You couldn’t miss the Subaru booth at the 2019 New York International Auto Show. Designed as a simulacrum of a national park, it featured a two-story treehouse towering above the show floor, a working water feature, an NFL stadium-worth of giant screens, and enough fake rocks and plants to populate a Rainforest Cafe.
Then again, considering the big news the carmaker had, an eye-catching display seemed warranted: This year’s NYIAS saw Subaru unveil the 2020 Outback, the sixth-generation version of the jacked-up station wagon that’s been serving as a dependable four-season companion for New Englanders and Northwesterners for two and a half decades.
And, even in an auto show packed with hypercars and electric vehicles and mighty SUVs, it’s the car that deserves the title of the most significant vehicle to debut at the auto show. Why? Simple: It blazed the trail for the fleets of crossover SUVs that have come to dominate America’s roadways.
Before the Outback arrived in 1994, Subaru was known for being the quirky Japanese carmaker that didn’t quite fit in—at least, not as well as the likes of Honda or Toyota. With the elevated, all-wheel-drive station wagon, though, it found a new angle: the quirky Japanese carmaker that fit in with outdoorsy types. Offering the ground clearance and four-wheel traction of an SUV and the fuel economy and drivability of a family car, it split the difference between them almost perfectly—at least, for many consumers. Americans loved it, and bought it in droves; as Subaru of America’s head of marketing once put it, “[The Outback] saved this company.”
Other carmakers noticed how well the Outback was doing, and soon enough began cranking out their own car-based (or car-like) all-road vehicles—propmpting buyers to snap them up in droves, as well. While they may have sat higher off the ground or been branded as SUVs rather than elevated wagons, there’s no mistaking their similarities to this Subaru. In 2018, four of the 10 best-selling passenger vehicles in America—the Toyota RAV4, the Nissan Rogue and Rogue Sport, the Honda CR-V, and the Chevrolet Equinox—all use four-cylinder power and unibody construction and occupy a footprint about as large as a family sedan—the same basic recipe the Outback pioneered five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Unlike some carmakers with rich product histories, though, Subaru isn’t sitting on its laurels. Which brings us to the other reason the 2020 Subaru Outback is the most significant car on the NYIAS floor this year: It also points to where the automotive industry is going in the next few years.
As is becoming more and more common across the industry, a larger engine has been replaced with a downsized, turbocharged one—in this case, the 2.4-liter flat-four that subs in for the 3.6-liter boxer-six found in the outgoing version. The infotainment system takes a Tesla-esque leap into the future, with all 2020 Outbacks bar the base model receiving an 11.6-inch touchscreen oriented vertically like an iPad. (As these setups take on greater and greater importance—and people demand progress in the form of ever-growing sizes—don’t be surprised to see more carmakers opt for this tablet-style layout.)
And while it may not be able to drive itself—not that any new car on sale today truly can—it offers one of the most advanced suites of driver assistance systems on sale today in the form of the standard EyeSight Driver Assist Technology setup, which includes adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping and lane-centering assist, and active braking to help prevent rear-end collisions. Top-trim versions also receive the Driver Focus system that uses a camera to make sure whoever’s behind the wheel is awake and alert, while also using facial recognition to save seating positions and climate control preferences. Blind-spot warning, rear cross traffic alert, and a camera system that displays a fish-eye 180-degree view of the road ahead on the giant touchscreen are optional. And, in a move that we’d love to see more automakers pursue, there’s a new adventure-themed Onyx Edition XT trim, which adds on goodies like durable, water-repellent upholstery, an off-road-optimized X-Mode for the all-wheel-drive system, and a full-size spare tire.
Between smart, consumer-focused new ideas like those and the Outback’s proven, much-appreciated qualities, there’s little question about it: Even at an auto show packed with futuristic concepts and groundbreaking machines, this Subaru deserves to be seen as the most important car of this year’s NYIAS.