Payne review: Subaru’s Outback spiffs up

Posted by Talbot Payne on August 9, 2019

The 2020 Subaru Outback Onyx is a new, $35k trim that comes in a variety of colors - the all-black look is particularly appealing.

The 2020 Subaru Outback Onyx is a new, $35k trim that comes in a variety of colors – the all-black look is particularly appealing. (Photo: Subaru, Subaru)

What iconic mid-size SUV is made in the Midwest, appeals to luxury and mainstream buyers alike, and can climb trees?

If you answered the Jeep Grand Cherokee, you’d be right. If you said Subaru Outback, you’d also be right.

Assembled in Lafayette, Indiana, with the American market in mind, the roomy ‘Ru is comfortable in driveways from middle-class Ferndale to upscale Grosse Pointe. For 2020, the Outback blurs the luxury-mainstream line even further with a finely crafted interior and 11.6-inch Tesla-like console screen that will knock your boots off.

Warning to traditional Subaru mud-kickers who have left their Outbacks dirty because, well, they weren’t much to look at to begin with: Invest in rubber mats front to back so you don’t soil the handsome interior. Get the Outback’s snazzy new Onyx exterior trim and you’ll want to start washing the exterior regularly, too. It’s that nice.

Unlike Jeep, which traces its legacy to 1941, the Outback’s meteoric rise to icon started more recently with … well, the Legacy.

If Jeep saved America in World War II, the Outback saved Subaru in the ’90s. The Japanese brand’s Legacy was struggling in the sedan market against mega-sellers like Camry, Accord and Taurus when a group of Subaru engineers threw some rugged cladding on a Legacy’s rocker panels, lifted the chassis and called it an Outback.

Aussie Paul “Crocodile Dundee” Hogan swaggered in with his endorsement, and Subaru was reborn.

Soon the made-for-America Japanese ute with the Australian badge was selling like granola. The unibody ute pioneered a crossover boom that would eventually sweep the nation.

Subaru is now synonymous with Outback’s ethic: an all-wheel drive brand for people who love the outdoors. The demographic cuts across class lines. Up North skiers head to the slopes in Outbacks. Ann Arbor college kids pack Impreza hatches for the holidays. Motorheads like me buy Subaru WRX STIs to terrorize the twisties.

For the Outback, this translates into a broad income demographic pushing into the six-figures. Want badge bandwidth? My Outback-owning friends range from young, bark-chewing writers who value the SUV’s height off-road — to a retired ex-BMW banker who values its height for ease-of-access.

In 2010 the Outback grew up, becoming more irresistible as a mid-size ute priced at $35,000 in the sweet spot of the U.S. market. Sales climbed to 182,000 last year.

But the sixth-generation 2020 Outback may be the most significant upgrade yet.

Adopting Subaru’s new Global Platform, stylish Onyx trim and gob-smacking interior, Outback moves beyond its one-dimensional, off-road utility reputation to an attractive cruiser that looks as good in the city as in the country.

I am already familiar with the Global Platform from regular use of my wife’s Impreza hatch, the first GP-equipped Subaru, circa 2017. With more chassis rigidity and structural reinforcement, Impreza’s stiffness is noticeable, making it competitive with class-leading athletes like the VW Golf and Mazda 3.

Its benefits are magnified on the bigger, taller Outback which sits 8.7 inches off the ground to navigate the rocks and gulleys of the great outdoors (and Michigan potholes).

On northern California’s twisted Route 1 with more switchbacks than Joe Biden’s political campaign, the Outback grew in confidence under my lead foot after I got used to its too-light steering. Tree-huggers will be anxious to get to the outback, and the sturdy SUV encourages quick commutes.

Some will be disappointed that the Subie has buried its torquey 256-horse boxer-6 for the zippier 260-horse, 2.4-liter turbo-boxer 4 shared with the three-row Ascent SUV. The turbo mill has more lag but delivers 20 percent better fuel economy. A 182-horse, 2.5-liter flat 4-banger is plenty competent.

The good news is Subaru has also buried its droning CVT transmission for a state-of-the-art CVT that is remarkably quiet with smooth, electronically stepped shifts to mimic a cog-swapper. Subie throws in paddle shifters to up the sporty vibe.

But personality will only get you so far if you’ve got the body of a roll-top desk.

The Outback has always looked ungainly to me — a thickly clad station wagon teetering nearly a foot off the ground with a front overhang the size of a Frank Lloyd Wright house. So I was surprised to find my eyes lingering on Outback’s new Onyx package. Subaru vets will know it as the Sport package on other vehicles.

With lots of mascara and 18-inch black boots, my silver Onyx tester was a looker. The more-sculpted body stampings complement the bulky, lower cladding giving the Outback the appearance of a running shoe on wheels. Onyx may sound exotic, but it’s a middle trim starting at $35,905, meaning you don’t have to pay a premium for the best-looking Outback.

Slip inside and the Outback wows.

Gone is the conservative, blocky decorating. Dash lines curve, door lines slash and the huge vertical tablet anchors the center console. Unlike big screens from other automakers (looking at you, Volvo), the screen is complemented by knobs and the graphics are big as a children’s book for easy viewing.

The Global Platform’s EyeSight system is armed with a ridiculous suite of standard features including 4G WiFi, smartphone connectivity apps, adaptive cruise-control and Level Two autonomous driving that was more advanced than the $165,000 Mercedes G-wagen I recently drove.

The Onyx trim gets a leather-like urethane that shames the mono-black interiors common in luxury cars these days. The seats are a subtle mix of gray and black highlighted by green stitching. Yum.

Still think you want to spend $15,000 more on a comparable premium ute?

The rear seats swallowed my 6-foot-5 knees. A panoramic roof is missing, perhaps to make room for the biggest roof racks you’ve ever seen with tie-down points and concealed cross arms that can hold down an Everest base camp. Rear cargo area matches that of a Grand Cherokee.

With so much ground clearance, I explored the far reaches of north California’s ATV trails, the signature Subie all-wheel drive system digging through dirt like a giant groundhog.

Despite its crossover appeal to luxury buyers, Outback has resisted the premium-price temptation. The fashionable Onyx comes in a whopping $10,000 cheaper than a comparably sized/equipped Chevy Blazer, and $20,000 under its outdoorsy Scandinavian peer, the Volvo XC60.

All that and it boasts the best five-year, cost-to-own numbers recorded by Kelley Blue Book. The icon just got more iconic.

2020 Subaru Outback

Vehicle type: Front-engine, all-wheel drive, five-passenger SUV

Price: Base price $27,655 including $1,010 destination charge ($34,455 Limited and $36,905 Onyx as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter direct-injection boxer 4-cylinder; 2.4-liter turbocharged boxer 4-cylinder)

Power: 182 horsepower, 176 pound-feet of torque (2.5-liter); 260 horsepower, 277 pound-feet torque (2.4-liter turbo-4)

Transmission: CVT with 8-speed manual-shift mode

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.5 sec. (est.); maximum towing, 3,500 pounds

Weight: 3,634 pounds base (3,884 Onyx as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA: 26 city/33 highway/29 combined (2.5-liter); 23 city/30 highway/26 combined (2.4-liter turbo-4)

Report card

Highs: Premium interior; stylish Onyx trim value

Lows: A lotta black plastic cladding; miss the flat-6 grunt

Overall: 4 stars

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