no rules, just right

The 2020 Subaru Outback Touring XT Is an Icon Improved


April 30, 2020 Cars By Photo by Chandler Bondurant
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Brand: Subaru
Product: Outback Touring XT
Release Date: Summer 2019
Price (as Tested): $40,705
From: subaru.com

It may look familiar, but the latest edition of the Subaru Outback –the lifted all-wheel-drive wagon that pioneered the crossover concept 25 years ago — is practically all-new. Of course, making it look so familiar was a very intentional decision on Subaru’s part; after all, the Outback has been the heart and soul of the brand for those two and a half decades, as well as one of the profit engines driving the company forward. Indeed, all the brand’s best-selling vehicles in the U.S. — the Forester, Ascent and Crosstrek — all ape the same basic formula that the Outback developed: a two-box wagon that drives like a car while offering the off-road prowess of an SUV. 

Indeed, much of the car industry as a whole has come around to see the value in the Outback method. Every compact and midsize family crossover owes a debt to the Subaru…which effectively means that every other car sold in America today does. It’s why we named the new Outback the most influential car of last year’s New York Auto Show; its evolutionary design shows just how relevant and timeless the ideas it presents are.

Of course, it is still just a car. So to find out how it handles the real world, we took it out for a week-long spin around New York to see how it handles urban life, rural back roads, highway miles and even the occasional bit of dirt work.

What We Like

Many vehicles try to combine the best of car and SUV, but few succeed on the level of the Outback, which packs as much space and off-road capability as many sport-utes without the fuel-economy pain. Granted, going for the more potent turbocharged flat-four found in the XT model takes a bit of that advantage away, but even its 30 mpg on the highway betters plenty of SUVs. 32.5 cubic feet of cargo space lies behind the second row of seats; if that’s not enough, which is sure to be a rare occurrence, you can flop the back bench down and create 75.7 cubic feet of room. 

Much like the mechanically-all-but-identical Legacy, the top-shelf Touring’s interior is cushier than many cars costing twice as much, with soft leather and plush thrones for the front two occupants. Some of the most powerful seat heaters in the industry sit at their command, as well, with a heated wheel for the driver to boot. (The rear outboard occupants get heated seats, as well.) And the iPad-sized vertical touchscreen is a delightful high-tech accent that not only solves Subaru’s biggest recent problem, but ties the interior together much like The Dude’s rug did his living room

And while we didn’t have a chance to do any real off-roading, we can say that the Outback handles dirt, gravel and other poor terrain with the confidence — nay, aplomb — you’d expect from the brand’s advertisements.

Watch Out For

If you consider Subies playful driver’s cars, the Outback’s dynamics are bound to disappoint. It drives more like a Buick than a rally-ready WRX, bobbing and rolling into curves in a way that feels downright lazy. Even with the bigger turbocharged engine of the XT version, it’s hardly fast; adequate would be perhaps the best descriptor for the acceleration, but the fact that it’s paired to a CVT that’s quick to find the tallest gear ratio it can and reluctant to kick down minus a heavy boot means accessing the power takes more work than it should. (Luckily, you can take manual control using the paddle shifters to cycle through fixed ratios as though it were a conventional transmission, which we highly recommend doing.)

And while Subaru’s commitment to safety is applause-worthy, the overprotective active safety features intervene with the buzz-killing sternness of an Austrian nanny. The automatic rear braking setup makes backing into tight parallel parking spots nearly impossible, as it jams on the brakes with panic force even when you’re traveling at sub-speedometer speed and have a foot or more space to spare; likewise, the driver monitoring system squawks when you so much as raise a hand to scratch your scalp and block its view of your eyes for a moment. If you take any pride in your driving, you’ll probably want to disable as many of the active safety functions as possible; trouble is, you’ll have to dive deep into the infotainment menus for many of them.

Oh, speaking of those nannies: this car really, really does not like to oversteer. Attempts to kick the tail out in the dirt for a photo shoot were met with nasty, occasionally-frightening plowing towards the cameraman. We tried using the AWD’s X-Mode to distribute the power more evenly towards the back axle, but it turns out that it kicks off at 18 mph — which does you no good when your wheels are spinning fast enough to think they’re going 30.

Not pictured: me successfully doing donuts.

Other Options

Buick’s Regal TourX remains, for now, the closest direct rival to the Outback’s upper trims, basically copying Subaru’s idea and applying it to a European-designed midsize wagon. Compact crossovers like the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 threaten the Outback from the more-traditional crossover ranks, while the Forester presents an intramural challenge.

Verdict

If the Outback’s car-like profile and heritage had you hoping it would be more fun to drive than your average SUV, well, we’re sorry to disappoint. Anyone seeking driving joy from their all-wheel-drive soft-roader is better off looking elsewhere, like the Mazda CX-5. If that’s not your overriding priority, though, the latest Outback is hard to beat — on safety, versatility or capability.

And don’t feel like you need to drop $40K for all this goodness, either. If you’ve resigned yourself to not going fast and can live without leather seats, the well-equipped naturally-aspirated Outback Premium can be yours for less than $30,000. Which, in turn, leaves you enough money for a used Miata for those times you need some zoom in your life.

Subaru provided this product for review.

A version of this story originally appeared in a print issue of Gear Patrol Magazine. Subscribe today.

The 2020 Subaru Legacy Is the Safe Choice in Sedans, for Better and for Worse

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Remember fun, sporty Subie sedans like the Legacy 2.5GT? Yeah, this ain’t one of them. Read the Story

Note: Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.

Will Sabel Courtney

Will Sabel Courtney is Gear Patrol’s Motoring Editor, formerly of The Drive and RIDES Magazine. You can often find him test-driving new cars in New York City, cursing the slow-moving traffic surrounding him.

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