Subaru’s Outback is as close to a cult car for seniors as is it for middle-agers with a couple of teens still living at home. Its sales just continue to grow, resulting in one parked in nearly every other suburban driveway.
Spoiler alert, there’s a 2017 version in my driveway.
That said, Outback just keeps getting better, which may lead to trade-ins among some of its earlier devotees. The latest Outback Onyx Edition XT is the latest case in point.
The Onyx XT is the least expensive of Outback’s seven trim levels that also offers its new engine. Trust me, you want its new engine.
The old standard 2.5-liter boxer 4-cylinder is sturdy and strong, but this new 2.4-liter turbocharged boxer 4-cylinder is smoother, quieter, and much quicker. It packs 260 horses vs. 182 for the standard boxer, and with a hefty 277 lb.-ft. of torque. That makes this midsize crossover/wagon feel downright peppy for an AWD vehicle pulling 3,900 lbs.
The power comes on smoothly and fairly quietly due to a new high-torque Lineartronic CVT (continuously variable transmission) that is well suited to the turbo. Shifting is well timed and near seamless. That gives the car a refined fee, yet with decidedly more oomph.
Naturally AWD is standard giving Outback excellent traction in snow and slush, or if you take it off road. There’s 8.7-inches of ground clearance so if the dirt road to your up-north cabin turns to slop, no problem. Plus snow won’t pack up underneath the car much in winter. X-Mode also allows you to put the Outback in a drive mode that further helps in deep snow and mud. It’s standard on the Onyx edition.
Handling remains nimble in Outback with moderate steering weight, plus that stiffness seems to also have helped the ride, moving it from 6.5 on a scale of 10 up to 7.5 or 8, depending on the sensitivity of your tushie. All in all the Subaru is a pleasant city or highway cruiser and useful because of the cargo room in back. That ranges from 32.5 cubic feet to 75.7 with the split rear seats down. The XT includes a power hatch too.
Inside, the big thing is a giant 11.6-inch tall tablet-style high-res screen. That’s a foot to my way of thinking and it’s perfect for us 60-somethings who are tired of squinting at cell phones, no matter how smart they are. Visibility is good and the dash controls are well laid out, including real volume and tuning knobs (seniors say thanks), 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 two caveats. First, that big screen and black gloss surround on the stack/console reflect a lot on a sunny day. That’s a distraction.
Plus the 3-speed heated front seats now are controlled via that screen. I’d prefer a toggle on the console, which is easier to use while driving. 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.
A dual climate control system is standard and easy enough to set. I’ve not had much problem with this in winter, but on a couple near 90-degree days the system took quite a while to cool the interior. Once I left the windows down to air out the sunny interior for about five minutes first. That helped some.
The tested dark metallic blue (Abyss Blue Pearl) car came with gray (the only choice in the Onyx) water-repellant StarTex simulated leather seats. These feel a little more rubbery than leather, but are highly cleanable, a plus if you’re a hiker, biker or dog lover. Plus the gray is multi-toned and includes lime green stitching to liven up the interior without overdoing it.
Seats are supportive and comfortable, a step up from previous Subaru seats that sometimes were too hard or had pressure points in the lower back that were not due to the power lumbar support.
Outside, all Outbacks now come with more black plastic cladding front and rear, plus over the wheel wells and thicker cladding along the lower sides. The Onyx also blacks out the grille completely so no chrome strip up to the Subaru logo on the grille. It also features 18-inch painted black wheels and black caps on the side mirrors to give it a stealthier look than other models.
Onyx also has a full-size spare tire, blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic alert, push-button start and a special PIN access system that allows you to lock your keys in the car when hiking, biking etc., yet unlock the car when you return via the PIN pad. You access the PIN near the license plate, enter it and it unlocks the car remotely.
The test wagon also added a wireless phone charger for $245 and a $1,845 option package that includes a power moonroof, reverse automatic braking to help prevent accidents as you back up, plus the fancy 11.6-inch Starlink screen and package including navigation. Subaru also adds Chimani an app that provides details to 400 national parks, a nice touch for this audience. Now if each car came with a house-trained dog, too!
Just a few more thoughts and bits of info.
Standard on all Outbacks is EyeSight its safety system that includes adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, active lane centering (which can be a bit annoying), a head-up display, and LED headlights with automatic high beams.
While on safety it’s good to note that the Outback has slim roof pillars and a small vent-type window in a fixed door frame. That provides a little daylight between the A-pillar and sideview mirror to improve sightlines. Overall sightlines in Outback are excellent, plus a 180-degree front-view monitor is standard on this model.
The Starlink safety system incorporated in the infotainment screen comes with the car for the first three years, certainly long enough to test if you’ll use it. Plus Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard too.
Is the Outback perfect? No, few vehicles are and we all have different needs and requirements. Some of the bells and whistles bug me. Here the DriverFocus Distraction Mitigation System (really?) 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 I kept looking at the screen to see what was dinging.
Gas mileage also is a bit disappointing as turbos are supposed to boost mileage while still allowing for more power than a similar non-turbo engine. I got just 22.6 mpg and the EPA rates this model at 23 mpg city and 30 highway.
Pricing remains fairly value conscious with Subaru so you won’t spend a fortune on most Outbacks. The base with the less powerful engine lists at $27,655, and remember that still has AWD and a fine CVT, plus all the room and functionality of a mid-size crossover, but with more nimble handling.
The tested Onyx XT, a popular trim level, lists at $35,905, including delivery. With the options it was $37,995, just a bit above the average car cost today. Moving up to the Limited XT with this same turbo engine edges to $38,755 and the top-level Touring XT starts at $40,705, but includes leather interior and a steering wheel warmer too.
As it rides, the stealthy Onyx (should be black don’t you think?), is a fine crossover that undercuts quite a few others on price while still offering oodles of safety and practicality, and now a fair amount of speed too.
FAST STATS: 2020 Subaru Outback Onyx Edition XT
Hits: Improved acceleration, handling and ride, plus AWD and great outward sightlines. Usefulness of a wagon/crossover, well laid out interior, huge screen, heated front/rear seats, seat comfort improved, power hatch, sunroof, full set of safety equipment, wireless charger, and roomy enough to carry five adults.
Misses: Flashes message and bings to keep eyes on road after 5 seconds, must use screen to set heated seats, screen/console combo can be distractingly reflective on sunny days, A/C system slow to cool on hot summer day
Made in: Lafayette, Ind.
Engine: 2.4-liter turbo Boxer 4-cylinder, 260 hp
Transmission: Lineartronic automatic CVT
Weight: 3,900 lbs. (approx.)
Wheelbase: 108.1 in.
Length: 189.9 in.
Cargo: 32.5-75.7 cu.ft.
Tow: 2,700 lbs.
MPG: 22.6 (tested)
Base Price: $35,905 (includes delivery)
Wireless charger, $245
Option package 2 (Starlink 11.6-inch infotainment system, power moonroof, reverse automatic braking), $1,845
Test vehicle: $37,995
Sources: Subaru, www.kbb.com
Photos: Mark Savage