The Car Connection Subaru Outback Overview
The Subaru Outback is a wagon, SUV, and crossover all rolled into one. It has defied genres and has been a mountain-state staple for more than two decades.
The distinction between crossovers and wagons is usually relatively clear, but the Outback sits right on the dividing line. That may be one of the reasons for its enduring popularity. Because it's derived from the Legacy sedan—and the placement of its boxer engines give it a low center of gravity even with more than eight inches of ground clearance—it handles more like a car than a crossover.
MORE: Read our 2021 Subaru Outback review
Competitors span a wide swath of the automotive universe, from the Ford Explorer and Jeep Grand Cherokee to pricier entries like Mercedes-Benz's E-Class wagon. Crossover-wagon alternatives include the Volvo XC90 and V60 Cross Country as well as the Audi Allroad.
The new Subaru Outback
Subaru unveiled a redesigned Outback at the 2019 New York auto show, and although it doesn't look much different than last year's model, it shares little underneath its tough-wagon body. The new Outback rides on a version of the automaker's modular architecture and power comes from either a 182-hp 2.5-liter flat-4 or a 2.4-liter turbo-4 rated at 260 hp. That's right, a turbocharged Outback is...back. All Outbacks shuttle power to all four wheels via a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT).
Interior room is up, with near-SUV space behind the rear seat and stretch-out back-seat leg room. Up front, most Outbacks include a tablet-like 11.6-inch touchscreen for infotainment and all models come with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility.
Like the outgoing model, adaptive cruise control, active lane control, and automatic emergency braking are standard fare across the lineup. For 2021 the Outback received few changes.
Subaru Outback history
The Outback started as a trim level on what was then the wagon version of the Subaru Legacy sedan. It came at a time when Subaru's sales were suffering, and sales of sport-utility vehicles were booming. Initially, the Outback received standard all-wheel drive (not every Subaru had it back then), more rugged trim, two-tone paint, and fog lamps.
In 1996, the model followed through on the promise a bit more, gaining slightly more ground clearance than the Legacy wagon, along with taller tires, full-skirt body cladding, tougher seat upholstery, and big fog lamps in the bumper. In the years that followed, The first Outback had a 135-horsepower, 2.2-liter flat-4, but in 1996 that was increased to a 155-hp, 2.5-liter flat-4. Subaru also began offering an Outback sedan in this generation.
The Outback was refreshed for 2000, when it gained completely new front- and back-end styling, along with a redone interior. A 165-hp, 2.5-liter flat-4 was under the hood, with 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmissions. During this period, even more luxurious L.L. Bean Edition and VDC models were introduced—the latter with a 212-hp, 3.0-liter flat-6—which in this iteration never felt much faster than the four. At this time, the Outback had a little over an inch of extra ground clearance than the Legacy Wagon, along with more shielding, chip-resistant body cladding, and a standard roof rack, plus larger, 16-inch wheels, and Subaru confirmed the Outback was good for light off-roading.
In 2005 came a redesign and a considerably raised ride height—which turned the car from a wagon to a "light truck" in the eyes of the feds, although Subaru rarely discussed it—as well as other modifications. These included revised powertrains: the base engine now made 170 hp, the flat-6 made 245 hp, and there was a new XT model featuring a 243-hp, turbocharged 2.5-liter flat-4. Most of the 4-cylinder models had 5-speed manual or 4-speed auto transmissions again, but the flat-6 was paired with a 5-speed automatic. The Outback sedan, which had been offered in the second and third generations, was discontinued when the fourth-generation car received a facelift in 2008.
A new generation was launched in 2010, at which point all sedan models became Legacys and all of the wagons used the Outback nameplate. For 2012, the Outback received a new 2.5-liter flat-4, replacing an older engine that produced 170 hp. The flat-6 carried into the new model. Although this Outback had a more settled, refined ride, like a larger car, it didn't handle with quite the same bite as did the previous generation. Utility was even better than on earlier models, though, with increased cargo space.
In the 2013 Outback, Subaru finally added a USB charging port, plus iPod controls, as well as Bluetooth hands-free calling and audio streaming. A host of active-safety features—an EyeSight driver-assistance system, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning, and automatic emergency braking—were also made available.
A redesigned Outback launched as a 2015 model and grew compared to the last model. It lost some of its body cladding for a more road-oriented aesthetic, somewhat closer to the Legacy wagons of old. Like its Legacy sedan sibling, the Outback evolved instead of undergoing any big changes, which turns out to be a good thing. Inside, the dash sits straighter and the seats are nicer than before.
The mechanicals are familiar. The engines essentially carried over, while all versions sport a continuously variable transmission. Steering goes electric-assist across the model line, and the ratio is quicker than that used in its predecessor; the brakes were upgraded too with ventilated four-wheel discs now standard on all models. A new "X-Mode" system helps the Outback's standard all-wheel drive control active torque distribution where traction needs arise. There's also hill-descent control and special logic for the stability control and all-wheel-drive systems.
Ride and handling are better than ever, too. The Outback no longer requires even a small sacrifice in on-road comfort for its moderate trail-blazing ability. The Outback maintains 8.7 inches of ground clearance—more than some taller crossovers with more rugged profiles. It still feels as if it's a mid-size car, jacked up a few more inches—which makes the Outback's cargo space a little easier to load than most crossovers, too.
The federal government gives the new Outback five stars overall, with five stars in every category except for rollover, where it scores four. The Outback gets top "Good" crash-test results from the IIHS and earned the Top Safety Pick+ award as a result. The EyeSight active-safety system, which uses a multiple-camera system to incorporate adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, and lane-departure warning, is available. A new blind-spot monitor can warn of approaching vehicles in adjacent lanes, and detect vehicle cross traffic when backing out of a driveway or parking-lot space.
Minor changes for the 2016 model year included the addition of lane-keeping assist to the EyeSight forward-collision prevention system, and revised steering and suspension tuning for better performance.
For 2017, Subaru added a top-of-the-line Touring trim to the Outback and rear automatic emergency braking to avoid objects behind the car.
The 2018 Outback was modestly updated with a new infotainment system that included Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard, a handful of additional luxury features, and more sound deadening. The following year, the 2019 Outback gained the automaker's active-safety suite as standard fare across the entire lineup, a move we applaud.