REVIEW: Subaru Outback should be North Van's official car

These are the constants of life on the North Shore.

Rain. Gore-Tex. Toyota pickups. Articles about dog bylaws in the local paper. Mountain bikers. More rain. Tourists getting lost at the top of a mountain in January while wearing flip-flops. And the Subaru Outback.

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I have long joked that the Subaru Outback should be emblazoned on the North Vancouver crest (alongside a Tacoma, naturally), as it is a car almost perfectly designed for the kind of life most of us lead. It is ruggedly outdoorsy, but more tarmac friendly than a full SUV. It has one foot in the city and one in the mountains, and all-wheel-drive to make sure neither slips.

Now, there’s a new one, and it’s ... wait. Is this a new one? It looks exactly the same. Let me just check the file name on these pictures.

It is indeed! Meet the all-new 2020 Outback, which is all about Subaru trying not to mess with their previous success. Let’s have a look to see if the updates still work for North Shore living.

Design

Essentially a lifted, wagonized version of the Legacy, this new Outback presents a familiar profile. Are Subarus actually designed? I’m sure the company has a styling department somewhere, but they’re probably locked in a broom closet.

Instead, Subaru has a Pragmatism Department, which is great. The Outback continues to look a bit like a hiking boot, but now comes with useful exterior features like better folding roof-rails and standard LED headlights.

So, no to swoopy styling, and yes to a washer for the backup camera so that you can still reverse safely after driving home through slushy streets. Subaru knows their customer
base well.

One update for this year is the $38,695 Outdoor XT edition, which is aimed at younger buyers. It’s got black-painted wheels and trim, and is a bit more sporty looking (it’s also only available with the turbocharged engine option). It also begs the question: does Subaru intend to do an Indoor variant? Because I would totally drive that through Park Royal. Ooh, Arc’teryx is having a sale.

Environment

If the Outback’s exterior hasn’t been tweaked much, its interior sees the biggest upgrades. The most obvious change is the absolutely massive touchscreen that comes on all but the most basic models. I’m not entirely sure the high-tech feel suits the mud-spattered image of the Outback, but it does add a more modern touch.

And, happily, if you’re not a big fan of screens, Subaru still includes plenty of proper knobs and buttons for adjusting the stereo and climate control. They’ve also been clever enough to make sure there are plenty of storage cubbies, including a slim pocket on the passenger’s side for your phone, such that you won’t be tempted to glance at it while stopped at a light.

Comfort-wise, the Outback is a little larger this year, with more space for rear passengers. Overall, there’s a higher quality feel to the vehicle, which is particularly noticeable in the higher trims. The Outdoor variant gets a pseudo-leather covering that looks like it’ll hold up to abuse by ravening wildlife. By which I mean my children.

Performance

The entry level engine on the Outback remains a 2.5-litre flat-four married to a continuously variable gearbox. Power is up a little this year, to 182 h.p. That’ll be fine for most Subaru owners not in a hurry, but does feel lacking when you want to get around the RV that’s blocking your view.

My recommendation would be to opt for the 2.4-litre turbocharged engine. Essentially the same engine as found in the seven-passenger Ascent, this new offering has considerably more punch – 260 horsepower and 277 foot-pounds of torque – yet still runs on regular fuel. The penalty at the pump is very minor, only about 1.0 litres/100 kilometres worse in the city and 0.8 l/100 km on the highway.

Now built on Subaru’s global platform, the Outback is a little stiffer and handles a little more sharply. It’s still a bit more prone to roll than the Forester, and the steering is pretty mute. However, as a relaxing long-distance tourer, the Outback’s long-travel suspension soaks up road imperfections, and the all-wheel drive shrugs off inclement weather.

The addition of a turbocharged engine, with excellent torque availability, hasn’t turned the Outback into some fire-breathing rally car. It has, however, made it just that little bit more pleasurable to drive on tarmac.

Off the road, the Outback is more capable than most owners will ever need. The X-mode button activates a surprisingly effective automatic hill-descent control, and the Outback can easily climb on slippery pavement. It’s not as complex as other terrain management systems, but the simplicity is more intuitive to owners.

Overall, the Outback is better behaved on the road – where owners will spend most of their time – and offers confidence when the going gets rough and slippery. It’s just what was expected from the old one, with a little more punch.

Features

As mentioned, the Outback comes with more standard features this year, including Subaru’s full suite of driver safety assists. Limited and Premier trims offer a fully equipped experience with either engine offering, and the Premier trim gets very high-grade leather. The Outdoor XT gets a full-size spare tire, which is a nice touch.

It’s worth noting, too, that Subaru has fixed a few owner annoyances with this new Outback. The rear tailgate, for instance, is much faster in operation than the previous model.

Fuel economy figures for the turbocharged model are better than most crossovers. Official figures are 10.1 litres/100 kilometres in the city and 7.9 l/100 km on the highway.

Green light

Comfortable drive; punchy new turbocharged engine; capable off road.

Stop sign

Still not that sharp in the corners; large screen could be a distraction.

The checkered flag

Still well-suited for North Shore life, with just a little more polish in the interior and under the hood. Maybe Subaru should consider not naming their lifted wagon after the Australian outback, and call it the Subaru West-Coast instead.

Competition

Toyota RAV4 ($28,090)

While the Outback doesn’t technically have any direct competition, it does have to stand up against a host of ordinary crossovers. Bigger and more rugged than in previous years, the new Toyota RAV4 presents a worthy challenge.

Perhaps the most compelling argument that the RAV4 makes to outdoorsy Subaru customers is the presence of a hybrid option. Subaru will eventually offer the smaller Crosstrek in a plug-in version, but the Outback isn’t there yet.

The Outback, however, is a little more spacious, and more luxury-oriented in its higher trims. Odds are, people replacing an old Subaru might not look much further than their local Subaru dealership anyway.

mcaleeronwheels@gmail.com

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