I have to admit, slipping behind the wheel of the 2020 Subaru Outback made me feel a bit like the character Norm from the ’80s TV show “Cheers.”
Every time I entered the vehicle, it treated me like an old friend, instantly adjusting my seat and audio presets. It even called out a greeting in the behind-the-wheel gauges, welcoming me to my “seat at the bar.”
I know cars aren’t animate, but the Subaru Outback has an overall enveloping and comfortable environment that makes me feel like I belong there. And no matter how much time passes between test drives, it always welcomes me back.
Kind of like that local watering hole where everyone knows your name, and they’re always glad you came.
Familiarity & comfort
Granted the greetings and welcome have a lot to do with the available Driver Focus technology, which uses facial recognition to restore your presets if another driver messed them up. But even without that bit of gussied up tech, the Outback still feels like an old friend.
The seats are squishy and comfortable, supportive without being over bolstered and padded in all the right places. They’re the kind of seats in which you could wait out rush-hour traffic or take a cross-country road trip.
Subaru also doesn’t do anything super crazy with the hard controls for audio and HVAC. The most important buttons and dials are still buttons and dials, including volume, tuning and heat controls.
And while there is a barrage of buttons on the steering wheel, they are clearly labeled and placed in logical locations, so you’re not left thinking, “what in the heck does this do?” or “why in the heck is this right here?”
The point of all this: Sitting in the driver’s seat isn’t like sitting in the cockpit of the space shuttle for the first time. Everything is familiar, intuitive and easy to use.
A couple of irksome things
On social media, I got a lot of people who commented that the large screen was visual overload, but for the most part I liked how it looked and operated. The big buttons speak to the comfort and familiarity again as they’re large enough to tap without looking away from the road for too long.
Additionally, the bottom portion HVAC screen is separate from the top navigation/map/settings screen, and they operate on two different processors, though the screens are integrated. This helps with a seamless operation, preventing screen freeze ups because it’s trying to do too many things at once.
So, for me. The screen was a non-issue, but I could see how some people might take issue with it.
The other problem I encountered with the Subaru Outback is with the unfinished bits, complete with fluffy cotton-like materials popping out of the floor, underneath the front seats. Not a huge deal – especially if you’re an average-sized driver or passenger – because you’ll likely never see it. I only noticed it because I’m short and have a far-forward driving position.
But it bothered me because it’s such a non sequitur. The Outback is an incredibly finished vehicle. To have that bit of fluff was, well, irksome.
Aside from the under-seat cotton issue, the 2020 Subaru Outback is a well-done vehicle. For this test period I was in the top-tier Touring XT trim, and everything from the leather to the stitching on the dash was attractive and up-level.
The brown-and-black interior combo was downright handsome, and how it was all put together was top notch. I was particularly impressed with the soft-touch surfaces in the back seat. A lot of automakers forget about that (or make the conscious decision to ignore it) because it’s usually children back there.
Subaru doesn’t do that.
While I was driving the Touring XT trim this time around, I did have the opportunity to drive a few lower trims at the press preview, and the same level of attention and detail was present – even without the leather seats.
A few other nice details on the Touring XT trim included heated-and-ventilated front seats, heated rear seats, a 180-degree front-view monitor, dual rear USB charge ports, hands-free liftgate and the perforated Nappa leather seats.
Plus, I’d like to point out that the Outback is incredibly quiet inside. With the front sound-insulated glass and sound-deadening soft materials, very little outside noise makes it into the cabin.
I’m a sucker for gadgets, and the Subaru Outback has them in abundance.
I’ve already mentioned the Driver Focus feature, and if you’re not familiar, the tl;dr version is this: It’s facial recognition software that scans your face – like a current-gen iPhone does – and then loads audio presets and seating settings based on who it recognizes. It will also give you a personalized greeting.
The other primary aspect of this system is to mitigate distraction. So that same scanner that recognizes your face will also notice if you’re looking at your phone or starting to get sleepy and sound an alert and tell you to take a break.
While we’re on the topic of safety, it’s worth noting Subaru’s EyeSight safety suite is standard on all trims of the 2020 Outback. This will include adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist and automatic emergency braking.
Another key cool feature is the available automatic reverse braking. Previously only found on luxury cars, this feature is starting to trickle down into the mainstream vehicles. In its simplest terms, this feature will apply the brakes if it thinks you’re going to hit something while in reverse. It could be a toy left in your driveway or a post in the parking lot you’re getting too close to.
Some systems are a bit touchy – though Subaru’s system is not – but I’m quickly including this on my list of must-have features in a new car.
But how does it drive?
Like everything else in the Subaru Outback, the ride and handling are comfortable. It’s not sporty or overly cushy, but it hits that sweet spot right in the middle with a solid, connected driving experience that doesn’t leave you floating or give you a headache over rough surfaces.
Because the test vehicle was an XT model, it was equipped with the up-level 2.4-liter turbocharged Boxer engine. It delivers 260 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque.
Acceleration is smooth and seamless with this powertrain, and in my mostly highway driving experience, I didn’t notice any turbo lag.
The base engine is a 2.5-liter direct-injection Boxer engine that delivers 182 horsepower and 176 pound-feet of torque. Having driven this at the preview, I remember thinking this is also a really nice powertrain. In fact, if I hadn’t driven the up-level engine back-to-back, I probably would have said it’s darn near perfect.
The 2.4-liter turbo is just better.
Trims & Pricing
The Subaru Outback trims are fairly straight forward and divided into non-XT and XT models, with the XTs getting the upgraded engine. It’s also worth noting that AWD and EyeSight are standard across all trims.
Outback ($26,645): Equipped with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, 8.7 inches of ground clearance, raised roof rails with integrated cross bars and tiedowns, rearview camera.
Premium ($28,895): Adds 11.6-inch touch screen, 10-way power adjustable seats, all-weather package with heated front seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, LED fog lights.
Limited ($33,445): Adds leather upholstery, premium Harman Kardon audio system, LED responsive headlights, passive entry, push-button start, hands-free power liftgate.
Touring ($37,345): Adds Nappa leather upholstery, navigation, power moonroof, heated steering wheel, DriverFocus, ventilated front seats.
Onyx XT ($34,895): Includes Premium content and adds StarTex water-repellant upholstery, 18-inch black finish alloy wheels, push-button start, passive entry, power liftgate, dual-function X-mode with hill descent control.
Limited XT ($37,745): Adds navigation, power moonroof, heated steering wheel, DriverFocus.
Touring XT ($39,695): Adds the kitchen sink. Just kidding – wanted to make sure you were paying attention. This is an all-in trim and adds Nappa leather seats, ventilated front seats, power-folding side mirrors and 180-degree front-view camera.
The bottom line on the 2020 Subaru Outback
I really like the 2020 Subaru Outback. I liked it at the preview, and I like it even more after having it in Chicago for a week.
It’s easy to drive in tight city spaces, yet it has standard all-wheel drive to handle some mild off-road driving and, more important, snow. The standard safety tech is a huge bonus, and something that has kept the Outback in the IIHS Top Safety Pick + circle every year since the TSP+ designation was created in 2013.
Because it’s still on the “wagon” side of the spectrum, you get all the benefits of driving a car, but with a slightly lifted ride height, you get SUV benefits as well.
There’s plenty of rear-seat legroom, decent cargo volume, large cup holders and a nicely appointed interior. It’ll make a sublimely comfortable commuter car as well as a decent family vehicle.