The wheels hummed smoothly across the pavement, trees blurring past, the endless evergreens interspersed with flashes of yellow aspen, painting an autumnal gold-flecked landscape along the road from Whitehorse to Skagway, Alaska.
Subaru had hinted at this kind of wild setting six months ago with transplanted trees decorating a downtown stage for the debut of the 2020 Subaru Outback at the New York Auto Show.
But the real north was more impressive.
Ditto for the Outback, running on the road instead of sitting in static display in midtown Manhattan.
We blasted down Klondike mountain highways and long sweepers, climbed dirt tracks and scrambled gingerly over rocky off-road trails.
The very first Outback, that also debuted in New York a quarter of a century ago, may not have been the originator of the species, but it certainly popularized a revolutionary take on sport utility, dropping truck-based, ladder frame limitations in favour of car-platform civilities, improved handling and better fuel economy.
It’s a simple enough formula
Take the Subaru Legacy wagon’s inherent advantages of all-wheel-drive and the boxer engine’s lower centre of gravity, add a suspension lift and bigger wheels for more ground clearance, some roof rack rails, funky foglights, also add a splash of SUV-style body cladding, a dash of “Crocodile Dundee” marketing and, ta-daah, the Outback, a new style of SUV was born.
Six generations later, the 2020 Outback is bigger, better and a tiny bit bolder with a slightly revised exterior design, new LED lighting, pushed-out fenders, pronounced wheel arches and restyled lower cladding that is supposed to be “reminiscent of a hiking boot”.
The real changes hide under the skin. The Outback is longer (+36 mm), wider (+57 mm) and taller (+7 mm).
The new layout allows for more rear legroom (+37 mm) and a slightly longer cargo area (+5 mm). A wider rear track (+15 mm) adds more corresponding space between the wheel wells for increased passenger and luggage room.
And, while we’re back there, let’s mention an all-new hands-free power tailgate along with a revised tonneau cover that conveniently pops up with a nudge of your elbow when you have your hands full.
Up front, the 2020 Outback features a comfy cabin with new interior refinements but the biggest change involves new infotainment options – a base twin seven-inch screen display or an up-sized 11.6-inch vertically-mounted tablet-style display. There are smooth surface controls, duplicated on the steering wheel and, thankfully, some hard-buttoned controls and knobs for volume, tuning, temperature, defrost and other menu items. The system works nicely with minimal hunting, pecking and scrolling. The infotainment includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto along with a host of other apps including STARLINK telematics.
You can even book your next service appointment onscreen.
Subaru’s EyeSight suite of dynamic assists now comes standard in Outback, adding Lane Centering Assist to a long list of technologies. The DriverFocus Distraction Mitigation System that first debuted on the 2019 Forester, monitors drivers via dash cam for distraction or drowsiness.
Under the hood, the Outback offers two engine choices. The standard 2.5-litre four-cylinder features 90 percent new parts and now comes with direct injection and auto stop/start (182 hp, 176 lb/ft).
The base engine pulls well enough but, even with a nominal power increase, still feels somewhat limited under passing duress.
The Outback XT lineup returns with a new turbocharged inter-cooled 2.4-litre four-cylinder (260 hp, 277 lb/ft) that improves on the previous optional 3.6-litre six-cylinder version (256 hp, 247 lb/ft). The optional turbo bumps the tow rating to 1,590 kg (3,500 lb).
And it adds a little extra performance chutzpah even on regular octane fuel, knocking almost a full second off the former six-cylinder’s acceleration time, clocking in now at 6.4 sec (0-100 km/h).
Both engines are mated to re-engineered Lineartronic continuously variable transmissions (CVT) with paddle shifters and a new eight-speed manual mode.
Channeling power to Subaru’s standard Symmetrical full-time all-wheel drive, the Outback also features active torque vectoring, a steering assist first introduced on WRX and WRX STI performance models. A standard X-Mode system, designed to tackle all weather and road conditions, adds a new available dual-function version offering Snow/Dirt and Deep Snow/Mud modes for even more on- or off-road capability.
Our off-road testing demonstrated brake-free hill descent control for steep challenges and a new optional front-view camera scans a 180-degree view for tight twists and turns.
Other new features include the LED lighting, roof rails with integrated cross rails with tie-downs, a revised rear camera system with washer, platform reinforcements, new aerodynamic undercovers, added sound absorption materials and innovative mudguard slits to reduce air turbulence and noise.
The 2020 Subaru Outback comes in seven trims – Convenience ($30,695), Touring ($34,795), Limited ($38,995), Premier ($40,995), Outdoor XT ($38,695) Limited XT ($41,795) and Premier XT ($43,695).
I leaned towards the Outdoor XT, a new off-roadish weekend warrior in dark trim – a black grille, black mirrors, black badging and black-painted alloy wheels – along with green accent stitching, weather-resistant fabric seats, all-weather floor mats, a full-size spare and Dual-function X-Mode. Very nice.
But customers can match their personal preferences with whatever trim and content level they desire, knowing that the Subaru combination of handling and control will tackle any condition with aplomb, from plaza shopping excursions to the roughest cottage tracks.
And, as for taking on the Yukon?