- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 3, 2005

Often real innovation is left to smaller, more maneuverable companies better able to afford competing in niche segments. This holds true for just about any product from beer to automobiles. No company in the car business demonstrates this sort of guerilla marketing better than Subaru.

Stubbornly clinging to all-wheel drive in its sedans, wagons and small pickup trucks, it carved itself a profitable niche in the marketplace and waited for the industry to embrace the AWD-in-passenger-cars concept. Today’s plethora of AWD crossovers, cars and wagons vindicates Subaru’s loyalty to the idea and clearly establishes Subaru as an innovator.

Little more than the result of creative marketing, the Legacy Outback wagon rolled on to the scene a decade ago as the “SUV alternative.” It was no more than a Legacy wagon with some extra trimmings, such as bug-eye fog lights, and a catchy name. It was successful enough to finally put Subaru on the sales map. The problem with success, however, is it breeds competition and today any carmaker worth its salt has an AWD crossover, sedan or wagon.

As the giants of the automotive world have zeroed in on Subaru’s core business, it has struggled to stay ahead of the curve. Subaru separated Outback from Legacy as a distinct model in the lineup offering both sedans and wagons.

Available in an assortment of trim levels, the Outback wagon is anchored by its budget-priced Sport version. A very affordable $19,720, the Sport has a 165-horsepower edition of the flat 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that powers the bulk of the Outback (and Legacy) lineup. Its generous standard equipment list includes AWD, power windows/door locks/outboard mirrors, cruise control and an audio system with CD player.

Working your way up the price and performance ladder, there are also models with a 168-horsepower version of the same 2.5-liter four-banger. The 2.5 XT borrows the 250-horsepower turbocharged translation of the same engine from the hot-shoe Impreza WRX STi. At the top of the Outback heap are a couple of models powered by a 250-horsepower 3.0-liter horizontally opposed six-cylinder (H6) that isn’t offered in the Legacy. The flagship is the 3.0 R VDC Limited.

The redesign gave Outback more ground clearance. It’s up to about 8.4 inches plus depending on the trim level. This is half an inch more than the Ford Escape and a full inch more than Toyota Highlander. Because it has no low AWD setting, it still isn’t engineered for hard-core off roading; but it can go places many other car-based AWD vehicles can’t.

The H6 is much improved for 2005. Although the torque remains about the same as last year’s version (219 foot-pounds this year versus 210 foot-pounds last year), the horsepower takes a big jump from 212 last year to 250 this year.

Wonderfully nimble when negotiating crowded city streets, the 3.0 R VDC Limited is as well suited to daily commutes as it is to campaigning on snowy mountain roads. Although it delivers a very comfortable ride, its suspension is firm enough to ensure crisp handling. Thanks to a low center of gravity, sway and roll are minimized despite its benchmark ground clearance.

Front-seat passengers are treated to plenty of head and legroom. The back seat isn’t quite so accommodating, particularly for longer-legged occupants.

Subaru takes passenger safety seriously. In addition to the antilock disc brakes with Electronic Brakeforce Distribution on all four wheels, all Outbacks feature front side-impact air bags and side curtain air bags from the front to rear seat.

The top-of-the-line Outback 3.0 R VDC Limited also comes standard with an anti-skid stability control system (not available on the Legacy wagon). Its base sticker with destination charges is $33,970. Upgraded equipment found on it and the 3.0 R include dual powered sunroofs and a tire-pressure monitor.

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