Skip to main content

2020 Subaru Outback: What's It Like to Live With?

Versatility rules and the Outback is one of the best at it. Find out our day-to-day experiences with this popular utility vehicle.

Subaru Outback 2020
Miles DrivenAverage MPG

Latest Highlights (updated 09/30/21)

  • The Outback is really comfortable on the road.
  • The large touchscreen is good — especially now that we got an update for Apple CarPlay.
  • Climate controls should be in their own area. Hard buttons aren't a bad thing.
  • The turbo engine is awesome. Can we get an eight-speed auto instead of the CVT?
  • The sound system's quality is a toss-up between our staff

What We Bought and Why

by Rex Tokeshi-Torres, Vehicle Testing Technician

Our test vehicle: 2020 Subaru Outback Onyx Edition XT
Base MSRP: $34,895
MSRP as tested: $36,336

The Subaru Outback and Forester are the best-selling vehicles for Subaru. Known to be comfortable, roomy and ultra-versatile, the Outback can do it all. This time around, it was our utility vehicle of choice between the two.

Whether you drive off-road into muddy terrain with your camping equipment or down your neighborhood streets for a trip to the shopping center, this SUV is ready to get you moving at all times. It has full-time all-wheel drive and a standard X-Mode traction system when things get a little slippery. The best part about this new-generation Subaru Outback? The return of the much-desired turbo engine. It was a no-brainer for us to get one. The thought of a turbo Outback gets us giddy.

What Did We Get?
We selected a 2020 Subaru Outback Onyx Edition XT because we expect it to be one of the volume-selling trims. The Onyx Edition XT (with the 2.4-liter turbo) is the gateway to the turbo trims and priced between the 2.5-liter non-turbo Limited and 2.5-liter Touring. If you want a turbo with more luxury, we suggest either the Limited XT or the top-of-the-line Touring XT.

We liked the Onyx Edition XT trim not only because it is the most affordable turbo in the lineup but also because it can tow 3,500 pounds and comes well-equipped with the aforementioned standard all-wheel drive and Subaru X-Mode traction system, LED headlights, roof rails, heated power-adjustable front seats, a hands-free rear tailgate, an 11.6-inch multimedia touchscreen, and a suite of advanced safety and driver aids. Since Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are standard, we skipped the optional onboard navigation system. We added door scuff protectors ($168), a rear bumper cover ($159) and a rear seatback protector ($104), which brought our total to $36,336.

Why Did We Get It?
We are tired of being cooped-up. We want to get out and the Outback gives us a perfect excuse. It's a crossover as adept at traversing the unbeaten path as it is commuting through the urban jungle.

Its lack of true four-wheel drive means we may not be able to go everywhere, but we'd like to see how far its all-wheel drive and X-Mode traction system can take us. With 32.5 cubic feet of standard cargo capacity, we have enough room to carry four passengers to go camping and take even longer road trips. The maximum cargo of 75.7 cubic feet is more than enough to accomplish most Home Depot runs. There is a lot of possibility here.

Here are our questions: Will its shorter roof (relative to the Forester) have us wishing for a taller cargo area? What will we think of the StarTex water-repellent upholstery? Will the turbo perform better on 87 octane or can we improve fuel economy with 91 octane? How will we feel about the continuously variable automatic transmission in a few months? Will we long for the ventilated seats found in the Touring and Touring XT? We can't wait to find out. This should be a fun year with the Outback, especially since we are encouraged to socially distance. What's more socially distant than being outdoors at the lake with no one else around for miles? So come hang with us!

The manufacturer provided this vehicle for the purpose of evaluation.

2020 Subaru Outback: Real-World Fuel Economy

The Outback is rated as one of the better fuel-sippers for the midsize SUV class at 26 mpg combined. However, since COVID hit and numbers keep flunctuating here in SoCal, road trips are scarce.

Average lifetime mpg: 21.8
EPA mpg rating: 26 combined ( 23 city / 30 highway )
Best fill mpg: 28.1
Best range (miles): 417.3
Current odometer: 14,028

Logbook Highlights

With an EPA-estimated 26 mpg combined, and 23 city, our lifetime average of 21.8 is a little disappointing right now. Then again, since COVID hit, there hasn't been a lot of time dedicated to road tripping or long commutes. That needs to be remedied. Sadly, with me recently using our Outback as a generator all day to charge our track computer, that will negatively impact numbers once again.

2020 Subaru Outback: Technology

This is the section where we talk tech. In this update three editors weigh-in on the sound system.

Logbook Highlights

"We have two differing opinions on our team regarding the Outback's sound system. Read below for their opinions and I will comment my thoughts afterward. — Rex

"The Outback has one of the weakest audio systems I've encountered in years. For a second, I thought one of our dearly departed editors had returned because he was notorious for changing the sound settings in every car.

"As soon as I turned the car on, there was a noticeable lack of bass. I expected to see that setting at its lowest when I finally found the menu, but it was dead-center, just like the mid and treble. In most vehicles, I keep them dead-center, but I cranked the bass all the way to the maximum, then back down to about 80%.

"Besides the lack of bass, the clarity could also use some help. The sound really starts to fall apart if you want it louder. If you appreciate good audio quality and are looking into the Outback, I'd suggest spending more for the Harman Kardon system." — Mark Takahashi, senior reviews editor

"Our Outback Onyx Edition XT has the base six-speaker sound system. Overall, I'm pleased with it. It has decent sound accuracy and staging and turns up loud enough for my tastes. On the downside, bass tones can get too boomy and loose and rattle the speaker housings.

"This is especially the case if you turn on some of the digital enhancements that are available in the sound customization on-screen menu. I've played around with the Virtual Bass and Dynamic Beat Enhancer; they make subtle differences but I wouldn't necessarily say the altered sound is 'better.'

"It might be worth finding an Outback with the available Harman Kardon system to cross-shop and see if you like it better. But I'd be fine with this base six-speaker system if that's what my Outback ended up having." — Brent Romans, senior editor, written content

Personally, I've always felt that the stock Subaru sound systems lacked all-around sound clarity, volume and (my much beloved) BASS (how low can you go ...)! This is coming from someone who has personally owned Foresters, Outbacks, Legacys, WRXs, a Tribeca AND a BRZ. Trust me, I've sampled a majority. I've swapped out the stock speakers and added subwoofers more often than I can remember on my personal cars (not my wife's — she's not that picky). I've used speaker and sound system companies like Phoenix Gold, Alpine, and OEM Audio Plus — the latter company I've used in a lot of my recent vehicles due to their one-stop shop system that blends speakers, a subwoofer and a digital sound processor. Why not upgrade to the Harman Kardon? I just don't feel like it's my type and the OEM Audio Plus system is tuned specifically for whatever vehicle I'm in and my personal taste. Is the Harman Kardon system good? Yes. I've sampled it through friends who have it and it makes a pretty big difference for both sound clarity and "punch." — Rex Tokeshi-Torres, vehicle testing technician"

"We opted against the $1,845 package that added a moonroof, reverse automatic braking and navigation. That makes us reliant upon navigation apps on our phones, which we're fine with. This weekend I noticed, however, the CarPlay projection from my phone displays really tiny buttons. See them on the left rail while the navigation screen is up? They are smaller than my fingertip. I wish they were bigger." — Mike Schmidt, senior manager, vehicle testing operations

"Is EyeSight's Adaptive Cruise feeling too sluggish for you? Did you know you can adjust it so that it is a little more responsive? I know that the menu system can be daunting at times but at least items are categorized nicely in the settings menu. However, I will walk you through in order to do this.

"First, press 'Settings.'

"Then, along the top menu, swipe (or press the arrows) until you see 'Car.'

"Next, press 'EyeSight,' which takes you into the controls for that feature. This area gives you the ability to adjust EyeSight's advanced features. I will dive into this more later. For now, let's stay on task.

"Press 'Cruise Control Acceleration Characteristics.' As you can see in the photo, I have it at the highest (Level 4) setting, which is Dynamic. This makes the adaptive cruise react quicker when following the vehicle in front of you. When the car in front moves, you move. It also follows a little bit closer and gets on the brakes a little later. This is like a more attentive driver. Standard is the usual factory setting. It gives a longer cushion to the car in front and doesn't react so quickly when the car in front moves and brakes progressively. Think of this as a more calm driver. Comfort is just that: leisure. No harsh movements or braking, etc. Eco is quite sluggish. It's slower to react so that it doesn't waste gas.

"You can adjust this to your liking. Standard is good for just about everyone, but if you wanted it to be more leisurely, you can select Comfort. If you like it to be a little more attentive, then Dynamic is for you. Just remember to keep your foot near the brake in case it's a little too aggressive for you.

"I would caution you to make these adjustments when your vehicle is at a stop." — Rex Tokeshi-Torres, vehicle testing technician

2020 Subaru Outback: Utility

Getting out of town is the name of the game in the Outback. Second excursion: beach weekend!

Logbook Highlights

"My son and I skipped town for a guys' fishing getaway over the weekend. There was plenty of space for his car seat on the upright side of the 60/40-split folding seat and our poles on the lowered side. It's always a plus when you don't have to break them down for transport. The rest of our gear easily fit in the cargo area behind his seat." — Mike Schmidt, senior manager, vehicle testing operations

"We camped for the weekend at Carpinteria State Beach. The best part about this campground was scoring one of the prime beach spots. But sand gets everywhere. When we got home the Outback was a mess. Enter my hero, the rubber cargo mat. With just a shake-out, our filth-o-meter went from 80% repulsion to about 20%. And underneath it was spotless." — Mike Schmidt, senior manager, vehicle testing operations

2020 Subaru Outback: Miscellaneous

With the new Wilderness trim due out soon, we figured it would be an interesting comparison with our Onyx Edition.

Logbook Highlights

"In the main photo above, you will see our long-term Outback Onyx Edition on top and the all-new Wilderness trim below. We figured it would be interesting to talk about since the new trim does what a lot of enthusiasts are doing: modifying it to be more off-road capable for overlanding, some off-the-beaten-path fun or simply to make it look different.

"Personally speaking (this is Rex, who modifies every car I own), I like the way it looks. With 9.5 inches of ground clearance, which is close to an inch over the stock Outback, it should enable it to go over more terrain — that and the updated front bumpers and advanced X-Mode. Anyhow, in speaking with the Subaru team we gleaned an interesting piece of information: EyeSight, which is your active safety and driver aid, could become less effective if you raise your vehicle with aftermarket modifications because, while it will still monitor everything in front of you and react to whatever it sees, it is potentially out of calibration spec because you have changed the ride height of the vehicle. Meanwhile, OEM-modified vehicles, such as the Wilderness editions, are all within factory calibration spec because they came that way from the manufacturer.

"We have often wondered about these things since all new vehicles come with a bunch of advanced safety tech and driver aids, and this is the first time that a manufacturer has said something regarding the tech installed on your vehicle potentially becoming less effective because of something you have done to modify your vehicle. It totally makes sense so this is something to keep in mind for those who like to do aftermarket modifications." — Rex Tokeshi-Torres, vehicle testing technician