In its sixth generation, the Outback becomes more impressive off pavement than on
I had no choice. I couldn’t reverse; behind me was a line of 2020 Subaru Outbacks like mine, ready to proceed. Ahead, the steep trail vanished over a crest. I exhaled, pulled the shifter into drive, and released the brake.
The Outback has been a runaway success for Subaru, tallying over 1.8 million sales from the launch of the first generation in 1995 to the model now on its way out. Although Subaru North America would have liked more revolution than evolution in design, decision makers in Japan chose to stay the course. Still, parties on each side of the planet are proud of the completely re-engineered underpinnings, which are stiffer and allow for crumple zones designed around future NHTSA crash tests.
In idyllic Mendocino, California, along the Pacific coast, Highway 1’s sweepers, hairpins, and rolling elevation demonstrated the 2020 Outback’s stiffness, though the suspension allowed some roll. That said, it was free of bounce or jiggle on this glass-smooth asphalt. The repositioned side mirrors and insulated windshield helped minimize wind and tire noise.
It wouldn’t be an Outback without standard all-wheel drive, here featuring brake-based torque vectoring. The setup proves competent, but combined with electric power steering, it results in a light and lifeless feel. A surprise test of the reassuringly firm brakes came when a deer leaped onto the road, followed by her fawn—you never know what might show up in this neck of the woods.
Subaru upped its game again with the new Outback’s interior. Cloth seating surfaces are plush and grippy; available water-resistant upholstery feels like it could handle muck (though isn’t very breathable). Contrast stitching and thoughtful trim selections add an upscale feel. Subaru’s adventurous, dog-loving clientele will appreciate the Outback’s increased cargo capacity with the rear seats folded down, wider cargo floor, and easy-fold rear seats.
Front and center is an available tabletlike 11.6-inch infotainment display. The touchscreen is clear and responsive, with physical volume and temperature buttons lining its sides. Navigation, car info, and other primary functions take up the central section, with smaller zones at the top and bottom dedicated to climate controls and frequently accessed utilities.
I started off in a 2020 Outback fitted with a 2.5-liter flat-four engine producing 182 hp and 176 lb-ft. It sufficed to maintain highway speeds, but I hoped for some WRX spirit from the turbocharged XT model I sampled later. 2020 marks the return of forced induction to the Outback, with an available 260 hp, 277 lb-ft 2.4-liter turbo flat-four. Disappointingly, it didn’t satisfy my rally-car desires: The XT model feels more powerful, but only when merging or passing. Otherwise, it’s no sportier than the baseline. Customers should save what they’d spend on the turbo engine—about $2,300 to $4,300 USD depending on trim—for outdoor gear instead.
With either engine, the CVT needs a moment to calculate the optimal ratio before accelerating. That said, at steady speeds it drops revs to low, quiet levels. These mellow road manners will allow driver and passengers to take in the scenery, but the Outback never excites.
But pavement composes only part of our route. Subaru prescribed plenty of dirt, over miles of fire roads weaving through dense foliage. Surfaces ranged from dusty and dry to loose and gravelly, with splashy patches at stream crossings. All of it was bumpy and rutted, dotted by dips and tight corners. In places, sight lines were blind and pitches steep. Here, the Outback revealed what sets it apart.
All 2020 Outbacks feature X-Mode, Subaru’s off-road traction and hill descent control system (the new Onyx model has settings for snow and mud). It proved crucial when I found myself sizing up that blind precipice. At the spotter’s instruction, I rolled forward with my foot covering—not touching—the brake. As the drop came into view, I fought my instinct to stomp the pedal, but X-Mode immediately took control. I detected it braking each wheel individually, barely sliding forward over the loose dirt.
Another X-periment awaited at the bottom: A car-length flat section, then an immediate uphill right-hander. Turning in, torque vectoring held the inside rear wheel while the outside front dug, pivoting the Outback through. Elsewhere, I watched an Outback climb on two diagonal wheels as it turned over a step, then teeter forward until all four landed again. At that point, steady power took it to the top. Arriving at a secluded lagoon, I inched into the water over loose pebbles, careful to minimize bow wake—no snorkel here. Emerging on the other side with water streaming from the undercarriage, another dip followed, this time tilted against the shore. Negative camber tried to pull the car in, but X-Mode kept clawing and prevented sinking.
Aside from a few minor chin scrapes, the Subie handled these trails in stride. It might not be a legitimate off-roader like a Jeep Wrangler, but the Outback’s purpose more befits a lifestyle vehicle that projects outdoorsy intentions even when confined to tarmac. Still, for drivers who enjoy exploring off the beaten path, the 2020 Outback has impressive trail chops, with comfort and capacity for everyday needs.