display, for instance, isn’t reserved for the expensive Outbacks; it’s available on all but the least expensive trim.

The Outback means more to Subaru than just sales. While it is the company’s best-selling vehicle, it has also shaped Subaru’s image, practically becoming the signature carmaker of Vermont, Colorado, and the Pacific Northwest. Considering Subaru owners’ relationships with their cars, the best Outback may not be a brand-new 2020 model. Instead, it’s one with tens of thousands of miles on the odometer and countless memories from the driver’s seat. But barring that eventuality, Subaru can rest easy knowing it has successfully evolved its flagship model, building a car that will meet or exceed the needs of nearly every shopper—even those living high above sea level. That’s what we call an influential car.

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