- The Washington Times - Friday, March 29, 2002

Some sport utility vehicles require extra effort to drive. That's not the case with the Subaru Outback; this wagon is a piece of cake to manage.

My test drive was enjoyable from start to finish because I felt at ease behind the wheel. Making the atmosphere even better was the plush interior of the test car: an L.L. Bean Edition.

Furthermore, this Outback now has a more powerful engine. Let's back up a few years to 1995 when the Outback was introduced. Subaru labeled the vehicle a sport utility wagon because it had many of the off-road advantages with its full-time all-wheel drive. Yet it had the handling convenience of a sedan, unlike SUVs with heavier truck bodies.

Through the years, improved variations have been added, leading to this vehicle the Outback H6-3.0 L.L. Bean Edition Wagon new for 2002. The H6-3.0 in its name refers to the 3-liter six-cylinder engine that produces 212 horsepower and is linked to a four-speed automatic transmission. Although this is not dynamite power, acceleration is better that I had expected, especially when entering a freeway. The reason is the H6 engine is capable of producing 80 percent of its torque at just 2,000 rpm. But unlike larger SUVs, this wagon has an Environmental Protection Agency mileage rating of 20 city, 26 highway.

As for the Outback's all-wheel drive, this system has been synonymous with Subaru for about 30 years. Now there is another improvement: yaw control. Should the wagon get out of control, the system kicks in by calculating where the driver wants to go through the steering input and gets the wagon back on course. Considering all the mechanical advantages included on this wagon, the base price of $29,495 is very good.

The L.L. Bean Edition was loaded with treatments expected only in high-priced luxury vehicles. The two-toned leather seats and the leather-and-wood steering wheel were the first things to catch my eye.

Then I played around with the eight-way power seats with heat control and checked out the air conditioning system with automatic climate control.

Other neat features included auto-down power window, dual power moon roof, intermittent rear-window wipers and washer, keyless entry with a security system, and an auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass.

Other notable features are 24-hour roadside assistance for three years and a good warranty.

But these weren't the reasons for my enjoyable test drive. I don't care about warranties; I want to know how a vehicle handles and steers. The answer: just like a car.

In many respects, the Outback is like a car for accommodating passengers, too. Comfortable bucket seats are available in front, and the rear seat can accommodate three passengers. With only two passengers, the rear offers a center armrest. Unlike a car, however, the rear roof line is a bit higher, which provides more head space for those in the rear seat.

Behind the 60/40 split-rear seat is a spacious cargo area with access through a rear door hatch. Raised, it provides protection from rain when loading items from a shopping cart. But it is a bit of a stretch to pull the hatch shut. If hauling more cargo is required, there is a roof rack. One annoyance was the tin-can sound emitted when I closed the driver's door. Everything else was upscale, but there was that "clank" when I shut the door.

For those in the market for a big sport utility vehicle, my suggestion is to think a bit smaller. It makes driving much more enjoyable.

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