2021 Subaru Outback: still the brainy crossover choice?

2020 Subaru Outback Onyx Edition XT

By Ed Piotrowski and CarPreview staff

What changes will make the 2021 Subaru Outback different?

Subaru’s five-seat midsize crossover SUV could gain a sport-themed trim level for model-year 2021. It would join an otherwise little-changed lineup following a model-year 2020 redesign that included new engines and fresh technology but familiar styling. This sixth-generation Outback retains dimensions nearly identical to those of its 2015-2019 predecessor and a body that again blends the profile a station wagon with the elevated ride height of a crossover SUV.

It’s a recipe no other automaker has truly mastered. Outback’s rugged look, standard all-wheel drive (AWD), and outstanding comfort and cargo room earn a loyal following that recognizes a rational alternative to bulkier crossovers that have little advantage in utility and are less adept off-road. Indeed, through the first half of 2020, Outback was No. 3 in midsize-crossover sales, behind the Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, and Toyota Highlander; among five-seaters, only the Jeep outsold it. The next challenger to Outback’s formula is expected in 2022, when Ford reboots its soon-to-be-discontinued Fusion sedan as a high-riding AWD wagon.

The ’21 Outback will again slot into Subaru’s lineup between the Ascent, a larger midsize crossover that seats up to eight on three rows of seats and has a more conventional SUV shape, and the smaller Forester compact crossover. The Outback will continue to share underskin engineering, powertrains, and passenger-compartment design with the Subaru Legacy, a four-door sedan that also comes with AWD but has a lower, carlike ride height.

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

2020 Outback Onyx Edition XT

Wait for the 2021 if you’re keen on a possible sport-themed model; we’ll call it the Sport for now. It could have unique trim inside and out, possibly tighter suspension tuning for better on-road handling, maybe even a slight performance increase.

It would join a 2021 Outback lineup expected to rerun largely unaltered, with Base, Premium, Limited, and Touring grades using a naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine and Onyx Edition XT, Limited XT, and Touring XT trims using a more powerful turbocharged four. The Sport could become the extrovert of the naturally aspirated Outback family, mirroring the trendy blackout look of the Onyx Edition XT, but at a lower price point.

Buy a 2020 Outback to avoid the almost certain 2021 price increase for an essentially unchanged crossover. And note that Covid-related incentives and discounts available on the ’20 might not be around once the ‘21s roll out. In either case, don’t expect styling or equipment updates until a midcycle freshening around model-year 2023.

All 2021 Outbacks will again come with Subaru’s Symmetrical AWD and a continuously variable automatic transmission.

Will 2021 Subaru Outback styling be different?

2020 Outback Onyx Edition XT

Perhaps if a Sport grade is added. If it’s inspired by the Onyx Edition XT expect darkened exterior trim, unique black wheels, and specific interior décor, including two-tone grey faux-leather upholstery (Subaru calls it StarTex) and contrasting dashboard stitching.

Overall, the 2021 Outback will continue with the subtle visual updates it received with the 2020 redesign. Some newly angular forms didn’t fundamentally alter the tried-and-true look, though. The wheelbase (distance between front and rear axles) was unchanged and the fractionally stretched body remained equal in length to that of most five-passenger rivals while the roofline remained some 3-inches lower overall.     

Visual distinctions among 2021 Outback models should again include LED foglights and body-color mirrors with integrated turn signals for Premium grades and above. The XTs will again have dual exhaust outlets while the Onyx XT gets the black treatment. All grades will again have alloy wheels – 17-inchers for Base and Premium, 18s for the others.

Every ’21 Outback will also return with a rear spoiler that’s in effect an extension of the rear roofline. We’d suggest Subaru rethink its design. Its size and positioning make it difficult to fully clean snow from the liftgate glass, a bummer for the cold-climate dwellers who are a sizable share of Subaru owners.

2020 Outback Onyx Edition XT

The cabin will carryover a no-fuss design highlighted by a portrait-oriented 11.6-inch central dashboard infotainment touchscreen. It should again be standard on all but the Base model, which would return with two 7-inch touchscreens, the upper with supplemental audio controls, the lower with climate, AWD, and driver-assist menus. All ’21 Outbacks will return with Subaru’s Starlink multimedia system with voice recognition, satellite radio, and support for Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto. Expect imbedded GPS navigation that doesn’t depend on a cell signal to again be standard on Touring, Limited XT, and Touring XT models and optional otherwise except in the Base model.

The 11.6-inch screen has gee-whiz visual appeal, and Starlink’s interface is generally intuitive — when it functions properly. Unfortunately, one of our test 2020 Outbacks furnished by Subaru, a Touring XT, suffered software glitches ranging from hard lockups and crashes to a completely black screen that forced the system to reboot itself. Our test 2020 Onyx XT, also furnished by the automaker, faired better, experiencing only one black-screen incident. Infotainment-software problems have plagued Subaru for years. In 2019, the automaker settled a class-action suit with owners of certain model-year 2018 and 2019 Subarus who complained of problems similar to those of our Touring XT.

2020 Outback Onyx Edition XT

No beefs about interior packaging. This “wagon” equals or surpasses the usable space you’ll find in many taller, traditionally shaped midsize crossovers. Headroom and legroom are outstanding, the seats among the most comfortable if any vehicle in Outback’s price range. All but the Base model should return with a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift boot. Onyx (and the potential Sport grade) gets stain resistant StarTex upholstery in place of fabric. Leather should again be standard on Limited and Limited XT trims, with upgraded perforated leather with contrast stitching optional. Expect Touring and Touring XT to reprise perforated Nappa leather with tan stitching.

2020 Outback Onyx Edition XT

Cargo volume should again be among best in class, 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. Expect a power liftgate with hands-free operation to remain optional for the ’21 Outback Premium and standard on all trims above that.

Any 2021 Subaru Outback mechanical changes?

2020 Outback Onyx Edition XT

Very unlikely. All 2021 Outbacks will return with a version of Subaru’s “boxer” four-cylinder engine design. This arranges cylinders horizontally – moving like a prize fighter’s punches — rather than inline vertically or in a “V.” Also used by Porsche, boxers are space-efficient and their design can lower the vehicle’s center of gravity, which can help handling.

The 2021 Outback Base, Premium, Limited, and Touring grades would use a 2.5-liter boxer with 182 horsepower and 176 pound-feet of torque. We’d anticipate a Sport model would also use this engine. That output would be the lowest in any midsize crossover, but Outback would also be among the lightest vehicles in its competitive set. So expect acceleration to be adequate around town but require liberal application of the gas pedal to merge onto a fast-moving freeway. You’d also be wise to apply some forethought to pass comfortably at highway speeds.

The 2021 Outback XT models would return with a turbocharged 2.4-liter boxer shared with the Ascent and Legacy. They should again have 260 horsepower and 277 pound-feet of torque. That’s enough for drama-free acceleration — once underway. Getting away from a stop and accelerating from low-speed coasting is hampered by pronounced turbo lag, a delay in response before the turbocharger delivers its boost. It’s unseemly enough to cause us to recommend an Outback with the naturally aspired engine. 

Part of the blame goes to the continuously variable transmission. Like other CVTs, it delivers power in the manner of a rheostat rather than via discrete gear ratios. And Subaru provides steering-wheel paddles that allow the driver to tap a “manual” mode that simulates eight individual gear ratios. But even that can’t prevent this transmission from exaggerating the XT’s turbo lag. In fact, until Subaru gets the turbo and CVT to work in better harmony, we advise Outback shoppers to consider the less powerful but more predictably linear 2.5-liter engine.

Aided in no small measure by the relatively low roofline, the 2021 Outback should again feel more nimble than taller-profile midsize-crossover rivals. There’s less body lean in turns and better resistance to gusty crosswinds. All Outbacks track confidently in a straight line and are generally well-balanced once you enter a turn. But there’s too much residual body motion on wavy pavement and in quick changes of direction to keep any model from qualifying as a sporty handler. Subaru could well tune a Sport version’s suspension to tighten on-road handling, and we’d urge it to consider calibrating the CVT for sharper response, too. 

A compelling attribute of any ’21 Outback should again be ride quality. Expect excellent bump absorption, even on pockmarked roads. Credit goes in part to that long-travel suspension, but also to tires with generous sidewalls. Wind rush and road ruckus are non-issues and both engines accelerate with a unique but not unpleasant growl, then recede to near silence at cruising speeds.

Subaru’s AWD system delivers an extra measure of confidence on dry surfaces, in snow, and in fairly challenging off-roading. 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. And with ground clearance a near-best-in-class 8.7 inches, any ’21 Outback will again be surprisingly capable away from pavement.

Included is the automaker’s driver-selectable X-Mode setting that optimizes the system to reduce tire spin and provide crawl-speed downhill assist. Dual-mode X-Mode with Snow/Dirt and Deep Snow/Mud settings was exclusive to the Onyx XT for 2020; we’d urge Subaru to make it available on more trims for ‘21.

Will 2021 Subaru Outback fuel economy improve?

2020 Outback Onyx Edition XT

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 Outback Base, Premium, and Limited with the 2.5-liter engine to again rate 26/33/29 mpg city/highway/combined. Look for the 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 idle stop/start designed to save gas by shutting off the engine (leaving accessories running) when the crossover is stationary, then automatically restarting it when the driver releases the brake pedal.

We’ve experienced inconsistent behavior from Outback’s system. Our ’20 Touring XT review sample restarted with a shudder that reverberated through the cabin. Idle stop-start can be disabled, but instead of a simple button as many other automakers provide, Subaru requires a dive deep into the infotainment menus to locate the shutoff control. And the system automatically reengages each time you manually restart the vehicle.

Will there be new 2021 Subaru Outbackfeatures?

2020 Outback Onyx Edition XT

Other than the combination of items that might make up any Sport trim, expect no change to Outback’s laudable array of standard and optional equipment. A selling point will again be Subaru’s EyeSight suite of driver-assistance features as standard on every trim level.

Employing a pair of forward-facing cameras flanking the rearview mirror, EyeSight includes autonomous emergency braking to stop the crossover and mitigate a frontal collision, adaptive cruise control to maintain a set distance from traffic ahead, and lane-departure warning with automatic steering correction.

Subaru deserves credit for making these safety systems standard on even the lowest-priced Outback. But we’ve found forward-collision warning overly sensitive. And our 2020 Touring XT disconcertingly activated autonomous braking when the crossover was more than far enough from traffic ahead for the driver to safely stop on their own. Had there been another vehicle behind, the sudden deceleration could have caused our Outback to be rear-ended.

2020 Outback Onyx Edition XT

In addition to features already mentioned, the ’21 Outback Base model should continue to come with single-zone automatic climate control and dual front USB charging ports. Premium grades would again 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 an Outback Sport grade joins the ’21 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. The ’21 Onyx Edition XT should have similar standard equipment but use the turbocharged engine.

Along with features covered earlier, look for the naturally aspirated 2021 Outback Limited and the turbocharged Limited XT to continue with a power front-passenger seat, heated outboard rear seats, and Harman Kardon-brand audio. The flagship ’21 Outback Touring and Touring XT would again include all that, plus a power sunroof, ventilated front seats, and a heated steering wheel.

Will 2021 Subaru Outback prices be different?

2020 Outback Onyx Edition XT

Base prices almost certainly will increase marginally, likely no more than several hundred dollars. Don’t expect options prices to change. For reference, here are 2020 Outback prices; base prices include 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. Figure a base price around $32,000 for a new Sport model.

The 2020 Outback Limited was priced from $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.

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

When does the 2021 Subaru Outback come out?

Expect a 2021 Subaru Outback release date in fall 2020.

Best 2021 Subaru Outback 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]