Oh, Subaru, as a fan of turbos as well as your vehicles it’s good to see you’ve found your way back from the wilderness with the Outback (although sales numbers would suggest you were just fine all along). After starting the Outback line as a four-cylinder only back in 1996, then coming up with an optional six after the turn of the millennium, then dumping that six for a turbo-four option, and then back to a six for the last two generations, finally it’s back to a turbo-four option! And not a weaker econo-turbo-special either as many are doing, but a biggish one so that the mountain folk can enjoy driving again…
Yes, this sixth-generation Outback is new for 2020 and keeps the things that are great about it while adding some fun and more luxury as options. However, it’s not all a love-fest, as Subaru still includes a few frustrating quirks in the bag. Mostly though it’s surprising that a quarter century after the original Outback, nobody else has figured out the formula, or really even tried to for that matter.
This Onyx Edition is the least expensive way to step up to the turbo motor this year. The black-wheel thing is not quite past prime-time yet (but it’s getting close in my opinion), and while the Onyx Edition is available in blue and green as well as four grayscale shades including our featured Magnetite Gray Metallic, on all of them the wheels, grille, and rear badging are black while the window trim and “Outback” callouts on the sides are bright metal. Other trims have more conventional silver accoutrements instead of black if that’s more your bag.
The Outback has long been one of the most reasonably priced ways to get a family sized vehicle with lots of convenience, capability and safety. While the optional-engined variants have pushed the budget a bit, the fact that there are three different trim levels with the uprated engine makes it more palatable, and the standard engine comes in four trim levels, so something for almost everyone’s budget.
The overall shape has been a continued evolution since the 2010 model bowed with this being the third iteration in this somewhat larger size than how it all started. Overall it’s large enough to not be lumped in with economy cars and not so large that it gets rejected due to being too large. Kind of a Goldilocks size is the best way to describe it with lots of room for four or five along with a reasonable amount of luggage; larger than the VW Golf Wagon but smaller than the Volvo V70 and more functionally shaped than the V60.
While in the beginning it was a trim level of the Legacy (and didn’t even have a suspension lift that first year), since then the Outback has become a distinct model without a “normal” Legacy wagon stablemate and sports significant ground clearance even if there are greater front and rear overhangs than on more specialized off-road machinery. Of course, if Crossovers fall out of favor and normal height station wagons ever come back in vogue here in North America, Subaru could offer a Legacy wagon in about five minutes flat.
Lighting in front including the foglights is all LED, the roof racks return for a third time as standard equipment with their novel built-in folding crossbars that can be rotated to extend across the roof or kept in their retracted position in the rails for noise and economy reasons when not needed, and in this case a moonroof is optionally included as well while not being required.
Step-in height isn’t truck-high, but also not drop-your-booty-on-the-dance-floor low either, more of a pivot and slightly sink into the seat operation. The seats in the Onyx are somewhat brasher than what would be thought of as normal Outback fare, being as they are finished in a two-tone (gray and black) “Startex” material that Subaru describes as “water-repellent upholstery”. I call it vinyl.
It’s generally on par for the price class and looks and feels decent if not exactly like leather. Or, on the other hand, not like what an airport shuttle might have either. Then again they aren’t advertising it as leather-like either. The stitching on these seats as well as on the dashboard is lime-colored, which is certainly different and draws the eye. It vaguely reminds me of a wetsuit I used to own as a teenager.
Still, the seats in front are comfortable, there’s more thigh support with a longer bottom cushion than I recall in generations past, legroom is spacious and the console isn’t overly intrusive. Looking forward there are a crisp set of gauges but your eyes will be drawn to the center stack with its standard 11.6″ high-resolution touch-screen.
Not every function is on the touch screen, there are some hard buttons set into it (such as temperature adjusters) and I am almost certain it is the same supplier that RAM uses for their large screens as the buttons have an identical slightly wavy gloss finish and very precise fit.
The screen is excellent in terms of resolution and the way it splits the screen into different sections with the Audio at the top, then for instance Navigation maps in the main center portion, and then HVAC at the bottom. Or select the Menu option and see a number of large “tiles” to click to change the main view to a different option. It’s hugely configurable and has many deep layers for customization of the car and its systems which is very welcome, however it does fall down on some basics. A screen with this much height in a portrait format is a real boon when using it for navigation as you can “see” way off into the distance with detail while still having plenty of detail to the sides. In a more standard landscape format there doesn’t seem to ever be enough “distance” without constantly zooming in and out.
Subaru fell into the trap of not offering enough real buttons for often-used items such as the seat heaters which now require a screen button push, then up pops another window for the heaters which must then be pressed 1-3 times depending on the desired heat output. And the same to turn them off instead of a small button or better yet, a dial, to select the desired level without needing to look at the screen. At least they remain on upon restarting the car if left on, so perhaps people will just leave them on entirely half of the year…
Somehow, I thought that perhaps they’d have this covered with voice commands, alas while the cabin temperature can be adjusted that way (even though there are hard buttons for that function), the seat heaters cannot. Thus, a bit of frustration regarding something I use and tend to adjust fairly often. The voice command feature here was alright but not great, it requires a certain syntax (and does prompt you with visuals which however you need to look at). Discussing this topic with someone else brought the insight that curiously the Asian manufacturers seem to generally have more issues with these interfaces (screens, commands, and interfaces) than the Europeans and Americans do in equivalent generation vehicles.
Below the large screen is a cubby that will charge your cell phone wirelessly, it has room for one device and you sort of drop/slide it in. To get it back out though I needed to hook a fingernail into the surround of my phone case as there was not enough room to securely grasp it otherwise. It does charge the phone well and it does more or less hide it while being charged which is good to avoid the temptation to look at it constantly but the car’s touchscreen takes up so much space that it’s not as easy to get back out as it could be.
Back to the gauges in front of the driver, when making a change to most anything, a small pop-up appears in the center display to confirm what was just adjusted (volume, radio station, vehicle setting etc.), but one novel item I noted has to do with the engine’s stop/start system. Like in some Toyotas it too appears to be dependent on how much pressure is applied to the brake pedal (excellent!) but it goes further by displaying a timer that accrues the total amount of time that the engine has been off until it is reset manually (or never reset, whatever your preference).
Interesting already, but the really cool thing is it also tells you how much gasoline has been saved. In my case, it was shut down for about 24 minutes while I was driving in total, and saved .21 gallons of gasoline in that time. No, it doesn’t save a lot, but it does save some, and that’s important to lots of people. In any case, it was interesting to see as was just how much time was actually spent stopped and being unproductive.
The dashboard and door panels are both also covered in the same two-toned motif as the seats with the green stitching and the passenger portion has a handy little shelf built in like in a Toyota Highlander. Two cupholders in the center with one side having a deeper well than the other (and a rubber insert to raise it if needed) do their job, and decent sized door pockets and glove box along with a smaller center console box complete the storage options. There are Bluetooth ports below the screen as well as an auxiliary input port, something that seems to have disappeared on most cars these days.
The back seat is trimmed the same as the front and there is plenty of leg, head, and shoulder room for me sized at 6’1″ with a 32″ inseam to be comfortable for an extended voyage. The rear seats can be heated (with actual buttons!), have two charging ports, recline and split-fold as needed with latches both on the seats and within the cargo area.
Cargo room, as it should be with a normally shaped station wagon form (even though Subaru calls this an SUV) is spacious and well shaped, i.e. boxes and even appliances tilted on their back should fit (with perhaps the rear seats folded down). It’s not too high off the ground for dogs to jump in or out, depending on the size/breed of course.
This Subaru, like most cars, is also of the keyless variety, i.e. touch the doorhandle to unlock, and use a button to stop and start the engine. The flat-four in this case displaces 2.4 liters and features a turbocharger. The engine has a top-mounted intercooler (and I also have to point out that top-mounted oil filter, so easy to change!) and while in turbo Subarus of the past there’d be a hood scoop, the air is now handled by a hidden pair of scoops located on the underside of the hood that funnel cooling air from the grille into the engine compartment and dump it on top of the intercooler.
I assume this was a change (or opportunity) that resulted from pedestrian-safety regulations in parts of the world that dictate a certain amount of space between the hood and hard engine components below, might as well use it for soft ducting. Power output is 260hp@5,600rpm and 277lb-ft of torque available between 2,000 and 4,800rpm.
As a prior owner of a then-new 2014 Outback equipped with the H-6 engine, this turbocharged powerplant feels much stronger (even though horsepower is similar) and would have been my choice had it been available at that time. It still not being available after that car was wrecked after the next generation was released was a large factor in my decision to not replace it with another one at the time although I was very impressed with how the Outback protected my wife and myself in the accident that subsequently caused it to leave our stable.
Once started, one is hard pressed to determine that the engine is unlike most fours, it instead is of the horizontally opposed variety, the engine note doesn’t sound as different as it used to, and in fact doesn’t generate much sound that makes its way into the cabin at all. It’s smooth and composed. Drop the gear lever into Drive and the car moves off smartly. While the transmission is a high-torque CVT, it’s tuned to behave much like a conventional automatic with simulated shifts and no droning.
What is less welcome is that while there is not an issue with the engine feeling down on power off the line at all, once the turbo kicks in there is a surge of power that manifests itself after you’ve already found a comfortable accelerator position, thus changing your rate of acceleration from what you were expecting to something much more forceful. This then often results in needing to back off the throttle and is most prevalent in city traffic and not really welcome. Further tuning of the engine/transmission combination to mask or minimize this would be welcome here.
It may seem odd to complain about too much power, and I hasten to add that the power is welcome, just the manner in which it is delivered is less so. It isn’t the on/off switch as in a Porsche 930, however it did harken back towards that type of thing with the difference being that there already is power/boost at low rpms, just then there is even more later on.
On the highway however, most is forgiven. This is a Subaru that is quiet, rides great, i.e. on the soft side, has lots of power in reserve and never seems to run out of chuff or desire to run. The Lineartronic CVT “downshifts” quickly or can be dropped into its 8-speed manual mode and the Outback accelerates rapidly as needed. The Adaptive Cruise Control is easy to understand and controls the car very well in trafficky situations.
What it does not do, however, is easily allow very fine tuning at freeway speeds. Above about 60mph, the buttons to increase or decrease the speed seemed to change from adjusting it one mph at a time to five mph at a time, I was not able to cruise at 76mph for example, it was either 75 or 80.
Further research indicates that there are two settings for Eyesight equipped models such as this one, either 1mph or 5mph increments depending how softly the small selector paddle is moved. Apparently I didn’t have “the touch”, which is unfortunate (I’ll have to work on that…). A better way might be to engineer it to move 1mph if tapped and released, but then increase by steps of 5 if held.
Nobody expects their Outback to handle like a WRX STI and it doesn’t, however, while fairly softly suspended, when rounding corners it takes a set and sticks to the road. The full-time AWD system adjusts the power as needed front to back and side to side and just doesn’t run out of grip. It’s not a slip’n’grip like most Crossovers in this price range out there, it’s always on and always working for the driver.
While some believe that they can just add winter tires to their FWD or RWD car and get much the same performance in the winter, somehow very few seem to consider that you can also add winter tires to a Subaru or other AWD vehicle and then get even better poor weather performance.
Even on dry roads though, being able to have the power move to the wheels with the most traction can pay benefits with less over or understeer occurring as the car doesn’t channel as much power to only two wheels, rather apportioning it out to all four. All four wheels mechanically coupled together can also pay dividends in cornering and braking as opposed to two-wheel drive vehicles.
While the weather was good this entire week, I was able to find some unpaved roads on which to indulge my inner Petter Solberg and attempted to (responsibly) hoon it around a bit. However, the Subaru just stuck to the surface and didn’t really indulge me at all in my attempts to unstick it, it just curved around as if on asphalt, even though the tires (Yokohama Avid GT in 225/60-18) are neither a dirt-oriented nor a high performance asphalt tire but rather a standard touring tire and in this case a very good middle of the road choice.
I eventually gave up on my dirt pursuits before it all went pear-shaped and returned to just enjoying the Outback for being responsive, easy to see out of with good visibility and easy to understand and operate controls. I enjoyed it a lot actually, to the tune of 463 miles in my week with it.
That included a trip around the Denver suburbs for 190 of those, another trip to Cheyenne and parts east of me mainly on back highways for another 120 miles, with the balance of around 150 comprised mostly around town here. Overall the Subaru and its 18.5 gallon tank returned an average of 26.4mpg against its official rating of 23City, 30Highway with a 26Average.
While the Outback line starts with a naturally aspirated 2.5liter engined version without the large center screen at $26,645, that does include AWD and the standard ground clearance of 8.7 inches (better than some “real” SUVs such as the Explorer and Grand Cherokee), once you get to the turbo engine the starting price is $34,895.
This gets you the Onyx Edition like the one I tested here and includes the large screen, Apple CarPlay and Android/Auto, the wireless charger, Dual-Mode X-Mode (more off-road capability and settings than Single-Mode), the 18″ wheels, a 180 degree front monitor, full size spare, powered tailgate, the all-weather package consisting of heated seats front and rear, mirrors, windshield wiper de-icer, rear center console A/C outlets, retractable cargo cover, leather-covered wheel and shifter, and Starlink connected services.
Standard on all Outbacks is the EyeSight Driver Assist Tech using the double-camera feature mounted around the rear view mirror, Subaru has had this for years now and finally made it standard for the Adaptive Cruise, Lane Departure Assist, and other popular active safety items across the line. It also can monitor the driver and warn when it appears that concentration seems to be lacking, fatigue is detected, or the steering wheel is not being held.
The options on this one were few and consisted of exactly one bundled package comprising the Power Moonroof bundled with Navigation and Reverse Active Braking for $1,895. Destination and Delivery add a further $1,010 and altogether this adds up to $37,750 for it exactly as seen here.
With the way that Outbacks hold their value in general and the fact that they’ve long been one of the (and some years actually the) best-selling vehicles in Colorado, I expect to see many more new Outbacks on the road. With the turbo engine being so suited to our mountainous location I can only see their share increasing as they seem to offer what everyone seems to want these days at a range of prices and with varied enough options to appeal to many. They may not necessarily be for everyone out there, however a lot of buyers do seem to be of the repeat variety and wouldn’t have anything else.
Thank You to Subaru for sending us a new Outback Onyx Edition XT along with a tank of fuel for the week!