I drove a $41,000 Subaru Outback to see if the ultimate SUV alternative is still the king of suburban wagons — here's the verdict


2020 Subaru Outback

  • I tested a $40,705 Subaru Outback Touring XT, nicely equipped and sporting a snappy 2.4-liter, turbocharged, 260-horsepower engine and a surprisingly capable continuously variable transmission.
  • Subaru has been steadily perfecting its mighty wagon since the mid-1990s.
  • The sixth generation is the best yet.
  • I was delighted by the Outback’s versatility and comfort — but also thrilled by how much fun it was to drive.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

While the Subaru Outback might seem like a default option for families who just aren’t ready (or willing) to buy an SUV, the bestselling wagon in the US brings a bit more to table than it initially lets on.

For one thing, the redesigned Outback is quite fun to drive. But more on that later.

The Outback first hit the streets in the mid 1990s, and for most of its existence, has been seen as an anti-SUV, offering much of the practicality of that segment, but without the jacked-up ride height (although the Outback does ride on a slightly lifted suspension) and the negative impressions that SUVs can deliver.  

With crossover SUVs gobbling up market share, the Outback’s viability is downright impressive. It doesn’t just exist; it’s popular in a segment that isn’t in America. Subaru, after all, sold more than 180,000 Outbacks in the US last year. 

Effectively, the wagon market in America is a Subaru Outback market — hence the importance of getting the sixth generation of the vehicle right.

The Outback has always been one of my personal favorites, so I was delighted when Subaru flipped me the keys to a 2020 Touring XT version, which I spent a week piloting through its natural habitat: the suburbs of New Jersey.

Here’s how it went:

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My 2020 Subaru Outback Touring XT was $40,705, well-optioned, and handsomely attired in a “Magnetite Gray Metallic” paint job. (The cheapest Outback available is about $27,000.)

Wagons are, of course, the perfect sets of wheels: They combine sedan performance and comfort with SUV versatility. They are, therefore, deeply unpopular in the SUV-mad United States.

The Outback is an exception — the exception, in fact. It seems that anybody who doesn’t want an SUV buys Subie’s now-legendary wagon.

I wouldn’t say the Subaru Outback is a great-looking ride. It never has been. I can think of several other wagons that are notably more attractive. But appearances don’t mean much in Outback country.

The fascia is where the action is for the Outback. The LED headlights offer the only properly sleek design cue on the entire car, and the grille provides a moderate sense of purposefulness thanks to that bold chrome bar that supports to the Subaru badge.

The integrated spoiler on the hatch adds a sporty aspect, but it does nothing for the roofline, thanks to those relatively hulking roof rails.

The Outback badging is suitably low-key …

… and echoed at the wagon’s rear.

My tester featured Subaru’s highly regarded symmetrical all-wheel-drive system, considered one of the best available on a mass-market vehicle.

Viewed directly, the wagon’s hatch is rather fetching, but I think the taillights are a bit overdone. On balance, the new Outback isn’t much of a visual update on the fifth-generation model.

Cargo volume is where the Outback shines, as it always has. Raise the hatch, and you’ll find 32.5 cubic feet of capacity. I could get two weeks’ worth of groceries in there, and load up enough gear for a week on the road.

The Outback, version 6.0, has gained a few cubes of cargo space and also expanded its total footprint.

I know, I know — it doesn’t look like much. But the 2020 Outback Touring XT’s 2.4-liter, four-cylinder, turbocharged boxer engine is a wonderful mill. It makes 260 horsepower with 277 foot-pounds of torque, channeling the oomph through …

… a shockingly capable continuously variable transmission. This is the best CVT I’ve ever driven; it does an amazing impression of an eight-speed transmission (and offers that as a fallback in manual mode).

The interior of my tester featured a rather appealing black-and-baseball-glove-brown color scheme (Nappa leather!). The front seats were exceptionally comfy — and also hearted and cooled. The steering wheel was heated as well, all of which are good things in the wintry Northeast.

The rear seats are a bench design and could handle three passengers, although I never had more than two. Legroom is respectable.

As far as the standards of 2020 go, the moonroof is a subdued affair — I’m used to vast portal to the heavens on luxury rides — but it does provide a welcome dose of natural light.

It’s hard to complain about the Outback’s interior. it looks great — and more importantly, once it gets roughed up a little from everyday use, it should still look fine.

The instrument cluster and multifunction, leather-wrapped steering wheel are nothing new, but …

… Subaru has brought a quite large, 11.6-inch touchscreen and its Starlink infotainment system to the party.

It’s undeniably impressive. Carmakers such as Ram and Volvo have embraced the Tesla-inspired big screen, moving much of what was formerly controlled with buttons and knobs to the tablet-esque realm.

I appreciated this when using the effective GPS navigation system, but …

… managing climate controls on cold days while wearing gloves was, to be frank, a real downer.

Overall, user friendliness suffers with the Starlink setup, but the system handles all of its duties as it should. Bluetooth and device pairing are effortless, there are USB and AUX ports for connectivity and charging, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are available, the Subie had a wifi hotspot, and my tester came with a trial subscription to SiriusXM satellite radio. 

The 2020 Outback has a few driver-assistance features worth mentioning. The advanced adaptive cruise control provides steering assist and lane-departure control, as well as a driver-alertness monitoring system.

So what’s the verdict?

The Outback is back and better than ever. Without hesitation — in fact, with enthusiasm — I can recommend this fantastic wagon and argue that it’s the best SUV-alternative on the market. 

As far as versatility goes, the Outback is second to none. There are snazzier wagons around — the Jaguar Sportbrake leaps to mind — but the Outback combines all of its well-known virtues into a refreshed package that truly ought to make suburban SUV aspirants at last briefly question their choices.

The shocker for me, however, was in how much fun the Touring XT trim, with its punchy 2.4-liter turbo mill, was to drive. The CVT transmission was easily the best I’ve ever sampled — I’m no foe of CVTs, but I generally admit that they degrade the driver experience in favor of improving fuel economy. Not so with the Outback, which I slung into corners with abandon, savoring the torque-vectoring thrills of that AWD setup and enjoying the firmed-up platform that this wagon now sits on (it’s a new global architecture for Subaru). 

The 0-to-60-mph sprint is achieved in around six seconds, which is commendable for a vehicle designed to haul around soccer gear and take the dogs to the vet. The Outback put a smile on my face and kept it there — I didn’t even get to sample the car’s off-road skills, for which it has a solid reputation. 

The driver-assistance technology pointed toward a more autonomous future for Subie, but to be perfectly honest, I didn’t test those features all that much. I was having too much fun doing the driving myself. In the end, I’d say that the systems are about as good as what I’ve previous experienced on cars at this price point.

And about that price! For $40,000, you’re getting a whole lot of vehicle in the Outback Touring XT. Subaru has a magnificent track record for reliability, longevity, and safety, so one could plausibly buy this thing and essentially forget about the family’s mobility needs for a decade, possibly two, maybe three.

True, thanks to the robust AWD system and the engine, Subies aren’t known for delivering the best fuel economy. But I worked my way through only about half a tank in a week of driving, and the combined city-highway mpg number for me came out just north of 20, so it wasn’t too bad.

For what it’s worth, the Outback Touring XT is also rated to tow 3,500 pounds, which is more than adequate to hitch up a trailer, should that be required. Your college freshman should be grateful, as should family members who like to go camping on the weekends.

I currently own a Toyota Prius and RAV4 hybrid, but obviously as a suburbanite with three kids, I’m smack in the middle of the Outback demographic. It’s vitally important for Subaru to keep this vehicle relevant to my needs, and to the needs of others like me.

And with the sixth generation of its ever-popular wagon, Subaru has done just that.