Outback hardly resembles last

If there was ever a “hero” model in Subaru’s lineup, the Outback would most certainly qualify.

Not long ago, Subaru was viewed as that quirky car company with a small-and-devoted following, but one that was capable of generating only modest interest among mainstream car shoppers.

The Legacy-based Outback that launched for 1995 was the game-changer that helped the company forge new friendships and win over converts to the practicality of all-wheel-drive. Successive versions have built on the success of the original, with the 2010 model representing the biggest leap yet in terms of size and available power. The wagon’s all-new platform stretches the distance between the front and rear wheels by 2.8 inches and interior repackaging adds nearly 4 inches of rear-seat legroom. As well, a 4-inch increase in height and a 2-inch wider body makes for a roomier cabin and contributes to a 9 percent gain in cargo capacity (with the rear seat folded). And for off-road adventuring, ground clearance has increased to 8.7 inches from 8.4.

Coinciding with the bigger-is-better philosophy, Subaruhas massaged the Outback’s design so that it displays a more rugged appearance, particularly around the rocker panels, below the front and rear bumpers and with more pronounced fender openings. These changes are in stark contrast to remaining sheetmetal that projects an upscale and glamorous image. As a result, the Outback seems to have more in common with its larger Tribeca-sport-ute sibling than the equally new 2010 Legacy sedan upon which it is based.

The only hint of Outback carryover resides under the hood of base models, which continue to use a 170-horsepower 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine. Here, two banks of pistons are positioned at 180 degrees from each other rather than the standard inline design. The result is a shorter engine that can be positioned lower to the ground. There are all-new transmission choices consisting of a six-speed manual, or optional continuously variable unit (CVT) that includes column-mounted paddle controls that can activate six preselected steps that mimic a regular automatic.

Available is a 3.6-liter six-cylinder powerplant that was originally created for the Tribeca. With this choice there’s 256 horsepower and 247 pound-feet of torque on tap, 11 horses and 32 pound-feet of torque more than the 3.0-liter six offered on last year’s Outback. Also impressive is that the 3.6 feeds on regular-grade gas, while the 3.0 required premium. In this instance, the only transmission available is a five-speed automatic.

Amazingly, the Outback comes with one of three different all-wheel-drive systems, depending on the model selected. Four-cylinder versions fitted with a six-speed manual transmission come with a center differential that, in normal operating conditions, splits the power equally between the front and rear wheels, but can send more torque to either end of the vehicle as required. With CVT-equipped models, the AWD system is electronically engaged and continuously varies front/rear power split according to driving conditions.

The AWD system in six-cylinder Outbacks skews the torque bias to the rear wheels under normal situations, but will parcel out added traction to the front wheels when needed.

All Outbacks arrive in a relatively complete state, including a reclining rear seat, roof rails with built-in cross bars that swing-out when needed and an electronic parking brake that also features a system that holds the vehicle in place on an incline until the accelerator is depressed.

At the top end, Limited editions add dual-zone climate control, leather upholstery plus the availability of a voice-activated navigation system and hands-free Bluetooth cellular communications.

As with other brands that have survived as long as the Outback, the natural evolution of form and function can alter their appeal as they become more luxurious and athletic. Still, this is one Subaru that has earned its newfound style and substance stripes as the wagon that became a legend.

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