Subarus tend to appeal to buyers who drive a little to one side or the other of the main market traffic flow, but is that enough reason for the company to still offer the redesigned-for-2010, still-not-quite-a-crossover but still-something-of-an-oddity Outback?
Well, Subaru has just bitten the bullet and discontinued its low-volume Legacy wagon, to which the Outback could be seen as an alternative. But customers looking for a little more utility and trendiness than its sedans offer could easily opt for the compact Forester or the mid-size Tribeca instead of the still wagon-like Outback.
Maybe it has something to do with catering to a loyal following. If a "crossover" is really just a new and taller take on the station wagon, Outback buyers have been telling themselves for about 15 years, why not opt for the real thing instead?
But it's a wagon optimized to deal with Canadian winters, perhaps some modest off-roading or at least rough-roading and possessing enough styling panache they didn't feel like they had to ask dad or mom for the keys before taking it for a spin.
Or perhaps Subaru figures that, with the arrival of this latest Outback, those who contemplate buying one won't feel they're missing out altogether on the latest automotive trend. What was once just a jacked-up station wagon, tarted up with some tough-guy body cladding, has with this redesign crossed over a bit more into the, well, crossover ranks.
And keeping it around wasn't a bad idea for one other very good reason. The Automobile Journalists Association of Canada recently voted the Outback the 2010 Best New SUV/CUV priced under $35,000 in its annual Canadian Car of The Year competition.
Despite this, I still think of it as a wagon rather than a crossover. But it's all notional anyway, isn't it - what's really important is what it does. And this latest Outback, particularly in very well-equipped 3.6R form, goes about its chores with more style, increased civility and more performance.
The Outback is available in a quartet of flat four-cylinder models (all with all-wheel-drive), starting at $28,995 for the PZEV, ranging up through the 2.5i Sport, 2.5i Limited and topping out at the $38,095 version with multimedia package. Plus a trio of equally flat but six-cylinder 3.6R versions starting at $35,695 and climbing to $40,795. The test Outback 3.6R was equipped with the Limited package and priced at $38,495.
The 2010 Outback is based on the new Legacy sedan, suitably rejigged for wagon/crossover duties with a bodywork extension abaft the B-pillars to accommodate cargo space and a rear hatch. And with understated styling touches that include a blocky squared-off plastic piece in the nose and matching sills to hint at off-road capability.
It's actually a tad shorter than the previous generation, but a significant 105 mm taller and 50 mm wider, which translates into a more CUV-like look outside and more passenger room and a worthwhile boost in cargo space inside (a new, more compact double-wishbone rear suspension and a 70-mm increase in wheelbase contribute as well).
With the rear split seatbacks upright, there's now 972 litres available (up from 847 litres) and with them folded 2,019 litres (up from 1,851 litres).
The roomier and quieter interior is very nicely done with leather upholstery (on seats most should find comfortable), faux wood, brushed aluminum and silver and chrome trim, bright and clear backlit instruments and an attractive centre stack housing the dual zone climate and audio systems that have simple and easy to use controls. Rear seat space is generous for two, particularly knee room.
And there's plenty of stuff, of course: front/side/side curtain airbags, full featured audio, voice-activated Bluetooth, leather-wrapped wheel with integrated controls, power driver's seat, heated seats and auto-on headlamps. There's also an electronic parking brake, compass and vehicle stability and traction control.
The 3.6R Outback is powered by a 3.6-litre "boxer" or horizontally opposed six borrowed from the Tribeca SUV that generates 256 hp at 6,000 rpm and 247 lb-ft of torque at 4,200 rpm (up from the 245 hp and 215 lb-ft produced by the previous 3.0-litre motor).
And it produces most of its torque over a wider range, which improves drivability. It could be a little better isolated though: it's not obtrusive, but you feel and hear it more than you perhaps should.
A five-speed Sportshift (steering-wheel paddles) transmission transmits power to the most sophisticated, Variable Torque Distribution, of the three Outback's AWD systems.
And the combination gives the Outback a worthwhile boost in performance, although the rather aggressive throttle tip-in (too abrupt when you touch the gas pedal to move off from stopped) takes a little adapting to.
Fuel economy ratings are 11.8 L/100 km city and 8.2 highway, which compare to 12.1 city/8.2 highway with the old engine. The roof rails actually help a bit here by having cross-pieces that swing and stow parallel to the side pieces, reducing aerodynamic drag.
Despite its increased height and ground clearance of 220 mm, the Outback's new longer wheelbase, wider track, and suspension tuning that's nicely balanced between ride and handling, give it a comfortable (if rather firm) and reassuringly confident feel on the road.
There's a natural enough weight to the steering and it turns with a pleasing directness, changing course willingly and with well-controlled roll.
Call it what you will, this latest Outback is a thoroughly pleasant and practical vehicle, which also happens to have a little more character than some rivals.
2010 SUBARU OUTBACK 3.6R LIMITED
Type: Compact crossover
Base Price: $35,695; as tested, $38,495
Engine: 3.6-litre, DOHC, boxer six
Horsepower/torque: 256 hp/ 247 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 11.8 city/8.2 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Chevrolet Equinox, Ford Edge, Hyundai Veracruz, Infiniti EX, Acura RDX, Lexus RX, Lincoln MKX, Mazda CX-7, Nissan Murano, Subaru Forester/Tribeca, Toyota Venza/Highlander, Volkswagen Tigaun, Mitsibushi Outlander