Off-roading we go. Few crossover SUVs dare go where the Jeep Wrangler treads. Count the 2021 Subaru Outback as one exception.

Thanks to a rigid body, robust suspension, and computer-driven control, the Outback makes a case for itself. This trail-stomping utility vehicle can handle most off-road terrain and does so without the benefit of a locking differential or a transfer case.

Instead, its X-mode technology serves as a traction control system, especially ideal for navigating steep descents. Indeed, with the system on and your foot off the brake, all you need to do is steer. The system adjusts the Outback’s speed although we do recommend keeping your foot ready for personal braking as needed.

You’ll control X-Mode through the infotainment display. The system automatically disengages at speeds above 25 mph, so keep this in mind if you’re going from an off-road romp to a craggy remote. That’s when you’ll need to re-engage the system to handle the terrain at hand. Also working to your advantage is 8.7 inches of ground clearance.

On-road drive. Two engine choices give Outback shoppers a lot to consider. Both are flat four-cylinders with horizontally opposed cylinders, what we know as a boxer design. Boxer engines sit lower in the engine bay and are ideal for sports cars. They work well in all-wheel-drive utility vehicles too, ensuring balance and simplicity. They’re less complex too with fewer parts to repair.

The standard 2.5-liter motor makes 182 horsepower and 176 pound-feet of torque. Power moves to all four wheels utilizing a continuously variable transmission (CVT).

The CVT is much improved over earlier versions, losing the rubber-band feel with its simulated gear changes. Thanks to sound-deadening materials, it doesn’t seem as noisy when the engine is working in the midrange.

Upgrading to the 2.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine brings forth 260 hp and 277 lb-ft of torque. This new motor, which drives the range-topping Subaru Ascent, replaces the previous 3.6-liter six-cylinder. As much as we laud the power delivered, we’d stick with the base engine, as it’s strong enough to fulfill its mission.

Subaru Outback

Synonymous with safety. Subaru equals safety. At least that’s what this manufacturer touts. We don’t disagree. In fact, the company’s safety record is supported by both the insurance industry-backed IIHS and the federal NHTSA. Both award the Outback with their respective highest honor.

Every Outback comes with automatic emergency braking, lane keeping assist, and adaptive cruise control. Add that to the standard all-wheel drive, and the Outback is a formidable competitor in its range. Widely available blind-spot monitoring and a front-facing camera for better parking vision are other features of note.

Improved cabin refinement. Previous Outback models were big on what we call “penalty-grade black plastic.” No, Subaru hasn’t eliminated plastic everywhere, but the current version has a more refined look.

The interior is durable with soft-touch materials covering the dashboard and nicely padded cloth front seats front and back. Upgrading to leather or finer hides increases the comfort quotient, especially when available front seat heating and cooling are chosen.

Four passengers sit in comfort; five in a pinch. Access to the rear compartment is easy for tall passengers thanks to wide rear doors. The Outback’s head room is better than the similar Subaru Legacy sedan, allowing for a pair of six-footers to sit comfortably inside.

Final thoughts. The 2021 Subaru Outback remains a cost-effective entry point to all things off-roading. Where robust off-roaders often cost $40,000 or more, a generously equipped Outback can be had for about $30,000. The Outback takes a different approach to off-roading, but in the end, it will take you there.

Check prices for the 2021 Subaru Outback »