The 2020 Subaru Outback impresses with its trail capability, owed to its stiffer body, stronger suspension, and X-Mode off-road setting. In our First Drive, we covered about 30 miles of trails, ranging from bumpy dirt roads, tight switchbacks, a few steep pitches—plus a jaunt through a lagoon. Here’s what you need to know if you want to get dirty with your Outback.
Foot off the brake
Being told by your spotter to enter a steep descent without touching the brakes is disconcerting, but X-Mode’s hill descent control quickly earns trust. It smartly brakes each wheel individually to maintain confidence-inspiring traction without letting speeds get too high—all you need to do is steer. Still, hover your foot above the stoppers just in case.
Foot on the gas
X-Mode is essentially a traction control system; there are no locking differentials or transfer cases as in true off-road vehicles. As such, its computers sometimes need a moment to sort things out. For example, slowly entering a sharp uphill right hander, the wheels started to spin in the loose surface as pitch increased. We backed off the gas, but the spotter told us to keep on it. We did, and could feel the system trying different power distribution between corners. Soon, it found the sweet spot, hooked up, and hauled us to the top.
Don’t be alarmed
The Outback has multiple driver assist and crash avoidance features meant to boost road safety. On the verdant trails we drove, ferns and twigs triggered the systems, sounding alerts and sending messages to the dashboard. Once, when riding in a Crosstrek support vehicle, it slammed on the brakes as we slowly reversed—some tall grass registered as an obstacle. You may want to turn these systems off before you hit the dirt, so you can focus without undue anxiety. Just make sure to turn them back on when you return to civilization.
Keep it slow
Keep this in mind if your trails have faster sections: X-Mode only works up to 25 mph. Much of our drive rolled along narrow forest paths, interspersed by open meadows where we could increase speed. When slowing again, the sudden absence of X-Mode’s assistance caught us off guard. We’d inadvertently crossed the system’s speed limit, and so it disengaged automatically. It doesn’t reactivate itself, but it’s easy to do so with a toggle on the infotainment screen.
On the road, the Outback’s CVT numbs accelerator response as it figures out what ratio is best for the conditions. On the trail, popping the shifter into manual mode makes a big difference; locking the transmission into set ranges tangibly improved its reaction. We trundled around mostly in first and shifted into second a handful of times, but this helped the Outback stay smooth, as we could better use power to maintain speed. Added engine braking helped X-Mode with descending, too.
Forget your aspirations of rally car ripping in the turbocharged Outback XT: It doesn’t feel any sportier or more capable on the trail. On the road, that extra power comes out when merging and passing. When crawling along on dirt, the turbo isn’t spooled enough to make a difference—at least, not at the speeds we were willing to go in a car that wasn’t ours.
Toss it like it’s hot
We sometimes harp about cars lacking steering weight and feel, and on the road, the Outback is an offender. On the trail, however, this absence seemed helpful. We didn’t have to wrestle the wheel as ruts and bumps acted against it, and its lightness enabled quick motions to maintain a smooth path over the terrain. On the road we’d prefer more feel, but for trails the Outback’s effortless steering helped us feel relaxed.
In theory, the available grille-mounted front-view camera helps the driver see and navigate tough terrain. In practice, it’s not very useful. Resolution is fairly low, and when enabled, it takes up only the top half of the 11.6-inch touchscreen. True off-roaders benefit from trail cameras like this, but the Outback isn’t one. Any terrain it might help on would overwhelm the Subaru. Fortunately, a windshield is standard, and it proves much more useful for seeing what’s ahead.
Want to modify your Outback with beefier rubber or a suspension lift? Be careful: The EyeSight safety system’s cameras are specifically calibrated around the stock ride height. Any change in stature would compromise adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, and more. Subaru says EyeSight can be recalibrated to adapt, and that’ll be a necessary part of your process if you up your Outback. However…
What’s to come?
Like many off-road enthusiasts, we think burlier versions of regular vehicles, like the Ford F-150 Raptor or Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro, are pretty rad. In our post-drive conversations with Subaru, we asked if the automaker might apply such a treatment to the Outback. “We’re thinking about it” was the answer. Brand reps were cagey on details, but a simple suspension lift and more trail-oriented tires (a la Crosstrek) would be an easy way to increase the Outback’s capability. If Subaru follows through, we’d head straight to more technical trails to test it.
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