FORT BRAGG, Calif. — The Subaru Outback may not look heroic, but it is.
Introduced six generations ago in 1994, with marketing featuring “Crocodile Dundee” star Paul Hogan, it marked a change in direction for the brand, which had been intent on chasing Toyota and was failing. Instead, the Outback saved Subaru, as the car’s success led the brand to refocus on selling all-wheel drive as a unique selling point in its cars. In 1994, that was unique. Twenty-five years later, it still is, at least in cars.
The Outback’s popularity can be seen in the lack of change in appearance. Looking at the redesigned 2020 Outback, you’d be hard-pressed to tell that it’s new. Even though it rides on Subaru’s new global platform, you have to look closely to notice any difference. It looks a bit sleeker and a bit bigger, and it wears a larger emblem on the grille. But climb inside and you’ll find the Outback has changed significantly.
The larger interior sports a newfound refinement that’s quite fetching, anchored by an 11.5-inch vertical tablet-style screen on most models. (A 7.5-inch screen is standard on base models.) The user interface features large, easy to activate buttons and an intuitive software setup. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, and up to four USB ports and a wireless phone-charging slot are available on upper trim levels.
The Limited test vehicle feature very comfortable leather seats, although side bolstering could be better. All Outbacks get sound-insulated windshields, although only Limited and Touring models get sound-insulated front windows. It makes enough of a difference to warrant getting a model with the feature.
Two engines are offered. Most buyers will choose the 2.5-liter flat four rated at 182 horsepower, although a turbocharged 2.4-liter powerplant rated at 260 horsepower is also offered. Both mate to a continuously variable automatic transmission, although the turbo’s transmission is designed to handle its extra torque and is more rewarding when pushed hard. That said, most drivers will choose the turbo for its extra towing capacity: 3,500 pounds versus the base car’s 2,700 pounds.
Regardless of which trim level you buy — Base, Premium, Sport, Limited with the base motor, or Limited XT, Onyx Edition XT, Touring XT with the turbo motor — the Outback makes for an ideal family hauler. While opting for the turbocharged engine does make for a significantly more powerful automobile, it doesn’t make it more fun to drive.
The Outback’s independent suspension uses MacPherson struts up front and double wishbones in the back. Sling it into a corner, and you can feel the car’s weight as the car safely understeers and the tires let you know when they’re reaching their limits. There’s little body lean and virtually no unwanted rebound over bumps. In fact, bump absorption is very good. But most owners will never push it to extremes while cornering. And, driven as most owners will, it returns an immensely satisfying driving experience. This is very much the ideal family hauler and foul-weather foe, one that handles competently and safely. Any sportiness you associate with it comes from the sports gear you load into it, not from the car’s handling on-road.
Off-road it’s a different story. This is where the Outback surprised me, proving to be more capable than you’d expect. While it lacks a dedicated low range, it features X-Mode, which helps overcome slick situations by adjusting the engine output and transmission gearing, increasing all-wheel drive engagement and optimizing the vehicle’s traction control, active torque vectoring and hill descent control systems. You’ll find it performs as promised, pulling through muck and mire or controlling the vehicle’s speed down a slippery slope that would hinder lesser vehicles. The Outback is also surprisingly comfortable, absorbing all but the worst furrows, rocks and tree branches with aplomb. But its approach and departure angles do call for care when traversing ruts, fording streams and cresting hills.
And its cargo hold is immense. In fact, it’s longer and wider than the far more expensive but not necessarily better Chevrolet Blazer.
The Outback also boasts a radically improved technology package. A new front view camera captures images within the driver’s blind spots in front of the vehicle. Advanced Adaptive Cruise Control now integrates with Lane Centering, while its new drowsy driver alert system uses a dedicated infrared camera and facial recognition technology to identify driver fatigue and alert the driver and passengers. The same system recognizes drivers when they enter the car and appropriately adjusts the seats, side mirrors and radio station presets. Other options include driver-assist technologies include LED Steering Responsive Headlights; Reverse Automatic Braking; Blind Spot Detection with Lane Change Assist and Rear Cross Traffic Alert; and EyeSight Assist Monitor with head-up display. There’s even an optional 12-speaker Harman Kardon audio system with Clari-Fi, and an in-vehicle Wi-Fi hotspot.
Prices start at $27,655 for the base Outback, and topping out at $40,705 for the Outback Touring XT.
Subaru claims a hiking boot inspired its new Outback, and the analogy is an apt one. Capable and functional, it gets its appeal from its utility, but now with the added allure of a more upscale interior and up-to-date technology.
It’s an excellent package, so much so that the company no longer requires Paul Hogan to sell it. One drive and you’ll find it sells itself.
Who buys the Subaru Outback?
Who buys the Subaru Outback? The answer may surprise you
If you’ve ever wondered who buys a Subaru Outback, the answer won’t surprise you if you live near a college campus or school. It’s educators, who have to get to their jobs regardless of weather. So the old stereotype of the college professor driving a Volvo may have to be revised, as Volvo offers few if any products in the Outback’s market segments.
Healthcare workers also favor the Outback, being the second largest group of buyers, followed by those in the technology sector.
Subaru says the top purchase considerations start with the Outback’s safety, which is more than marketing hype. The 2019 Outback was rated a “Top Safety Pick Plus” by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which tracks insurance claims and tests different models for crash safety.
Reliability also plays a part, followed by the availability of affordable all-wheel drive, and the family-oriented design of its vehicles. The latter is no accident, as 78 percent of Outback buyers are married, 52 percent male; 25 percent have children living with them, while another 37 percent have kids in college.
All of this has led Subaru to rank highest owner in loyalty in the first J.D. Power U.S. Automotive Brand Loyalty Study released earlier this month. Subaru retained 61.5 percent of its owners, beating out Toyota, Honda and Ford. Nevertheless, in June, Subaru ranked near the bottom of the J.D. Power Initial Quality Study, which measures problems in the first 90 days of ownership. With 113 problems per 100 vehicles in the annual survey, below industry average, the reliability woes are no accident as the company’s rapid growth from 20th to 7th in the past decade has led to the low ranking.
That said, company officials say the problems are more centered on the infotainment system than the engine or transmission, problems common to most other automakers. — Larry Printz
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