Gearhead News

May 13, 2021
2020 Subaru Outback Review: The Rugged Lifted Wagon for People Who Don’t Want a Jeep

If you had a nickel for each time you saw a Subaru Outback in the northeastern United States, you’d have enough money to buy a Ferrari. The cars are ubiquitous, commonly seen equipped with all sorts of roof racks, hitch-mounted bike carriers, and a variety of pithy bumper stickers. The 2020 Subaru Outback Limited XT does all your typical Outback things, just with a more exciting turbocharged boxer engine to boot.

Before getting into the Outback, I couldn’t really work out why someone would buy one over something like a RAV4 TRD Off-Road, Honda Passport, Bronco Sport, or even the smaller Subaru Forester. But after spending roughly 10 days with it, I think I get it.

Kristen Lee

2020 Subaru Outback Limited XT: By the Numbers

  • 2021 base price (2020 as tested): $27,845 ($38,755)
  • Powertrain: 2.4-liter turbocharged boxer-four | CVT | all-wheel drive
  • Horsepower: 260 hp @ 5,600 rpm
  • Torque: 277 lb-ft @ 2,000 to 4,800 rpm
  • Curb weight: 3,926 pounds
  • Ground clearance: 8.7 inches
  • Towing capacity: 3,500 pounds
  • Cargo volume: 32.5 cubic feet
  • EPA fuel economy: 23 mpg city | 30 highway | 26 combined | 25.6 mpg as tested
  • Quick take: In terms of rugged practicality, the Outback sits above most crossovers these days, but still but below the almighty Jeep.

Generation VI

Now in its sixth generation, the newest Outback debuted in 2019 and rides on the Subaru Global Platform, which Subaru says should improve safety and cut down on noise, vibration, and harshness. You get a choice of two engines; the first is a 2.5-liter naturally aspirated boxer four-cylinder. The second is a 260-horsepower, turbocharged 2.4-liter boxer four-cylinder. It’s the same unit you’d find in the much larger Ascent SUV and replaces the naturally aspirated flat-six that was the top engine choice in the outgoing Outbacks. There’s no option to shake off that pesky continuously-variable transmission, though.

Outside, the Outback is tidy. There’s something to be said of other mass-market cars wearing super-aggro corporate facias, but Subaru has kept things sane in the design department. Its looks won’t win it any design awards, but they’ll also give you the ability to drive incognito owing to the fact that nothing about them is terribly polarizing. 

Overwhelmingly, the Outback is all about ruggedness. The idea manifests itself in the car’s impressive 8.7 inches of ground clearance, standard all-wheel drive and active torque vectoring, and the protective plastic cladding along its side skirts and wheel arches. Subaru’s own media images depict the Outback doing rugged activities like fording creeks and sliding through dunes. Indeed, the automaker plans to lean even further into that ruggedness image with the upcoming 2022 Subaru Outback Wilderness.

So I accept the Outback isn’t some plushy, luxury thing that you’re supposed to be afraid of getting dirty. Inside, it is functional. No one jumping into it for the first time will ever be at a loss at how to drive it immediately. The leathers and plastics feel like they can stand up to some abuse and there’s plenty of room in the back seat for adults. Trying to fit three people back there for a long drive might get a bit cramped, though.

Your standard hardware for the 2021 models now includes steering-responsive LED headlights and front and rear passenger seat belt reminders. Base Outback models come with a seven-inch upper touchscreen for the audio and a lower seven-inch touchscreen for the climate controls, though you can have those optioned out for one 11.6-inch screen instead and at a cost of $1,845.

Since the test car Subaru loaned me was a pretty loaded up Limited XT model—a 2020 model, but the changes for 2021 are minimal—it had interior features such as the bigger screen, upgraded audio system, leather-trimmed seats, and power moonroof included in the final $38,755 sticker price. 

At the outset of our time with the Subaru Outback, I asked you fine commenters what you wanted to know about it. Look for specific answers to some of your questions below as we get into what matters most around here: the drive.

The CVT Is Fine 95 Percent of the Time 

Immediately, you’ll notice climbing into the Outback is easy. The lifted height makes for easy ingress and egress and the front seat raises high enough that I, a Short Person, was able to see over the hood and my shoulder perfectly well—to answer you, steveone.

With the 2.4L turbo under the hood, there’s some pep at low speeds. I wouldn’t call it touchy, exactly, per Rgooding77’s question—more like eagerness. The turbocharged boxer is eager off the line and will indeed spring forward if you jab the accelerator. But learn to modulate it and it’ll behave just fine. In terms of merging and passing, there’s more than adequate power to get where you need to go.

I got a lot of readers hating on the CVT in the comments of that AMA post but, frankly, the transmission didn’t bother me at all during 95 percent of the driving I did. Around town and on the highway, its presence was barely noticeable and I only remembered there was a CVT when I actively thought about it. It certainly didn’t hurt acceleration. Combined with the progressive brake pedal-feel and the well-weighted steering, the Outback made for a wonderful commuter and errand-runner. 

That remaining five percent of driving, though, is where I had some problems.

A request from MGB for an evaluation on fire roads couldn’t be met, so I decided to reinterpret “fire” as “great” and hit some country twisties. The Outback’s discomfort was exposed immediately. Here, the car leaned uncomfortably in the fast sweepers and discouraged me from attempting such antics again. 

The Outback also comes with paddle shifters and an ersatz manual mode, though clicking the plasticky paddles didn’t really un-slog the CVT all that much. The transmission made the engine feel perpetually caught off guard, especially when I tried to accelerate immediately after a quick deceleration. Despite its off-the-line pep, the power just wasn’t there immediately when I needed it in more dynamic situations.

The interior noise level wasn’t stellar, either, to your point, teh penguin of doom. The review car came fitted with a set of Yokohama Avid GTs so perhaps they had something to do with it, but I found myself speaking to my partner more loudly in the Outback than I have in other cars at speeds above 40 mph. Not only was the engine noisy, but its droning combined with the noise of the wind washing over the cabin and the buzz of the road beneath the tires.

Of course, with a high ground clearance and standard all-wheel drive, I agreed with pistonhonda had to see what the Outback was like during some light off-roading. In a field behind the house, I took the Subaru up and down some grassy knolls, where it handled the uneven terrain with an unperturbed demeanor. I certainly didn’t get the same level of mountain goat-like confidence that one would in something like a Jeep Gladiator, but the Outback certainly tooled around the hills with a sure-footedness I wouldn’t expect from a competitive Toyota or Honda. 

The only spot that tripped the car up was a little divot in an incline. I felt it catch the right front wheel and then I couldn’t go anywhere until I backed up and went around it.

Finally, all Outbacks come standard with Subaru’s EyeSight Driver Assist system that includes adaptive cruise control with lane centering. This was especially handy to use on long highway stints. The car was good about keeping in its own lane and maintaining a set distance from the car in front of it. It was nearly perfect in stop-and-go traffic, except once it came to a complete stop, I had to breathe on the throttle to get it going again; it won’t start moving automatically, I found.

A Cabin for the Long Haul

As a long-distance runner, the Outback is tough to beat. It’s clear the car’s designers prioritized practicality over nearly everything else here. The seats were as comfortable during hour six of our journey as they were after hour one. There were also a ton of little nooks and cubbies for all our loose items, which I greatly appreciated. There’s nothing worse than getting into a car and finding nowhere to put all your stuff.

There was also an auxiliary cable input next to the two USB ports. An aux input! Those are headed the way of the in-car CD player, so treasure them while you can. 

Loading up the trunk was also a breeze owing to the fact that it didn’t have a bottom lip. The top of the rear bumper was even with the trunk floor, so sliding cargo in went without a hitch. And if you get your Outback with the plastic trunk mat, then you won’t even feel guilty about getting a bit of dirt in there either. Beneath the trunk floor, you’ll also find a spare tire—a rarity these days!

Kristen Lee

The Outback has a pretty advanced adaptive cruise control system, but unlike other cars that pack all their sensors into the front bumper, the Subaru’s main “eyes” were located up by its rearview mirror—which means that if you do get into a fender-bender, you won’t risk messing up costly electronics.

And it’s safe. The 2020 Outback scored five stars with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for crashworthiness and earned the Top Safety Pick Plus award with the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, the agency’s highest award. The subsequent 2021 Outback models also earned the same safety accolades.

Alert! Alert!

I suppose all that safety comes at a price because the Outback was one of the more shouty cars I’ve driven. And by that I mean its lane departure warning system would both beep and flash its lights at me if it even thought that I was coming close to crossing over a lane marker. I appreciate a conservative system, but the beeping and flashing light was a bit much—especially since it yelled at me when I moved over to make room for parked vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists. I was paying attention to the road, I swear.

Splayed wantonly in the middle of the Outback’s center console is an 11.6-inch infotainment touchscreen. It’s not the most intuitive system in the whole world to use and has a UI that looks more at home in 2014,  but you do get used to it quickly enough. 

Subaru split the climate and music controls between this screen and a few hard buttons surrounding the screen. There’s a volume knob for the radio (bless!) but you must change the station with the touchscreen. Likewise, there are buttons for you to change the climate temperature, but controls for the seat heater, fan speed, and fan direction are all located on the touchscreen.

Nearly 40,000 Reasons for an Outback

Seeing as it’s a lifted wagon and not a pure SUV (yes, this is a hill I will die on), the Outback is uniquely positioned without much in the way of direct competition. The closest analogs are the off-roady Euro wagons like the Mercedes-Benz E450 All-Terrain, the Audi A6 Allroad or the Volvo V90 Cross Country, but those in a completely different price bracket (again, while I had my hands on a loaded-up 2020 car, the 2021 Outback starts at just under $28,000 including destination). Rest in peace, Buick Regal TourX.

It accomplishes what RAV4, CX-5, and CR-V buyers want—more storage space, greater ride height, ease of access—but with a more exciting engine option, all-wheel drive as standard and that baked-in Subaru mythos of practical capability. Sure, there’s a growing universe of off-road-capable crossovers these days, things like the RAV4 TRD Off-Road or the Honda Passport. Hell, even the Hyundai Santa Fe has hill descent control these days. But Outback sales remain strong, in part because of the lifted wagon look and in part because the Subaru name still means something to the average buyer. That sub-$30K starting price doesn’t hurt, either.

However, if you go all-in and grab the 2021 Outback in its top Touring XT trim, your MSRP jumps to $40,995, thus graduating you to BMW X2 and Mercedes-Benz GLB territory, and right on the doorstep of the Audi A4 Allroad. It’s a lot to ask for an Outback no matter which way you look at it, and while the straightforward design has its charms, the interior of the Outback can’t really measure up to any of those.

Among its competitors, the Outback isn’t as refined. It’s loud on the road and its interior feels a bit cruder than some of the other cars in its class. As of this writing, it still doesn’t offer a hybrid option. But here’s the thing: I was certainly more willing to take it off-road than I would in a Toyota or Mazda. Therein, I think, lies the secret to its popularity.

Kristen Lee
The divot that tripped up the Outback.

Again and again, Subaru hits us with the “rugged” marketing and I strongly suspect it’s working; the people who buy Outbacks don’t want the suburban delicateness and blandness of a RAV4 or CR-V. They’re not precious about using their vehicles. They want a car they can throw a muddy mountain bike into and a trunk that’ll crate around their dogs. The all-wheel drive as standard is a very attractive proposition, as is the ground clearance, meaning that you can easily strap some skis to its roof and take it up the mountain for a weekend.

The Outback is for the Jeep crowd that, for whatever reason, doesn’t want to go full-Jeep. But they still want the security that stems from mild off-road capabilities and an interior that can be easily cleaned so… Outback.

Just know that if you get yourself an Outback, the chances of you blending in with a lot of other people in parking lots rise astronomically. But hey, maybe rugged invisibility is your jam.

Kristen Lee
I swear this was not on purpose.

Kristen Lee

Got a tip? Hit me up at kristen@thedrive.com