Subaru launches next generation Outback in New York

Key Points
  • For Subaru, the Outback has been a key to its ongoing success.
  • It recorded its 10th consecutive annual sales record last year.
  • The new gen-six Outback has grown even larger than the original, and it now boasts a full 8.7 inches of ground clearance.
2020 Suburu Outback
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

There aren't many products that can claim to have saved a brand, but the Outback is widely credited with turning things around for a struggling Subaru when it was introduced 25 years ago.

Little more than a tall version of the automaker's Legacy wagon, the first-generation Outback also helped set the crossover boom into motion. Crossover utility vehicles, or CUVs, are now the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. automotive market. For Subaru, in particular, the Outback has been a key to its ongoing success. The automaker's U.S. subsidiary last year recorded its 10th consecutive annual sales record.

So, the Japanese automaker has a lot riding on the sixth-generation Outback making its debut at the New York International Auto Show on Wednesday. Still sharing the same underpinnings as the latest version of the Subaru Legacy line, the new Outback is expected to become one of Subaru's first models to be electrified during a life cycle that will take it into the middle of the next decade.

Pricing for the 2020 Subaru Outback won't be released until closer to the new model's on-sale date next autumn. The current Outback starts at $26,345.

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The original Subaru Outback was a definite oddity, basically a Legacy on steroids with a full 7.3 inches of ground clearance. Of course, it didn't hurt for the then-struggling automaker to have signed up Paul Hogan, the Australian actor who was then reaching the height of his fame in the "Crocodile Dundee" film franchise.

The gen-six Outback has grown even larger than the original, and it now boasts a full 8.7 inches of ground clearance.

The familial similarities to the Legacy is immediately apparent, though Subaru has tried to put a bit more room, at least from a styling perspective, between the two nameplates. There's a vertical array of LED lamps along the Outback's lower fascia, according to the teaser image released by the automaker, a different layout than on the new Legacy. And there's plenty of black cladding on bumpers, fenders and sills that you don't see on the sedan.

Like the 1994 model, all Outbacks have shared their underpinnings with the more conventional Subaru Legacy family. This time, that starts with the brand's new global architecture — which will underpin the majority of other Subaru models going forward. The platform is said to be stiffer, offering better ride dynamics, and it is expected to have a better layout for future moves into electrification.

2020 Suburu Outback
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

While not ready to discuss future product plans, Subaru of America CEO Tom Doll has not hidden the fact that the brand will have to start using battery power over the next few years in order to meet increasingly stringent emissions and mileage standards. At the very least, the new Outback is widely expected to opt for a "mild" hybrid system and could even go for a more advanced form of battery propulsion before the seventh-generation line is launched around 2025.

For now, the crossover will feature a 2.5-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder boxer engine making 182 horsepower and 176 pound-feet of torque. The performance upgrade will be a 2.4-liter boxer four making 260 hp and 277 pound-feet of torque. A CVT will be paired to both engines and, as is the case on every Subaru model but the BRZ sports car, the automaker's symmetrical all-wheel-drive system will be standard on the 2020 Outback.

Subaru has been one of the most aggressive of the mainstream automotive brands when it comes to adding new safety and drive-assistance technologies to its new models. Its stereo camera-based EyeSight Driver Assist Technology will be offered as standard fare on the 2020 Outback and now includes technologies like advanced adaptive cruise control with lane centering, and DriverFocus Distraction Mitigation System. The latter system uses an infrared camera and facial recognition technology to recognize when a driver is growing drowsy, following up with visual and audio alerts.

A new forward-facing camera is also available for 2020 and can assist a driver, whether they're going off-road or trying to watch for a curb when parking.

Subaru has been moving to upgrade its interiors over the last several years and, with the 2020 Outback, is adding a new premium-grade model, the Onyx Edition.