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The 2020 Subaru Outback.

Petrina Gentile

It’s not the top-selling Subaru, but the Outback is one of the most iconic vehicles in the family. Since its debut in 1995, it has attracted a cult following for adventurers and outdoor enthusiasts alike. Over the decades, the Outback has grown, morphing from a station wagon into a car-based crossover SUV. And for 2020, the sixth-generation Outback gets a full redesign with an all-new platform, but it still remains true to its roots.

The perfect place to test the Outback’s capabilities is in the great white north – Whitehorse. After driving more than 370 km from Whitehorse, through Carcross, Yukon, and across the border to Skagway, Alaska, a historic town that was the gateway to the legendary Klondike Gold Rush in the late 1890s, it’s time to head back to the Yukon capital for the real fun, testing an all-new Outback trim, called the Outdoor XT, on a makeshift off-roading course designed for thrill-seekers.

The 2020 Outback comes with gun-metal-painted 18-inch alloy wheels.

Petrina Gentile

The Outdoor XT is no ordinary Outback. It’s the most capable Outback ever built, according to Subaru. Visually, it looks more aggressive and rugged than its siblings. It has beefy, gun-metal-painted 18-inch alloy wheels, black-painted front grille and exterior side-view mirrors, and black XT badges on the rear that hint of its superior capabilities.

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A new turbocharged 2.4-litre boxer engine with 260 hp and 277 lb-ft of torque is at the heart of the XT. It replaces the outgoing flat-six engine and is the same engine found in the larger, 3-rowed Subaru Ascent. The standard engine is a revised 2.5-litre horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine, which delivers 182 hp and 176 lb-ft of torque. Ninety per cent of the components are new compared to the outgoing model. Power is up slightly, too. It has an extra 7 hp and 2 lb-ft of torque. Sure, those numbers won’t stop anyone in their tracks, but the fuel economy has improved, dropping from 9.4L/100 km in the city and 7.3L/100 km on the highway (2019) to 9L/100 km in the city and 7.1L/100 km on the highway (2020). An auto-stop-start function also kills the engine when stopped to save fuel and reduce emissions.

Both engine choices are mated to a continuously variable transmission or CVT, which has more than 80 per cent new parts. It’s smoother and more refined than the last version. As expected, full-time symmetrical all-wheel drive is also standard.

A new X-Mode function is the key to going off the beaten track. It controls the transmission, engine output, AWD torque-split, and braking so it’s easier to tackle different conditions from steep inclines to slippery surfaces. You can choose between two modes – deep snow/mud or snow/dirt, accessed via a large 11.6-inch touchscreen in the centre console. Touch the preferred setting and the fun begins. Crawling down a steep hill, the hill descent control kicks in, maintaining a set speed so the driver doesn’t need to touch the throttle or apply the brakes and risk locking them. The system works like a charm. Climbing up, descending down and driving through ruts proves little challenge for the Outback. With 220 mm of ground clearance, there’s little scraping below the undercarriage. A front-view camera, a rear-camera washer, and full-size spare tire also come in handy when going off-roading. New wheel arch mouldings and lower cladding runs along the front and rear fenders. The scratch resistant moulding also helps protect the paint from stone chips and scratches.

Roof rails with integrated crossbars now have tie-down holes at the front and rear.

Petrina Gentile

If you need to carry items, like a canoe or bike, it’s easier to do so. Roof rails with integrated crossbars now have tie-down holes at the front and rear. The crossbars easily swing in and out of place so it’s simpler to attach and secure items to the roof – much better than most competitors. And if you need to haul a boat, the XT can tow 3,500 lbs – vs 2,700 lbs with the 2.5L engine.

Getting into the cargo area is easier, too, thanks to a new hands-free power tailgate. It opens via a sensor on the blue Subaru emblem on the rear gate, provided the key fob is nearby. The bottom of the cargo floor is also water resistant as are the seat surfaces.

The 2020 Subaru Outback ranges in price from $30,695 - $43,795; the new Outdoor XT trim is $38,695.

TECH SPECS

Base price/as tested: $30,695/$32,874 (not including $1,800 freight + PDI)

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Engine: 2.5L boxer engine with 182 hp or 2.4L turbocharged boxer engine with 260 hp

Transmission/Drive: CVT; AWD

Fuel economy (litres/100 km city and highway): 2.5L – 9L and 7.1L; 2.4L Turbo – 10.1 and 7.9

Alternatives: Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV4, Mazda CX-5, Ford Escape, Chevrolet Blazer

Looks

Exterior changes include new standard LED headlights and fog lights.

Petrina Gentile

Only avid Subaru drivers will spot the exterior changes, which include new standard LED headlights and fog lights and a new rear-camera washer. The Outback has grown – it’s longer by 36 mm, wider by 57 mm and taller by 7 mm than the last version. One big improvement is the built-in roof rack. The crossbars on the roof have new cross loops at the front and rear, which makes it easier to fix items like bikes or boats to the roof.

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Interior

An available smartphone-like tablet is the main focus in the centre console.

Petrina Gentile/The Globe and Mail

The interior houses most of the design changes. An available smartphone-like tablet is the main focus in the centre console. The 11.6-inch touchscreen lets you access the infotainment and navigation, but it can be frustrating to use at times, making simple tasks complicated. To turn on the front-seat heaters, for example, there’s no button anymore. You have to access it through the touch screen so it takes a few extra steps. At least, there are traditional buttons for the volume, tuning and climate control.

Performance

The Outback is quiet, smooth and refined, soaking up bumps and other degradations in the road nicely.

Petrina Gentile

On the road, the Outback is quiet, smooth and refined, soaking up bumps and other degradations in the road nicely. But I prefer the 2.4L turbo over the 2.5L, which feels a bit underpowered compared to the turbo engine. The CVT shifts are smoother and more refined than the last version.

Technology

Subaru’s EyeSight system, which acts as a second set of eyes on the road, is standard. It includes several safety features such as adaptive cruise control with a new lane-centring function that uses cameras to recognize lane markings or a preceding vehicle to stay centred within the lane. Subaru’s DriverFocus Distraction Mitigation system uses facial recognition software to monitor the driver and warns if the driver is sleepy or distracted. But the system is annoying, frequently buzzing or flashing if you take your eyes off the road. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is also standard.

Cargo

A wider opening makes it easier to load items in the back.

Petrina Gentile

Cargo space has grown from 1,005 litres to 1,051 litres. A wider opening makes it easier to load items in the back, while a new hands-free power liftgate lets you access the cargo without fiddling with keys or kicking under the bumper. The tonneau cover has a one-touch pop-up feature; it springs up by pushing down with your hand or elbow on the outside flap.

The Verdict

The Subaru Outback is practical and value-packed for the price.

Petrina Gentile

The Subaru Outback is practical and value-packed for the price. It’s ideal for busy, young families with four-legged friends who are adventure seekers.

The writer was a guest of the automaker. Content was not subject to approval.

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