Update: Since this first drive was published in August 2019, we have finished testing. See the complete Subaru Outback road test.

Subaru has redesigned its popular Outback wagon for 2020, adding key new technology while retaining the wagon approach that further solidifies its reputation as the anti-SUV. In many ways, the changes are improvements—ride and handling are good—but some of that new tech was not as warmly received.

The Outback hasn't changed its looks much, though. It so closely resembles the last two generations that it’s a struggle to tell the three of them apart. 

2020 Subaru Outback driven for a review
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Lining up Outback competitors is tricky, because it can compete with two-row SUVs like the Ford Edge, Nissan Murano, and Honda Passport. But it can also be seen as an alternative to smaller SUVs, such as the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, and Subaru’s own Forester.

Before we buy our own Outback later this year, we rented a pair of new 2020 Outbacks from Subaru: a Premium model powered by the company’s 2.5-liter four cylinder and a top-shelf Touring XT, which gets the same 2.4-liter turbocharged engine shared with the larger Subaru Ascent. Here are our first impressions. 

What we drove: 2020 Subaru Outback Premium and Touring XT
Powertrains: 182-hp, 2.5-liter 4-cylinder engine (Premium); 260-hp, 2.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine (Touring XT); both paired to a CVT
MSRP: $28,895 (Premium); $39,695 (Touring XT)
Options: $2,995 (Premium: blind spot warning; rear cross traffic warning; lane change assist; moonroof; hands-free liftgate; 11.6-inch infotainment system with navigation)
Destination fee: $1,010
Total cost: $32,900 (Premium); $40,705 (Touring XT)

What We Like So Far . . .

The new Outback is based on a more substantial platform that has improved ride comfort, handling agility, and noise isolation. As with the previous model, the new Outback is very quiet inside as long as the drive is a steady cruise. However, hit the accelerator and the standard 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine and continuously variable transmission (CVT) bellow an unpleasant roar.

On the other hand, the Touring XT has a turbo engine that transforms the Outback into a quick and effortless machine with little drone from the CVT.

Handling for both models feels responsive, with little body roll in corners and decent steering response.

It’s easy to get in and out of the wagon, thanks to its elevated ride height.

Other high marks of the redesign include a very roomy rear seat and built-in roof rack cross rails that can be folded into the roof rail when not needed.

All Outbacks come standard with Subaru’s EyeSight system, a suite of advanced safety and driver assist systems. It includes forward collision warning (FCW), automatic emergency braking (AEB), lane departure warning (LDW), adaptive cruise control, and lane keeping assist (LKA). Optional features include blind spot warning (BSW), and rear cross traffic alert with automatic braking.

Last, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay compatibility are standard. 

2020 Subaru Outback interior

What We Don't . . .

The new infotainment system with a huge screen—all but the base model get an 11.6-inch infotainment screen, the largest that Subaru has ever offered—drew mixed reactions from our testers. It houses the controls for entertainment, climate functions, and vehicle settings.

That center touch screen looks like you’re playing Candy Crush, complete with child-like graphics and a rainbow of colors. Previous Outbacks had simple controls, so we’re dismayed that this new approach requires users to wade into menus and submenus to do simple tasks. For example, we felt like we had to jump through hoops to turn off the LKA function and fiddle with the micro adjustments of the seat heaters (which used to be a hard button located on the center console).

Like most new cars, the 2.5-liter model has a start/stop feature that turns off the engine at a stop to save fuel. But the restart process with the new Outback is quite abrupt and unrefined (the system in the 2.4-liter turbo version was smoother).

Last, the seats in the Premium model were just so-so, with limited adjustments and only fair support. The Touring XT’s 10-way-adjustable driver's seat comes only with two-way lumbar support; we expect more from a $40,000 car. 

What We'll Keep an Eye Out For

The 2.5 produces decent fuel economy for an all-wheel-drive wagon; the EPA estimate of 29 mpg overall and Subaru’s claim of a highway cruising range of more than 600 miles seems within reach. The Touring XT gets an EPA-rated 26 mpg overall. We’ll see how our Outback does in our own fuel-economy testing.

The Outback offers a driver-monitoring system that uses a camera and facial recognition software to monitor whether the driver is distracted or falling asleep. When we experienced this system on the Forester, we found that it could detect some head movement, such as when drivers have turned away from the road, but it could not discern risky behavior, such as gazing down at a handheld phone. 

CR's Take

For years, the Outback has been an impressive performer in Consumer Reports' tests and has delivered strong reliability and owner satisfaction in CR's exclusive auto surveys.

The new Outback looks poised to build upon its current highly rated wagon with the promise of better fuel economy, a quieter cabin, and added safety features. But we’re not sure Subaru’s latest efforts to advance infotainment technology will be a hit.

See the complete Subaru Outback road test.

2020 Subaru Outback rear