Subaru’s handsome Outback seems to have overrun southeastern Wisconsin roads and it makes sense. Outback is practical for families and also empty-nesters looking to travel in comfort and safety, all at a high value and with AWD.
Full disclosure, our family owns a 2017 Outback, so I knew what to expect when I test drove the 2020 line-topper, the Touring XT. But there were a few surprises.
Outback has been growing in sales for a decade as buyers discover its reliability, standard excellent AWD system, and its value. Subaru ads say Love makes it a Subaru, but I’d argue that pricing and the above attributes have created much of that love.
For years Subaru has powered Outback with its standard 2.5-liter Boxer (horizontally opposed cylinders) engine that delivered an adequate 175 horsepower. For 2020 there’s a new turbo version that pumps 260 horses and 277 lb.-ft. of torque. That’s standard in the Touring XT. While still a little noisy under heavy acceleration, the turbo pumps up the power noticeably. Revving up to highway speeds is easier, quickly getting away from a pack of cars at a stoplight is easier, accelerating past a dawdler on the highway is easier.
New too is a high-torque Lineartronic CVT (continuously variable transmission) that is well suited to the turbo. Shifting is smooth and well timed. That gives the car more oomph and yet a silky luxurious feeling. Great move on Subaru’s part. And of course there’s still the AWD system standard to give the Outback excellent traction in snow and slush. Lucky me, I didn’t have to test that out this week, but our family car is as surefooted as a mountain goat in winter, so Subaru’s AWD system gets my blessing, and my wife’s rave reviews.
Inside, the big deal is literally that, a big tablet-style high-res screen that is 11.6-inches tall. That’s a foot to my way of thinking and it’s perfect for us 60-somethings who are tired of squinty at cell phones, no matter how smart they are. So its visibility is good and the controls are well laid out, including real volume and tuning knobs, plus a way to program in your favorite 6 radio stations, more if you want to scroll to a second screen.
All that is good, with the one caveat that now the 3-speed heated front seats are controlled via that screen. I’d prefer a toggle on the console, which is easier to use while driving, but on the plus side, the screen remembers what your last setting was and resumes that level of heat whenever you return to drive the car.
Note too that the rear seats are heated. Grandmas like that and simple buttons control the rear seat heat.
All this heat brings us to a third major improvement. No, it’s not a hybrid powerplant, but that would be welcome too. It’s the heated steering wheel. I know I’m partial to this feature on any vehicle due to having hands that are freezing unless it’s summer. But outdoorsy-oriented Subaru has finally added the heated wheel, easily controlled by a toggle on the lower portion of the steering wheel hub. Hot damn!
There are other improvements too, but let’s get back to how the Outback drives. Steering feel remains relatively light and the car actually lost some weight, checking in at just beyond 3,900 lbs. Handling is good, the car not being as top-heavy as many crossovers and SUVs, so it corners well, more like a sedan. Yet ground clearance is 8.7 inches, good if you plan to take this into the, well, outback.
Ride also seems slightly improved. Its 108.1-inch wheelbase helps and there are standard 18-inch tires. Braking and safety also are well represented. The Touring XT comes with Subaru’s EyeSight system standard. This includes all the pre-collision warnings, etc. that are now on many vehicles. Blind-spot, lane assist, back-up warnings, cross-traffic alert, pedestrian warnings and braking, are all here.
Another new feature is DriverFocus Distraction Mitigation System (a lawyer must name these things), which knows if you’re looking at the road and flashes a warning on a head-up screen if you look away for more than 5 seconds. I found it annoying as apparently I turn my head a lot, yet usually have my eyes still on the road.
I also found the EyeSight system flashing head-up lights and beeping like a pinball machine whenever another car was pulling out from a side street, no matter how far away it was, and if there were cars ahead at an intersection. That got old quickly. It might help if all this were adjustable, like all the new smart cruise control systems, or if you could choose just the flash, or the beep, whichever you prefer. Beeps are annoying.
I also could find no way to turn off lane-keeping assist, or the now standard Stop-Start system that turns the engine off at stoplights to save fuel. This one did not operate terribly smoothly, so I would have liked to turn it off. It also didn’t seem to help gas mileage much. I got just 21.5 mpg in about 60% city driving. The EPA rates this new turbo engine at 23 mpg city and 30 mph highway. That may be optimistic. For the record, our 175-horse powered Outback averages between 25 and 26 mpg regularly.
Inside, the Touring XT’s interior is definitely more upscale than other Outbacks I’ve driven. The leather is thick and soft and on this handsome Cinnamon Brown Pearl (sort of a medium metallic copper brown) model featured medium brown leather seats and a dark chocolate brown dash and doors along with a tan headliner. Trim was satin chrome around the screen, air vents and shifter while there are chrome door handles and wheel hub trim.
Power front seats are standard with two memory settings for the driver’s seat and the lower front seat cushions will extend, a help to long- legged drivers. The Outback’s new seats also seem better designed for long-term comfort, with better lower back and hip support and more cushioned seat bottoms.
Outback is roomy with plenty of head and legroom for five adults, plus oodles of storage space behind the rear seats, which naturally will fold flat if needed. There’s a power hatch, rear window wiper and overall excellent outward sightlines. Subaru continues to offer viewing through static vent windows between the A-pillars and side mirrors. This area often is blocked in many vehicles today. The rear window here also is large and well-shaped to improve rearward vision.
Overhead is a sunroof and an SOS system. And while there are plenty of places to plug in your cell phone or other mobile device, there is no standard wireless charging port.
Pricing? Outback runs the gamut from modest to near luxury levels, but all remain a strong value in the market. Base models, which include the 175-horse Boxer 4-cylinder, AWD, and the EyeSight system starts at $27,655 including delivery. A mid-level Touring model that many of us might prefer lists at $38,355 and the tested Touring XT was $40,705, including delivery. No options were added.
At any level the Outback remains a primo choice for Wisconsin drivers looking for value, sure-footed traction and comfort for a family of four or five. It’s also easier to climb in and out of than any SUV and many crossovers. If you prefer more power, opt for the turbocharged engine.
FAST STATS: 2020 Subaru Outback Touring XT
Hits: Improved acceleration, good handling and ride, plus AWD and great outward sightlines. Usefulness of a wagon/crossover, well laid out interior, huge screen, heated front/rear seats and steering wheel, seat comfort improved, power hatch, sunroof, full set of safety equipment and roomy enough to carry five adults.
Misses: Engine remains a bit noisy under heavy acceleration, beeps like pinball machine whenever anything pulls in front of you, flashes message to keep eyes on road after 5 seconds, must use screen to set heated seats.
Made in: Lafayette, Ind.
Engine: 2.4-liter turbo Boxer 4-cylinder, 260 hp
Transmission: CVT automatic
Weight: 3,902 lbs.
Wheelbase: 108.1 in.
Length: 191.3 in.
Cargo: 73.3 cu.ft. (rear seats down)
Tow: 3,500 lbs.
MPG: 21.5 (tested)
Base Price: $40,705 (includes delivery)
Major Options: None
Test vehicle: $40,705
Sources: Subaru, www.kbb.com
Photos: Mark Savage