The Subaru Outback is an institution. Since 1994, Subaru has essentially been the only entry in a segment it created. To be fair, there were a number of mainstream, mid-size wagons offered by rivals for a time. But those weren’t rugged looking and they certainly didn’t offer all-wheel drive. By the mid 2000s they were all gone. Meanwhile, the Outback survived and thrived. Even during the recession. Recently, other automakers tried to get into the market dominated by the Outback. They failed too. Can there be only one? Ford’s upcoming Outback competitor might finally answer that question.
The imminent arrival of the next generation Fusion comes at an auspicious time for anything not named Outback. Volkswagen’s recently cancelled Alltrack was clearly designed to compete with both the Crosstrek and the Outback. Unfortunately, it wasn’t really competitive with either of them. With a starting price of about $28,000, the least expensive automatic Alltrak was about $4,500 more expensive than the cheapest automatic Crosstrek. The Volkswagen was also about $2,000 more expensive than the Outback despite being just under a foot shorter in length. Unsurprisingly, the Alltrak failed to sway many buyers. And the closely related Sportwagen’s lack of standard all-wheel drive probably didn’t help things either.
Like Volkswagen, General Motors thought they could take a piece of that sweet, mid-sized, raised wagon pie. Problem is, they barely ever told anyone what they were doing. Buick excelled at keeping the Regal TourX a secret. At launch they refused to offer any incentives or competitive interest rates. And it never seemed like GM allocated any money towards advertisements either. Could Buick have mounted a serious challenge to the Outback if GM cared more about showing it off? Possibly. But GM outfitted the Regal TourX with a fairly spartan interior and priced it above the Subaru. The roughly $2,000 price difference between the two was probably eliminated by hefty GM incentives, but by the time those became common, it was already too late.
At least one more automaker is set to challenge Subaru with a raised wagon of their own. Over the last several months, various automotive outlets have published shots of what looks like a next gen Fusion test mule driving around Detroit. The body is based on the new Focus estate, but its lengthened chassis clearly fails to hide the fact that Ford is using it to test some type of wagon or crossover. Car And Driver featured some of the latest photos last week and included a link to a piece on Autocar that contained some of the first concrete information about Ford’s future mid-size ambitions.
Basically, the next generation Mondeo is happening. It will most likely use a lengthened and modified variant of the platform that currently underpins the new Focus and 2020 Escape. Europe will get a sedan, wagon, and hatchback. North America and Europe will get an “off-road” variant as well. This is the Outback competitor that is slated to arrive next year. It all adds up. Ford recently clarified that the “zombie” Fusion will continue production into calendar year 2021. It’s probably not a coincidence that Hermosillo, where the Fusion is currently made, will eventually be retooled to build the next generation Transit Connect, the Fusion wagon, and whatever they call the pickup designed to slot below the Ranger. All three vehicles will probably use the Focus/Escape platform.
Aside from kinda revealing that Ford originally planned to call the North American wagon the Mondeo, the Autocar piece used a Ford parts ordering catalog as evidence that all of this is happening. The leaked document references a tool necessary for removing of a rear leaf spring. A leaf spring setup strongly suggests Ford is planning on fitting the Fusion wagon with a hybrid battery. This is where I think Ford has a real chance to create a true Outback competitor.
How should Ford equip their Outback competitor? In terms of styling, they don’t need to do much. The Mondeo wagon has aged incredibly well and keeping that look will instantly tell people that they’re looking at a Fusion wagon. Ultimately, it’s going to be the powertrains that determine the soft-roader’s success. If the Blue Oval wants their Outback competitor to succeed, it should come standard with all-wheel drive. That’s the best way to compete with something like the Outback. Additionally, it needs to match the Outback’s size and base MSRP. Given the Outback’s 191 inch length and 73 inch width, that shouldn’t be too difficult. Ford can also equip the next generation Fusion with the 2020 Escape’s 1.5 cylinder EcoBoost. It is competitive with the Outback’s base four cylinder in terms of performance and it should allow Ford to keep the Fusion at the same price point as the Subaru. A base 2020 Escape S with all-wheel drive starts at $26,975, or just $300 more than the 2020 Outback.
But the Fusion can’t simply match the Outback in price or performance. That’s a recipe for failure. It has to boast something the Outback absolutely cannot match. Fortunately, Ford can easily equip the upcoming wagon with a powertrain that can do just that: the 2.5 liter four cylinder Atkinson cycle hybrid system currently available on the Escape. In the Escape, the hybrid powertrain boasts an output of about 200 horsepower, can propel the crossover from 0-60 mph in 7.7 seconds, and returns 40 mpg combined on the EPA cycle. A mechanical all-wheel drive system is optional. Given the Fusion’s history as a hybrid and the rumors suggesting the Escape-based mini Bronco will be available as one, this predication isn’t terribly bold.
Ford’s best shot at making the Outback stand out is to offer the hybrid all-wheel drive powertrain as an upgrade option. Obviously, it would probably be more expensive than a base Outback. But it would be just as capable off-road, significantly more fuel efficient, and when compared to Subaru’s CVT equipped 2.5 liter boxer four, quieter and more refined. The only wrench in this plan is if Subaru gets ahead of Ford with their own hybrid, but as of right now there is nothing to suggest such a system is arriving, at least anytime soon.
Additional performance variants like an ST model would help distinguish the Fusion too. But the hybrid seems like their strongest option against an entrenched competitor like the Outback. With over 85% of the American wagon segment to itself, the Outback is a tough nut for Ford to crack. But if they put real effort into the next Fusion, they just might be able to succeed where others have failed.
Another scenario is that none of this matters much, if at all. It’s entirely possible the Outback simply attracts a certain type of demographic that keeps coming back to it because of what it represents. After all, it’s not really a wagon in the strictest sense. At 66 inches high, the 2020 model is just as tall as the 2020 Ford Escape. But Ford, like other automakers before it, sees at least some value in playing in the same sandbox as Subaru. If Ford plays its card right, it could carve a out its own little raised wagon niche. And they might just win over some Outback owners in the process.