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Having been on the market since 2000, the Subaru Outback is always a favorite, and for good reason. This mid-size SUV straddles the fence between being an SUV and the station wagon it once was back in the day. And, really, this middle ground is a great place to be. The Forester sits right beneath it, and above it is the Ascent. All of them are good vehicles, but the Outback is really a stand-out performer for its class.
Last year, the Outback was totally overhauled for its new generation, so do not expect to see too many changes on the 2021 line-up. The 2020 Outbacks got treated to a new 11.6-inch tablet infotainment interface and an advanced Driver Focus system that utilizes a monitor with infrared technology to tell whether a driver has become drowsy or distracted. The Outback also got two new engine options: a 2.5-L 4-cylinder boxer and a 2.4-L turbo. Both engine options are excellent, but the turbo has proven itself to be both particularly powerful and fuel-efficient, especially compared to the Outback's former non-turbo 6-cylinder.
The 2021 Outback line-up offers a lot of fantastic things: a cozy cabin that is spacious as can be, the turbo engine that we just cannot get enough of, the excellent off-roading capabilities, and the ease with which you can load bulky items onto the roof and inside of the cargo area. Of course, Subaru typically excels with this, but other SUVs in this segment do not.
Now, the Outback does have some drawbacks that buyers should take note of before making any sort of commitment. The Outback has that big new touchscreen that, while it looks cool, is impractical since it reduces small item storage space up front. Some of the buttons on it are kind of small, too (such as the automatic climate control buttons). Also, the XT turbo models make for a pretty bumpy ride. But some of this is just nitpicky stuff.
The 2021 Subaru Outback definitely warrants a test drive. But which trim level should you go with? You get some pretty good options, but you need to be aware of which trim levels have which standard features and mechanical specs. Hence the purpose of this trim level comparison review. Be sure to read on through to the end, as we will announce which trim level we think presents the average buyer with the absolute best deal.
Compare the 2021 Subaru Outback Base vs Premium - What is the Difference?
Let's start things out by discussing the 2021 Subaru Outback's base trim (simply known as the Base) and the Premium, which is the second trim level up. Like all of the vehicles in the line-up, all-wheel-drive comes standard. They are both powered by the 2.5-L 4-cylinder engine paired up with a Lineartronic CVT transmission. This powertrain generates 182 hp and 176 lb-ft of torque. All Outbacks have a max towing capacity of 2,700 pounds.
Other standard mechanical features and specs on both trim levels include X-MODE (a system that optimizes the transmission ratio and engine output, reduces wheelspin, and boosts AWD), hill descent control, vehicle dynamics control, traction control, and active torque vectoring. This powertrain gets an EPA rating of 26 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway and has an 18.5 gallon fuel tank. The chassis includes electric power assisted steering, a 4-wheel independent raised suspension, and a brake override system.
All trim levels in the line-up get 8.7 inches of ground clearance which, coupled with standard AWD, makes for quite a capable off-roading vehicle. These two trim levels both ride atop 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels done in black with machine finish. The body includes LED steering responsive headlights, body-colored door handles, variable intermittent windshield wipers, a fixed-intermittent rear windshield washer, a rear window wiper, and raised roof rails. While the Base trim level is equipped with black folding side mirrors, the Premium is upgraded to body-colored folding side mirrors that have integrated turn signals.
What can you expect to find inside? These trim levels both have 32.5 cubic feet of cargo space when all seats are left in place. When you fold them down, this number maxes out to an abundant 75.7 cubes - certainly enough to pack up some camping gear and go on an adventure. On the base trim, there is a 6-way manually adjustable driver seat and 4-way manually adjustable front passenger seat. The Premium receives a respectable upgrade of a 10-way power adjustable driver seat with power lumbar support; the front passenger seat gains power adjustability too. The rear seat has a 60/40-split fold and can also be reclined for extra comfort. Cloth upholstery is standard in both trims.
Standard convenience features on the Base and Premium trim levels include an electronic parking brake, an automatic on/off wiper that is linked to the headlights, and auto-up/down with pinch protection on both front windows. Advanced adaptive cruise control is standard, and it can work in conjunction with Lane Departure Warning (which comes with the EyeSight Assist bundle of driver aids). Controls for that and the audio (as well as other controls) are integrated into the steering wheel for easy access. The three-spoke steering wheel is part of a manually adjustable tilt and telescoping steering column, and there are transmission paddle shifters equipped.
Up front, the console gets 2 USB inputs, but the Premium gains two more in the rear. There are a grand total of eight bottle holders and cup holders, and there is an overhead console for convenience. The sun visors are both rigged with illumination for their vanity mirrors, and the cargo area comes with tie-down and grocery bag hooks, under-floor storage, a removable cargo tray, and rear seatback release levers. The Premium also gets a removable and retractable cover for the cargo area. Also, single-zone automatic climate control is standard.
A 7-inch touchscreen display accompanies the STARLINK infotainment system on the Base, which gives you access to features like smartphone app integration (Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are both available), SiriusXM Satellite Radio and Travel Link, and Bluetooth hands-free wireless audio streaming and phone calls. The Premium upgrades you to the newer 11.6-inch touchscreen and a system that adds NFC technology into the mix. Also take note that the Base gets a 4-speaker sound system while the Premium is upped to a 6-speaker system. It also gains 4G LTE WiFi capabilities.
We have already briefly mentioned the EyeSight bundle, but we need to go into more detail with it. This system comes on every trim level and equips it with pre-collision braking, a lane departure warning, lane centering with advanced cruise control, and lane keep assist. Other handy safety features include automatic high beams, brake assist, and a rear-view camera.
Compare the 2021 Subaru Outback Premium vs Limited - What is the Difference?
We've already spent a lot of time discussing the Base and Premium, so it is time to see how the Limited stacks up against its siblings. This trim level also has the 2.5-L engine equipped, and basically all of the mechanical specs are the same. The only exterior difference is that the wheel size is upped to 18 inches.
Inside, the front passenger seat becomes 8-way power adjustable. Also, you can now opt for a heated steering wheel, and heating on the front and rear outboard seats is standard per the included All-Weather Package. The cloth upholstery from the lower trims is replaced by chic leather on the Limited.
Where the real changes lie is with the amenities. Subaru equips the Limited trim level with standard keyless vehicle access (including with a push-button code), a hands-free power rear gate that can automatically close, 2-position driver's seat memory and mirror settings, HomeLink on the auto-dimming rear-view mirror, auto-up/down on all of the windows with the anti-pinch feature included, and a stellar Harman Kardon premium sound system.
As far as safety goes, there is an option that opens up for the Driver Focus system. Standard features include reverse braking and a blind spot monitoring system. Like the Premium the STARLINK Safety and Security system is standard issue, as is everything else.
Compare the 2021 Subaru Outback Limited vs Touring - What is the Difference?
The Touring trim level really ups the ante when it comes to creature comforts. On the outside, you will see more luxurious touches, such as the satin chrome finish on the power-folding side mirrors, chrome inserts on the door handles, and the power tilting and sliding glass moonroof (which is optional on the Premium and Limited trim levels).
On the inside, though, you will see much more. The Touring benefits from ventilated front seats, a heated steering wheel, and Nappa leather upholstery. Navigation gets added to the 11.6-inch STARLINK Multimedia Plus system and can be accessed with voice recognition technology. A CD player gets thrown in for good measure, and Driver Focus becomes standard as well.
Compare the 2021 Subaru Outback Touring vs Onyx Edition XT. - What is the Difference?
Here we are at the top of the line-up. You're probably wondering what the Onyx Edition XT could possibly add that isn't on the lower trims. Well, the first and most obvious thing is the new 2.4-L turbocharged DOHC engine, which is mated with the CVT. This engine generates a power output of 260 hp and 277 lb-ft of torque. The fuel economy does drop a bit to 23 mpg in the city and 30 mpg on the highway.
As the name tends to hint at, a lot more black gets added. There are 18-inch wheels with all black finish and a crystal black silica finish to the side mirrors. Note that the Onyx Edition's standard features list echoes the Premium's, not the Touring's.
Inside, the Onyx receives water-resistant Star Tex upholstery. The only other noteworthy difference is that an option is open for reverse automatic braking. With the Onyx Edition XT, the changes are definitely aesthetic more than anything, save for the engine.
Which Trim to Choose?
We are going to leave things off by telling you straight-up that the Premium is the trim level to get for a shopper operating on a tight-ish budget. Moderately priced but chock full of standard features, the Premium gives you a ton of bang for your buck. The new standard engine provides the Outback with a respectable fuel economy, and its ride quality is superior to that on the XT.
However, if you do have some extra room in your budget, the Onyx Edition XT is pretty cool. The upgraded upholstery is bound to be a real hit with parents of young children since it is able to repel water. The upgraded engine does give quite a bit more power if that is something you require from a vehicle.
Still, we think that the Premium is going to have the broadest appeal.
• Compare the 2020 Subaru Outback Trim Levels