The 2020 Subaru Outback was designed to resemble a hiking shoe. Really. The lead designer and head of the Outback line at Subaru, Yoichi Hori, a thin bespectacled man who takes this job very seriously, showed all of us at the media drive last week in Fort Bragg, California, his preliminary sketches of the new car. He started with a rough drawing of a high-end hiking shoe—dynamic flexible and flashy uppers on top of a rubber and plastic sole designed for grip. He ended up with the 2020 Outback. I looked at his sketches, then at the Outback parked outside and yeah, you can see it. Does sorta look like a hiker.
Whether Hori meant it or not, this is actually a perfect analogy for what this car actually is, not just looks like. The all-new, 6th generation Outback is not a technical hiking boot meant for climbing nasty terrain that most people will never see in person, let alone to try to walk over and that would require know-how to use properly. It’s a modern hiking shoe—fast, light, and nimble with flexibility in the cabin and a sure-footed grip in the kind of terrain that your typical adventure-loving buyer frequents: snow and unmaintained dirt roads. If you want a boot that will conquer the world’s toughest summits, you’re not buying a splashy mid-tier offering from Merrell. Want to drive overland from Egypt to South Africa? Probably not gonna try that in an Outback. But for more approachable adventures, this is a comfortable, capable rig, easy to drive right out of the box.
I drove a couple of different models over two days in and around the redwood forests north of Mendocino and I can honestly say it was the most drama-free off-roading I’ve experienced in some time. Stream crossings, mud pits, deep ravines, off-camber turns—all prepared by Subaru techs, of course—were so easy in this car I would have had no problem handing over the keys to a 16-year-old kid and letting them drive the course fresh after passing their driver’s license exam. No creaking, no groaning, little body roll. If a tire slipped, the car quickly adapted to regain traction. A steep downhill was nothing with Subaru’s X-Mode off-road, uh, brain engaged. My driving partner lives in Manhattan and doesn’t own a car. Said she never feels comfortable off-road or in the backcountry, period. She ended up driving the entire second half of the day, all on nasty, forested fire roads with exposed drops. “That was almost too easy,” she said as she shut the car off at the end of the trip. “Not the course, but the car.” I agreed.
The changes over the previous generation are mostly iterative on the outside. It’s slightly longer, and Hori has replaced some curves with angles. It’s ever so slightly more pinched at the front and the rear and is starting to resemble a racy Euro luxury wagon. But it’s still unmistakenly an Outback. Bigger changes are the chassis and motor. It now rides on the Subaru Global Platform, a stiffer, lighter, and stronger frame than the previous model. It also has a turbocharged 4-banger as an option—finally—something Subaru enthusiasts have wanted for decades, and which replaces the thirsty 6-cylinder Outbacks have been sold with for ages. Subaru’s legendary all-wheel-drive system remains the same. The inside is a little more refined though is absolutely dominated by a huge 11.6-inch infotainment screen, new for this year. Previous Outbacks on the higher trim levels felt like nice Subarus. The pricier versions of the new model feel like Volvos inside.
Finally, there’s a new trim level, the Onyx XT edition, which is the “adventure” package of the car. This version comes with black wheels, black badging, a waterproof leatherette interior, and off-road computer system settings for snow and mud, and a full-sized spare. For a car that’s already aimed at the adventure crowd, building a special edition that’s even more adventure-y is a little confusing for my taste, but if you want to pony up the extra cash for the cooler wheels, I get it. (If you want to get into the weeds with the different packages and more specs about the new engine, here you go.)
I wrote a piece a few months ago about my struggle to find the “perfect” adventure car (which you should check out for suggestions—there’s a lively comment section there). My conclusion then is that it really doesn’t exist. Or that it does, but it’s whatever car you currently own. (Buddy of mine has an old Toyota Sienna van he has big plans for and I’m kinda envious). I ended up buying a 2016 Outback. Turns out, a hiking shoe is exactly what I need. More than the Tacoma I traded in to buy the Outback, the Subaru is easier to live with, gets far better mpgs, can be parked, I can see out of it, and it has a huge backseat which my infant daughter seems to love. It’s as close to the perfect adventure rig that I’ve found. I also don’t feel guilty driving it, something lots of us eco-conscious adventurers deal with.
I also think it’s a better car than the new generation, which came as quite a relief during the media drive; I feared driving home in a car that would suddenly feel inadequate. The chassis aside, which I did really like in the 2020, the 5th generation has a better blend of modern amenities and just enough analog feel to remind you this is a car built to get dirty. Here’s an example of what I mean. The 2020 Outback’s enormous touchscreen looks cool, but it’s a pain in the ass to use while driving. Engaging X-Mode, which isn’t necessarily something you employ on the fly, admittedly, requires two screen swipes and at least two screen taps to employ. It’s also not intuitively located. I spent at least five minutes idling and looking around for how to activate it before dipping into the mud. When my driving partner started getting cold on a chilly summer afternoon (ah, NorCal), we both were mystified trying to find out how to flick on the seat warmers, only to be met with a similarly complicated touchscreen challenge.
And I didn’t even get into all the computerized nanny controls. EyeSight, Subaru’s road awareness system that alerts you to lane drifting, takes over braking in some instances, has adaptive cruise control, blah blah blah—that works fine if you like it. I don’t. It’s a little disruptive to me and doesn’t always work. We drove over plenty of double-yellows without any warning chimes. There are undoubtedly electronic features I never even noticed; this is a car that recognizes your face, for pete’s sake, with an interior camera to adjust your controls and seat position to your favored setup. A little Big Brother for my liking. All this stuff seems like unnecessary intrusions into a driving experience that I enjoy because I’m the one making decisions and doing the driving. It’s a little like if your hiking shoes beeped at you when you went off trail. “Are you really sure you want to be doing that, Dave?”
Plus, it’s complicated in the new generation. On my car, X-Mode is a physical button. Same with the seat warmers. Can’t miss ’em. I can turn them on with gloved or dirty hands, something I couldn’t do in the new model. I also don’t really want a more refined interior in a car like this. There’s a slightly utilitarian vibe to mine. More flat angles, less creative design. That’s perfect. The new models are gorgeous but are edging a bit into the territory of a car I don’t want to take somewhere to get dirty.
I hope Subaru doesn’t continue down the road of luxurifying their lineup. They’re kinda the only game in town for good-sized, reasonably capable rigs that aren’t trucks or bloated SUVs. I would line up to buy a manual transmission Outback with fewer bells and whistles, but the same capability, for way less money. Seriously. Gimme a stripped-down base model with steel wheels and a rubberized interior and not only would I be all over it, I have about 50 buddies who would be too. The base model Outback is nearly $30,000 at this point. Until they do offer a cheaper, less computerized version, the 5th generation might actually be the more attractive buy for some drivers. Same off-road chops, just a little less flash. But that’s me.
That said, the new generation Outbacks are a great choice if you need space, don’t want a truck, and get into the rough stuff sometimes. If I wasn’t in love with my 2016, I’m sure I’d be tempted. Subaru knows their market very well. “Outback go anywhere” Hori said when describing what he hears from people who’ve bonded with their Outback over the years. He said people tell him the Outback is like a friend. The car is built for people who love getting outside and into some stunning places, but aren’t professional explorers, and who need their car to do more than one thing; get groceries and bust through snow, not just climb over rocks. You know, like a hiking shoe, basically.
Photos courtesy of Subaru.