Is A Brand New 2020 Subaru Outback As Good As A 1978 Subaru DL Wagon Off-Road?

The all-new Outback tackles Tombstone Hill

The new sixth-generation 2020 Subaru Outback seeks to build upon the off-road legacy started by our 1978 Subaru DL wagon with 4WD. But since then the brand’s iconic wagon has gotten much bigger, much heavier, and much more luxurious. But has it leaps and bounds more capable when the pavement ends? There’s only one way to find out. In the video below, we take them both to Tombstone Hill, our new benchmark hillclimb high in the Colorado Rockies that tests a vehicle’s traction control, power, and AWD/4WD systems on a 30-degree incline of loose dirt, rock, and ruts.

2020 Subaru Outback Tombstone Bump
Three-wheeling the 2020 Subaru Outback.

What’s new for 2020?

From the outside, not much beyond new designs for the front and rear lights. The difference is in the frame: it’s stiffer and the wheelbase is longer, allowing for more interior space (and there is a ton of it) and legroom in the rear. Inside, the biggest upgrade is the massive vertical touchscreen in the center stack. It controls nearly everything in an easy and intuitive manner. This includes the traction control and Subaru’s “X-mode” function for better off road performance. Call us old-school, but we prefer physical buttons and a direct connection to the car for these types of vehicle controls.

What hasn’t changed is the 2.5-liter four-cylinder boxer engine in the Premium model we drove. Horsepower and torque climb slightly to 182 hp and 176 lb-ft, respectively. Unfortunately, the new Outback stays with a CVT instead of a conventional automatic. That’s a transmission choice that, in our experience, hamstrings the Outback’s symmetrical all-wheel drive system and its capability when rock-crawling and on loose dirt.

1978 Subaru DL 4WD: The Legend

Compared to the 2020 Outback, our DL is tiny, about the size of a new Mini tiny. The DL weighs next to nothing compared to the Outback, and its nimbleness makes its equally tiny engine adequate to the task. As we found when we took the DL to Moab, it can handle way, way more than you expect. This, despite its 42-year-old 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine drawing air through a carburetor and pumping out all of 67 horsepower and 81 ft-lb. of torque.

Helping the DL’s cause is a four-speed manual transmission and manual 4WD, which, when engaged is a true 4WD that drives all four wheels equally. As Tommy finds out, driving this DL on Tombstone is equal parts momentum, getting bounced around and not burning out the clutch. In other words: skill.

And the winner is…

Technically, both vehicles made it up Tombstone. They both made short work of “Truth,” the easier side of the climb. And they both made it up “Dare,” the rutted out and rockier side. However, the 2020’s AWD, X-Mode, and CVT made the climb look more challenging than it did for the DL.

Granted, a big part of that can be attributed to the Outback’s street-minded all-season tires. The Outback got the job done though, and that’s all that matters. Meanwhile, the DL continues to impress and serves as a reminder that a simple drivetrain and light-weight vehicle can hold its own against its great-great-great granddaughter even with three time less power and no fuel injection.

As Subaru of America does not provide TFL with press vehicles to review, we found and rented this 2020 Outback Premium through