2020 Subaru Outback: Newest Outback is rugged, tech-forward [First Look]

2020 Subaru Outback Premium 18.JPG
2020 Subaru Outback Premium (Sinclair Broadcast Group / Jill Ciminillo)

The black cow blocking my path lazily dipped its head into the stiff brown grass and took a big bite. As I crawled toward it in the 2020 Subaru Outback, I could tell I was clearly trespassing in the middle of this hilly field.

But that’s the beauty of the Outback. With its rugged façade, going off the beaten path is almost a prerequisite for ownership.

While the 2020 Outback isn’t built for the likes of the Rubicon trail, it can handle mild off-roading with ease. All-wheel drive is standard and it has a ground clearance of 8.7 inches. Plus, the standard X-mode helps enhance the AWD system to reduce individual wheel spin in slippery situations.

We spent a solid two hours traversing a dusty cow-laden off-road course on a ranch in northern California. The Outback managed quite well with the sharp turns, shallow creeks and loose-dirt uphill climbs.

It was the kind of off-the-beaten path an owner might trek to get to a cool campsite or other outdoor adventure location. And it didn’t even struggle.

On road, the Outback maintains its comfortable persona with solid road manners, excellent driving position and plenty of room for cargo.

We had the opportunity to drive Premium and Touring XT trims -- going from basic to top-of-the line. While the interior accents changed from cloth seating surfaces to leather, and we moved from base engine to up-level engine, a lot of the important amenities stayed the same.

Subaru’s EyeSight safety suite is standard across the entire lineup – as is LED headlights, auto-assist high beams and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto. Plus, the new 11.6-inch tablet-sized info screen is standard starting at the Premium trim, which is just one level up from the base.

The Outback gets two new engines for 2020, a base 2.5-liter, 4-cylinder Boxer engine and an up-level 2.4-liter turbocharged Boxer engine.

The base engine delivers 182 horsepower and 176 pound-feet of torque and is available in the base, Premium, Limited and Touring trims.

The turbo engine delivers 260 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque and is available in the Onyx XT, Limited XT and Touring XT trims.

Both engines are well done, and while I appreciate the extra power proffered by the turbo, what really sells me on this engine is the seamless acceleration and quiet finish.

One downside to both engines, however, is the auto stop/start system, which has the engine shutting off automatically when the vehicle comes to a complete stop. It turns back on with a brief hesitation when you remove your foot from the brake.

I hate this feature. But more automakers are adding it because it helps with fuel economy.

What I don’t like about Subaru’s system is the “off” switch is hidden under a couple menus in the info screen making it difficult to access. And you must go through the tap-tap-tap process every time you turn the car on just to turn this feature off.

Most automakers have an easy-to-access button to shut off the system with a single tap.

Other than this annoyance, I thought the rest of the vehicle was well done.

Both cloth and leather seats were equally comfortable for long periods of time, interior accents are clean and attractive, and the overall ride and handling are competent.

As a petite driver, I sit in a far-forward, height adjusted position that usually plants the A-Pillar solidly in my line of vision, creating a blind spot, but Subaru went to a lot of trouble, using a lot of high-strength steel, to make that pillar – and others surrounding the cabin – much slimmer. Which resulted in much better visibility out all windows, and a really good driving position.

Plus, for a vehicle that isn’t on the luxury side of the equation, there’s a lot of cool technology.

One of my favorite new features is DriverFocus. This system will scan the driver’s face upon entry to the vehicle, and if it’s recognized, the vehicle will automatically adjust seating position, side mirrors and HVAC controls to that driver’s preferences. It can recognize up to five different drivers.

DriverFocus also monitors driver attention and will send an alert if it detects that the driver is drowsy or distracted.

Also new to the Subaru lineup is the Onyx Edition XT trim. Ostensibly this is an appearance package that includes blacked-out exterior accents and a special StarTex leatherette interior. But it is also the lowest-priced trim that gets the up-level engine and adds additional amenities such as the 180-degree front monitor, passive entry, a full-size spare tire and the towing capability of 3,500 pounds.

The full trim lineup is as follows:

Base ($27,655): This well-equipped base trim includes EyeSight, LED headlights, Android Auto/Apple CarPlay, high-beam assist, rearview camera and 18-inch wheels.

Premium ($29,905): This trim adds a power driver’s seat, the 11.6-inch infotainment screen, the all-weather package and dual climate controls. Blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, navigation, hands-free liftgate, passive entry and push-button start are available in packages.

Onyx XT ($34,455): This new trim includes a black-out package, StarTex leatherette interior, Dual X-Mod 180-degree front monitor, passive entry and a full-size spare tire. The power moonroof, navigation and reverse automatic braking are available in a package.

Limited ($38,355): This trim adds 19-inch alloy wheels, leather seats, the HarmanKardon premium audio system, blind-spot monitoring, DriverFocus and reverse automatic braking. The power moonroof, heated steering wheel, navigation and DriverFocus are available as a part of a package.

Limited XT ($35,905): This trim adds sound-insulated front door glass, a moonroof and navigation. There are no options available.

Touring ($38,755): At this top-tier trim, you’ll get ventilated front seats, Nappa leather, a CD player and power folding mirrors. There are no options available.

Touring XT ($40,705): The primary difference between this and the regular Touring is simply the up-level engine. There are no options available.

The new Outback was revealed at the New York Auto Show in April, and in a quick turnaround hits the streets in August.

The Bottom Line:

For me, the Subaru Outback has always been one of those vehicles that just feels right. From the driving position to the ease of maneuvering through traffic, it’s comfortable and smooth.

This newest iteration takes a solid vehicle and makes it even better with standard safety, nice up-level amenities and attractive, rugged styling.

Frankly, the only misstep for the 2020 model in my book is the blasted auto stop/start system that is difficult to disengage.

Editor’s Note: Driving impressions in this “First Look” review are from an invitation-only automaker launch event that allowed special access to the vehicle and executives. Subaru covered our accommodations, meals and transportation costs.