Subaru’s Outback wagon is known for being able to get you there, just not very quickly. It was one of the first high-riding wagons with all-wheel-drive, the automotive critter that’s called a crossover today.
It was tenacious, rugged, and slow.
Now, it’s quick.
You can get it with a new 2.4 liter turbocharged engine that’s nearly as powerful as the engine in the high-performance WRX.
And with almost twice the ground clearance.
So you’ll still get where you’re going.
What It Is
The Outback is a full-size wagon, which all by itself makes it scarce. There aren’t many wagons left, period. This one comes standard with all-wheel-drive and can be ordered with a high-performance turbocharged engine.
These two attributes make it unique.
Prices start at $26,645 for the base trim with an updated version of the 2.5 liter engine that used to be the Outback’s only engine.
The new 2.4 liter turbo engine comes standard in the XT, which stickers for $34,895 to start.
With a top of the line XT Touring, this baby sits with the turbo engine, an 11.6 inch touchscreen, heated steering wheel, Nappa leather seats, insulated side glass and a full-size real spare tire (something that’s hard to find anywhere) stickers for $39,695.
The Outback gets a full makeover for 2020.
In addition to the new turbo 2.4 liter engine, the output of the Outback’s standard 2.5 liter engine has been kicked up a few, and so has its gas mileage.
Back seat legroom has also increased, and cargo capacity decreased, but not really. In fact, a new way of measuring cargo capacity was used starting this year that makes it seem the new Outback has slightly less cargo capacity than the previous Outback.
It’s similar (for those who remember) to the changeover from rating horsepower according to a “net” vs. “gross” standard. The “gross” standard made it seem that a given engine was more powerful by measuring its output on a stand, without a production exhaust system connected and without engine-powered (and power-sapping) accessories such as alternators, power steering pumps and AC compressors installed. The “net” method, which is the method used since 1972, rates an engine’s power as installed in the car, with everything hooked up.
The-new-for-2020 cargo-capacity rating method is of a piece. The actual space isn’t less, but the way the space is measure has changed.
A wagon, still.
As capable as ever, and quicker.
As unique as ever.
What’s Not So Good
2.4 liter engine is only available in the higher-priced trims.
No version of the new Outback is available with a manual transmission.
Every version of the new Outback comes standard with a pushy suite of driver “assists,” including one that uses facial recognition tech.
Under The Hood
Last year’s Outback came standard with Subaru’s solid but slow-pokey 2.5 liter engine—without a turbo and much horsepower.
It’s still the Outback’s standard engine. And it’s a bit more powerful engine. Some tweaks raise the output to 182 hp from 175 last year, a solid number either way for a four cylinder engine without a turbo — and without any chance you’ll ever need to repair or replace a turbo.
It also uses a bit less gas—26 city, 33 highway vs. 25 city, 32 highway posted by last year’s 2.5 liter-equipped Outback.
But the big news is the Outback’s newly available 2.4 liter engine has a turbo. It’s a lot more powerful, and only uses a little more gas.
It makes 260 horsepower—nearly as much horsepower as the high-performance WRX’s 268 hp engine—and manages to deliver 23 city, 30 highway, within the margin of error vs. the standard 2.5 liter engine.
Both engines are also boxer engines, which means that instead of the usual four-in-a-row, you have two one side and two on the other side. Laid flat and opposing each other horizontally rather than standing up vertically. Instead of all four pistons pushing down on the crankshaft, two push across the crankshaft while the other two push back in the opposite direction.
Hence a horizontally opposed boxer engine.
There are several advantages to this layout: the first being that it’s a naturally balanced layout. Two of the four cylinders push one way balance out the other two pushing back, from the opposite direction. This makes it unnecessary to hang a heavy balancer on the crankshaft to counteract the imbalances of four pistons all pushing down on the crankshaft.
This also means a lighter engine. It’s a more compact engine that fits more readily in a tight engine bay and leaves more room for hands and tools in the engine bay.
Another advantage is weight distribution. The boxer engine sits much lower in the car—lowering the car’s center of gravity. The engine’s weight is also equally distributed across the car’s centerline.
This improves the car’s balance and helps with traction.
There is one potential disadvantage, however. Oil follows gravity. When an upright engine is turned off, the oil flows straight down, into the pan, away from the cylinder heads. When an engine lays flat, the oil tends to stay where put in the cylinder heads.
This can make the boxer engine a more leak-prone engine, and there is the possibility of oil pooling around the valve stems in the heads. Over time, these stems can get crudded-up and sealing problems sometimes ensue, leading to oil burning problems. This inherent susceptibility can be compensated for by per-the-book oil/filter changes (clean oil flows better, doesn’t gunk up as easily) and use of nothing less than the oil (viscosity and grade) recommended by Subaru.
Both of the Outback’s engines are paired with what Subaru styles an “eight-speed” continuously variable (CVT) automatic transmission. In fact, it has infinite speeds, being a CVT. The “speeds” (Subaru means gears) are simulated. There are no gears to change in a CVT, which uses a variable band/pulley system to vary the ratio at any given moment, continuously, in response to road speed and acceleration requirements.
CVTs are more efficient (which partially accounts for the Soobie’s good gas mileage) and very smooth—precisely because they don’t shift. But many people don’t like the lack of shift feel of the CVT and dislike the characteristic CVT noise, especially when the driver floors the accelerator. The typical CVT will respond by letting the engine rev to where it makes maximum power, which for most engines is at a high RPM, often near the engine’s redline. It will then hold the engine at that RPM (rather than downshifting to the next gear, which isn’t there) until the driver backs off the accelerator. This is normal, and more efficient than the escalator up (and down) shifting of a traditional (and geared) automatic. But it also makes for busier-feeling and sounding acceleration.
So Subaru programmed the feel of shifts but without the shock. Or the revs. You’ll see the tach rise and fall but won’t feel the lurch forward and back that accompanies upshifts in a car with a conventional automatic that actually does shift.
On The Road
The Outback has always been good off-road. Now it can tear up the road. And without looking like it has that on its mind!
Unlike the WRX, this one looks like that’s all it has on its mind.
The Outback runs a lower profile, which lets you run it harder (and more often) with less risk that you’ll end up wearing an orange jumpsuit, picking up litter by the side of the road.
With the 2.4 liter engine, it’s almost as quick as the famously speedy WRX. But because it comes standard with 8.7 inches of ground clearance vs. 4.9 in the WRX, it’s also much less likely to get stuck.
Out in the woods, Outbacks are as popular as 4×4 trucks because they can go almost anywhere a 4×4 truck can go. Just without the $70 fill-ups and the 15 MPGs.
Speaking of fuelish things… .
The Outback with the 2.5 liter engine may not be WRX-speedy, but it can travel more than 600 miles on a full tank, which is easily twice as far as any electric car travel on a full charge. And the Outback can be refueled and ready to travel another 600 miles in less than five minutes, as opposed to several hours for the electric car.
The Outback’s ride is what you’d expect from a big wagon and much more lower-back and road-trip friendly than the WRX’s, which is tuned for the track.
And because it is a big wagon and not a big truck or SUV, the Outback is easy to enter and exit. It has about the same step-in height as a car, despite its almost-truck/near-SUV ground clearance.
Its roof is also low enough that you can reach it without a ladder. This makes using the standard roof-racks to carry stuff much more realistic.
At The Curb
The new Outback doesn’t look radically different from the previous Outback even though, it’s essentially an all-new and slightly larger Outback.
It shares its platform, or basic underlying structure, with Subaru’s full-size Legacy sedan and can be considered a wagonized version of the Legacy with more ground clearance.
And much more room for cargo.
There’s only 15.1 cubic feet of cargo space in the Legacy’s trunk vs. 32.5 cubic feet behind the Outback’s second row. With the second row folded, the Outback’s cargo room expands to 75.7 cubic feet, almost five times as much cargo space, and without significantly increasing the overall footprint.
Subaru has also made the new Outback’s backseats roomier. Legroom expands to 39.5 inches vs. 38.1 inches previously.
The wagon layout is also a nice departure from the crossover SUV layout. You ride higher up, but you’re still lower down, as far as the car itself goes. Subaru seems to be the only car company that can sell wagons.
A drive in this one goes a long way toward explaining why.
One thing detracts from what’s otherwise a hard-to-fault car. And it may not be a fault that bothers you.
All Outback trims come standard with what Subaru calls a DriverFocus Distraction Mitigation System that uses facial recognition tech to identify who’s behind the wheel and whether they’re falling asleep behind the wheel. All according to eye movement and other parameters.
This is technologically amazing. But some drivers may not want to be recognized — facially or otherwise.
Another tech feature, one that most drivers probably will like, is a new app called Chimani that provides a field guide to 400 national parks, written by local travel experts.
The Outback is the first 2020 model car that offers this feature.
Another feature the new Outback offers is more towing capacity. Models with the base 2.5 liter engine can tow up to 2,700 pounds, but those with the new turbo engine can pull as much as 3,500 lbs.
You can get more towing capacity in a same-sized SUV or crossover SUV, but good luck finding it in a same-sized wagon.
The Bottom Line
Getting there no matter the weather or the road is good. Getting there a little faster is never bad!
*** Photo courtesy of Caricos
* * *
The Eric Peters Car Review is sponsored by the NMA Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting your interests as a motorist and citizen through the multi-faceted approach of research, education, and litigation. The Foundation is able to offer this assistance through tax-deductible contributions.