FORT BRAGG, CA – In 1994, Subaru faced a big problem. Not many Americans were buying it.
“We had vehicles backing up at the ports,” says Peter Tenn, a planning manager for the Japanese automaker. “We thought we had to do a vehicle to bring us out of the mire.”
So the automaker spun off a version of its Legacy wagon. The new model got cladding here and there and its chassis was boosted a bit so it looked like a utility vehicle. It was dubbed the Legacy Outback.
With initial marketing help from commercials featuring Paul “Crocodile Dundee” Hogan, the new Legacy offshoot drew buyers, grew up over the years and eventually established its independence by separating from the Legacy name and going it alone.
Now, Subaru offers seven Outback midsize CUV trim levels. They appeal to a range of consumers, including commuters, outdoors people and certain job holders (more about that later).
It’s gone from a vehicle created as an act of semi-desperation to a brand powerhouse.
The Outback leads Subaru’s eight-model lineup with 2018 sales of 188,886 units, according to Wards Intelligence. (In contrast, Legacy sales were 40,109.) The Outback has enjoyed 11 years of consecutive sales increases. “It saved the company,” says a spokesman.
Subaru debuts a sixth-generation 2020 Outback that takes the CUV to new heights, although literally it’s not a particularly high rider (height 66.1 ins. [1,979 mm]; ground clearance 8.7-ins. [221 mm]) compared with some segment competitors that stand taller.
The redone vehicle offers a sleeker exterior (although not dramatically different) and a more refined interior than the outgoing model. The new Outback comes with an array of advanced technologies as Subaru positions to be a standout in that area with systems including:
- DriverFocus which uses a dedicated infrared camera aimed at the driver to identify signs of driver fatigue (closed eyes) and distraction (eyes off the road too long). Such detected perils trigger visual and audio signals.
- Stop-go Advanced Adaptive Cruise Control with Lane Centering that automatically slows and accelerates the vehicle, depending on the speed of the vehicle ahead. The system works precisely, keeping a bead on the vehicle ahead, even on twisty roads here during a media preview.
- An all-new high-resolution infotainment screen that is tablet-style and a substantial 11.6 ins. (295 mm). It works with Subaru’s Starlink multimedia system. (BTW, in the past, Outback cockpit controls were all over the place. Now they’ve been consolidated and run on two processors, rather than one, to speed things up.)
- Front View Monitor that captures images in the driver’s blind spots and displays a 180-degree view. It’s a first for the Outback.
And for the first time since 2009, the Outback offers a turbocharged engine. It’s standard on the three upmarket XT models. The 2.4L boxer engine delivers 260 hp at 5,600 rpm and 277 lb.-ft. (375 Nm) of torque at a relatively low 2,000 rpm, making for early tip-in.
Torque is respectable off the line. It flexes its muscle during quick midrange accelerations. The same engine is in the Subaru 3-row Ascent CUV that came out last year.
The turbocharged propulsion system replaces a flat 6-cyl. in the outgoing Outback that had a 5-year run. Tenn expects 30% of buyers will opt for the turbocharged engine with improved fuel economy: 23 city/30 highway mpg (10.2-7.8 L/100 km)
A second standard engine is a naturally aspirated 2.5L boxer with direct injection. Nearly 90% of its parts are new. It delivers 182 hp at 5,800 rpm and 176 lb.-ft. (239 Nm) of torque at 4,400 rpm.
The new Outback uses a Lineartronic CVT. For drivers who like to do their own shifting, there are steering-wheel paddle shifters that run through eight simulated gears.
The rap on early CVTs was that they whined up and down too much, and seemed to do so aimlessly. Refined latter-day versions, such as the one in the Outback, are smoother and seem more sure of themselves.
The all-wheel-drive Outback offers a sophisticated and quiet ride on regular roadways, but it also is capable of seriously off-roading. That’s evidenced at a media drive event that included rough, rutted and rocky trailways in remote sections of northern California’s redwood country.
Depending on road conditions, drivers can use the Outback’s X-Mode system to tackle the likes of snowy and muddy weather.
The vehicle is built on the Subaru Global Platform. Engineers designed the platform with greater collision protection, agility, cabin quietness and ride comfort in mind. They seem to have accomplished that mission. Among the platform elements are a rigid backbone and various levels of high-strength steel.
In much of its marketing, Subaru pitches the Outback to outdoor enthusiasts. When the new Outback was unveiled at the New York auto show in April, it was done so in a staging area that resembled a U.S. National Park setting. (Wards' Steve Finlay with Subaru Outback at a drive-through tree in northern California.)
Tenn describes the vehicle as “an outdoors tool that can be used every day and taken anywhere.”
An occupation breakdown of Outback buyers is No.1, educators; No.2, health-care workers (a lot of buyers are nurses); and No.3, people in technology fields.
The latter can be “a nightmare for retailers because they go to dealerships armed with a whole lot of technical information,” Tenn says. “That’s good, though, because they are educated consumers.”
The average buyer is age 45. The gender split is 52% male, 48% female. Seventy-eight percent are married. Average household income is $75,000 to $99,000.
The desire for vehicle safety is a common theme across demographic and psychographic lines, Tenn says.
Subaru assembles the Outback in Lafayette, IN. All of the vehicle’s steel is from the U.S. but most of the other parts are from Japan.
The Outback ranges in price from $26,645 to $39,695, plus $1,010 in destination charges.
Models in ascending order of MSRP are Base, Premium, Limited, Touring, Onyx Edition XT (new to the lineup and featuring black-finish exterior elements), Limited XT and Touring XT.
The Premium model currently is the Outback’s most popular.
A CD player is standard in upmarket models, optional otherwise. Yes, some people still use vehicle CD players. (I do.)
Twenty-five years ago, around when the Outback came off a Legacy rib, CD players were innovative. Today, their value sometimes is the subject of lively automotive internal debates.
“You’d be surprised,” says Tenn. “At meetings, half the people say, ‘Kill the CD player.' The other half says, ‘Well, maybe we should keep it.’”