2021 Subaru Outback: still the brainy crossover choice?

2020 Subaru Outback

By Ed Piotrowski and CarPreview staff

What changes will make the 2021 Subaru Outback different?

A sport-themed trim level could be added to the 2021 lineup of Subaru’s most-popular vehicle. Otherwise, expect little of consequence following the Outback’s model-year 2020 redesign. That all-new Outback hardly looked any different from its 2015-2019 predecessor, with nearly identical dimensions and styling that blends the profile of a station wagon with the elevated ride height and all-wheel drive (AWD) of a crossover SUV.

It’s a formula no other automaker has truly mastered. This five-seater’s unique mix of rugged looks, comfortable passenger accommodations, ample cargo room, and solid road manners have consistently generated strong demand. A loyal following recognizes it as a rational alternative to bulkier crossovers that offer little advantage in utility and can’t match the Subaru’s off-road capability.

Indeed, through the first three quarters of 2019, Outback sales trailed only the Jeep grand Cherokee and Toyota Highlander in the midsize-crossover class. The next direct challenger is expected to arrive during 2022, as Ford relaunches its soon-to-be-discontinued Fusion sedan as a high-riding AWD wagon in the Outback mold.

Driving impressions and other subjective conclusions in this review are based on road tests of a pre-production 2020 Outback from Subaru’s media fleet. In areas where the ’21 might be different, we will reserve judgment.

Should I wait for the 2021 Outback or buy a 2020?

2020 Outback

Wait for the 2021. It’s a recommendation based on our test drive of a pre-production 2020 Outback. Admittedly, this Outback may not have been representative of models available for sale in showrooms. But problems with its infotainment, driver-assist, and engine stop-start systems compel us to advise delaying a purchase until the ’21s come out, or at least until deep into the 2020 model year. With a bit more time, we’re confident Subaru can work out the bugs we experienced. Keep reading for more details.

There won’t be any changes to the ‘21’s design or engineering, and the model lineup should return Base, Premium, Limited, and Touring grades, along with Limited XT, and Touring XT trims. The Onyx Edition XT could be accompanied or replaced by a Sport variant with similar blackout exterior trim and unique interior details.

Regardless of model designation, all 2021 Outbacks will again come standard with Subaru’s Symmetrical AWD and a four-cylinder engine – naturally aspirated or, in XT models, turbocharged. Note that the ’21 Outback will continue to share its underskin engineering, powertrains, and passenger-compartment design with the Subaru Legacy, a four-door sedan that also comes standard with AWD but has a lower, car-conventional ride height.

Will the styling be different?

2020 Outback

Perhaps if a Sport grade with the naturally aspirated engine is added to accompany or replace the Onyx Edition XT. Even then, it would simply add its own wheels, lower-body aero addenda, darkened trim, and specific interior fittings.

Overall, the 2021 Outback will continue with the subtle visual updates that accompanied the 2020 redesign. While its overall appearance is reassuringly familiar to fans, the design should hold some appeal for brand newcomers. A few angular forms follow design trends, but they don’t fundamentally alter the Outback’s tried-and-true look.  

We would, however, urge Subaru to rethink the rear spoiler as soon as possible. Its size and positioning make it difficult to fully clean snow from the liftgate glass, a bummer for cold-climate dwellers, a sizable share of Subaru customers. The Outback would be due for a midcycle update around model-year 2023, but we hope this shortfall can be addressed before that.

The ‘21’s cabin design will be mostly carryover, and that’s fine. The instrumentation and steering-wheel controls will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s driven a Subaru in the last five years. New buyers will acclimate quickly to the bright, clear gauges.

2020 Outback 11.6-inch dashboard touchscreen

Expect 2021 Base models to again come with two 7-inch dashboard touchscreens governing most climate and audio functions, including Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto support that’ll remain standard. All other Outbacks should return with one 11.6-inch touchscreen. Expect imbedded GPS navigation that doesn’t require a connected smartphone to again be standard on Touring, Limited XT, and Touring XT models and optional on all others except the Base trim.

Positioned in portrait mode and dominating the central dashboard, the 11.6-inch screen has gee-whiz visual appeal. And Subaru’s Starlink software interface is generally intuitive — when it functions properly.

Unfortunately, our Touring XT review sample suffered numerous software glitches. They ranged from hard lockups and crashes to a completely black screen that forced the system to reboot itself. Sadly, infotainment-software problems have plagued Subaru for years. In late 2019, the automaker settled a class-action lawsuit filed by owners of certain model-year 2018 and 2019 Subarus who complained of problems similar to those with our 2020 Outback Touring XT.

2020 Outback

No one should beef about interior packaging. Subaru gives this “wagon” as much or more usable space than you’ll find in many larger looking, traditionally shaped midsize crossovers. Front and rear headroom and legroom will remain outstanding, with seats among the most comfortable of any vehicle in this price range.

2020 Outback

Cargo volume should again be among best in class, too, at 32.5 cubic feet behind the rear seatbacks and 75.7 with them folded. Loading and unloading bulky items will continue to benefit from the extra inch of width between the rear wheel wells that came with the model-year-’20 redesign.

Any mechanical changes?

2020 Outback

Unlikely. All 2021 Outbacks will return with a version of Subaru’s “Boxer” four-cylinder engine design. This arranges the cylinders in horizontal opposition – like a prize fighter punching — rather than in the traditional vertical-inline or V configuration. The benefit is an engine that takes up less space and can mount lower and further rearward, contributing to a lower center of gravity that can help on-road handling.

The 2021 Outback Base, Premium, Limited, and Touring grades should again use a 2.5-liter Boxer with 182 horsepower and 176 pound-feet of torque. A Sport model would also likely use this engine. Expect acceleration to again be on par with other AWD midsize crossovers of similar power: adequate around town but requiring liberal application of the gas pedal to merge onto a fast-moving freeway and some forethought to pass comfortably at highway speeds.

Outback models with the XT designation would return with a 2.4-liter turbocharged Boxer shared with the Subaru Ascent, a larger midsize crossover with seating for up to eight and a more traditional SUV design. Expect the XT Outbacks to again have 260 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque. That’s enough for drama-free acceleration once underway, but away from stops and in certain low-speed conditions this engine tends to suffer noticeable turbo lag. That’s a delay in throttle response before the turbocharger can deliver its boost.

2020 Outback Onyx Edition XT

Both engines will again use a continuously variable automatic transmission, which delivers power like a rheostat rather than via discrete gear ratios. The CVT seems to exaggerate some of the XT’s turbo lag in around-town driving. Until Subaru gets the turbo and the CVT to work in better harmony, we recommend the less powerful but more predictably linear naturally aspirated 2.5-liter engine.

Aided in no small measure by the relatively low roofline, Outback does feel more nimble than taller-profile midsize-crossover rivals, with less body lean in turns and better resistance to gusty crosswinds. It isn’t really a sporty handler, but it is tractable and well-balanced despite slightly over-assisted steering feel.

A compelling attribute should again be ride quality, with excellent bump absorption even on pockmarked roads. Credit here goes in part to Subaru sensibly fitting tires with generous sidewalls. Adding to the sense of composure is very good noise suppression. The engines produce a unique but not unpleasant growl during acceleration that recedes to near silence at cruising speeds. Wind rush and road ruckus are non-issues.

2020 Outback

The AWD system delivers an extra measure of confidence on both dry surfaces, in snow, and in fairly challenging off-road driving. It continuously varies torque front-to-rear based on acceleration, steering angle, and cornering-rate. It can also transfer more torque to either rear wheel.

Indeed, with near-best-in-class 8.7 inches of ground clearance, the ’21 Outback will again be surprisingly capable away from pavement. Standard driver-selectable X-MODE optimizes powertrain and AWD to reduce wheel spin and provide crawl-speed downhill assist. A “dual-mode” X-MODE system with Snow/Dirt and Deep Snow/Mud settings was exclusive to the Outback Onyx Edition XT for 2020; we’d urge Subaru to make it available on more trims for 2021.

Will fuel economy improve?

2020 Outback

Unlikely. EPA ratings should repeat those of the 2020 model, leaving both naturally aspirated and turbocharged ’21 Outbacks among the more fuel-efficient midsize crossovers of comparable power.

Expect 2021 Outbacks with the naturally aspirated 2.5-liter engine to again rate 26/33/29 mpg city/highway/combined while turbocharged XT versions repeat at 23/30/26 mpg. Both engines would continue to use regular-grade 87-octane gasoline.

All ’21 Outbacks will again come with a system designed to save gas by automatically stopping the engine (leaving accessories running) when the crossover is stationary, then restarting it when the driver releases the brake pedal.

Unfortunately, our Touring XT review sample had one of the worst implementations we’ve experienced. Shutdowns were generally smooth, but restarts triggered a harsh shudder that reverberated through the cabin. Idle stop-start can be disabled, but instead of a simple dashboard or console button as many other automakers provide, Subaru requires a dive deep into the infotainment system to find the shut-off control. Even then, the system automatically reengages each time you manually restart the vehicle.

Will there be new features?

2020 Outback

Probably not, with a laudable array of standard and optional equipment again on tap.

All 2021 Outbacks will again come standard with Subaru’s EyeSight suite of driver-assistance features, which uses a pair of cameras mounted either side of the rearview mirror. EyeSight includes adaptive cruise control to maintain a set distance from traffic ahead, lane-departure warning with automatic steering correction, and autonomous emergency braking to stop the crossover and mitigate a frontal collision.

Subaru deserves credit for making these safety systems standard on even the lowest-priced Outback. But during our 2020 Outback Touring XT test drive, the emergency braking system disconcertingly activated when the crossover was more than far enough away from traffic ahead for the driver to safety stop on their own. Had there been another vehicle behind, the sudden, unnecessary stop could have caused our Outback to be rear-ended.

2020 Outback

In addition to EyeSight and other features already mentioned, the ’21 Outback Base model should continue to come standard with single-zone automatic climate control and dual front USB charging ports. Premium grades would add the 11.6-inch infotainment screen plus a power driver’s seat, heated front seats, dual-zone automatic climate control, two USB ports for rear-seat passengers, and a cargo cover.

If a Sport grade joins the lineup, it would most likely slot between the Touring and Limited models and include keyless access with pushbutton engine start, unique exterior and interior trim, and upgraded seat fabric. If the Onyx Edition XT comes back, it would have similar standard equipment but use the turbocharged engine.

Look for the 2021 Outback Limited and Limited XT to continue with a power front-passenger seat, heated outboard rear seats, leather upholstery, a hands-free power rear liftgate, and Harman Kardon-brand audio. The flagship ’21 Outback Touring and Touring XT would include a power sunroof, ventilated front seats, heated steering wheel, Nappa-brand leather upholstery, and imbedded navigation.

Will 2021 prices be different?

2020 Outback

We think they’ll increase marginally, likely by no more than several hundred dollars. Don’t expect options prices to change. For reference, here are 2020 Outback prices, with base prices including the $1,010 manufacturer’s destination fee.

The 2020 Outback Base model was priced at $27,655, and no factory option were available.

The ’20 Outback Premium started at $29,905. Keyless access with pushbutton ignition, hands-free power liftgate, and blind-spot alert with rear cross-traffic detection should again be available as part of a $1,400 option package. Adding imbedded navigation and a power sunroof to these features should again boost the package price to $2,995.

A new Sport model would be a logical addition to the product line, at a base price around $32,000.

Base price for the 2020 Outback Limited was $34,455. A $2,045 package added drowsy-driver alert, sunroof, navigation, and a heated steering wheel. The ’20 Touring was priced at $38,355, but with no factory-installed options available.

Among XT grades, the ’20 Onyx Edition was priced at $35,905, the Limited at $38,755, and the Touring at $40,705. The Onyx Edition and Limited XT offered an option package with navigation and sunroof for $1,845 and $2,045, respectively.

When does it come out?

2020 Outback

The release date for the 2021 Subaru Outback will likely be in the fall of 2020.

Best competitors

Chevrolet Blazer, Ford Edge, Honda Passport, Hyundai Santa Fe, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Nissan Murano, Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]