From a Legacy trim level to a midsize crossover staple
The Subaru Outback may not have pioneered the lifted station wagon look, but it certainly popularized it. From its humble beginnings as a Subaru Legacy variant hawked by Crocodile Dundee as an SUV alternative, the Outback has changed a lot over its six generations. But the adventure-loving spirit of the original carries over to the new 2020 Subaru Outback, the largest and most advanced iteration yet. Read on to find out how the Outback has changed over the years.
First Generation (1995-1999)
The first Subaru Outback arrived as a trim package for the second-generation Subaru Legacy L wagon. The very first model in 1995 was essentially just a Legacy wagon with plastic body cladding and a more durable cloth interior. The suspension lift the Outback is known for today wouldn’t arrive until 1996, along with a larger 2.5-liter flat-four good for 155 hp. The first-gen Outback is perhaps best known for its ad campaign featuring Crocodile Dundee star Paul Hogan, who pushed the then-new model as a smart, rugged alternative to SUVs of the day like the Ford Explorer and Jeep Cherokee. After the updates for the 1996 model year, the Outback at least looked rugged with its 7.3 inches of ground clearance and chunkier mud and snow tires. By 1997, the first Outback sedan was sold in limited numbers to test the waters for a “Sport Utility Sedan.” It must’ve been a success, because the Outback sedan continued for two more generations.
Impreza Outback Sport
To build on the momentum of the Legacy-based Outback, Subaru gave the same two-tone body cladding treatment to the first-gen Impreza wagon and called it the Impreza Outback Sport. The first Impreza Outback Sports (1994-2001) also got the same hood as the sportier Impreza 2.5 RS model, complete with vents and a non-functional (but cool-looking) hood scoop. Over the next two generations of Impreza, the Outback Sport was sold as a separate model until finally ending production in 2011. However, the model’s spirit lives on in the Subaru Crosstrek.
Second Generation (2000-2004)
The Outback was officially spun off from the Legacy as a separate model in its second generation, though the two continue to share basic architecture to this day. The new wagon was longer and wider, and offered a 3.0-liter six-cylinder boxer engine as an option for the first time. That engine produced a healthy 212 hp, and the updated base 2.5-liter flat-four now made 165 hp.
Third Generation (2005-2009)
Once again, the Outback grew in size, gaining in nearly every dimension. It also got a new look that ditched the soft lines of the last two models. The venerable EJ25 2.5-liter flat-four now made 175 hp, and the optional flat-six’s output jumped to 245 hp. But the big news was the addition of a third engine option in the Outback XT—a turbocharged 2.5-liter flat-four that produced 250 hp and 250 lb-ft of torque—more than the six-cylinder’s 219 lb-ft. The Outback sedan was discontinued for the 2008 model year, but so was the Legacy wagon in North America, cementing the Outback as the only Legacy-based wagon option in this market.
Fourth Generation (2010-2014)
The fourth-gen Outback saw the biggest single wheelbase gain yet at 2.8 inches, and width expanded by 3.6 inches. Those changes helped grant the new Outback a more spacious cabin, which is one of the reasons we named it our 2010 SUV of the Year. The turbo engine was dropped, leaving the North American Outback with a naturally aspirated flat-four and flat-six once again. But the six-cylinder option was new, with displacement increased to 3.6 liters and output up to 256 hp and 247 lb-ft—and on regular gas rather than the premium fuel the old 3.0-liter required. A CVT was also new, available on the four-cylinder Outback along with a new six-speed manual (the previous manual option was a five-speed).
Fifth Generation (2015-2019)
The Outback’s dimensions increased slightly for its fifth generation, with its wheelbase growing 0.2 inch and overall length stretching by 0.6 inch. Width increased by 0.7 inch over its predecessor. But those changes, however small, resulted in respectable growth in interior space. Cabin volume increased from 105.4 cubic feet to 108.1 cubic feet, and the cargo area gained an extra 2 cubic feet. Engine options carried over for the most part, but the 2.5-liter was updated for improved efficiency and quieter operation. A CVT was now the only transmission choice. The new model received the latest version of Subaru’s EyeSight advanced safety suite, and also got a new infotainment system with up to a 7.0-inch touchscreen. Later models would get Apple CarPlay and Android Auto capability.
And now you’re caught up with the Subaru Outback. To find out how the new 2020 Outback compares to the crossover wagon it replaces, be sure to read our article examining the two here. To see the Outback’s gradual evolution, check out all the photos in the extensive galleries above.