Winter wonder: 2010 Subaru Outback

The surprise snowstorm that buried the Northeast over the 2010 New Year’s weekend was yet another reminder of the importance of all-wheel-drive for those who must occasionally do battle with the elements. Its benefits are both actual — better traction for slippery conditions — and psychological — reducing the worry about getting stuck.

Only a few manufacturers have really exploited all-wheel-drive because it adds weight and cost. But where an automaker like Audi is at the high end of the price spectrum, Subaru is aiming squarely at the heart of the market, where it is making a big splash.

After years of laboring in relative obscurity, 2009 was a breakout year for Subaru. The automaker was one of the very few to see its sales actually increase, and the latest Outback was selected by a panel of automotive journalists as one of the three finalists for North American truck (read: SUV) of the year.

Back in the day, the Outback was little more than a tarted-up version of Subaru’s Legacy wagon, with lower body cladding, higher ground clearance, and a stiffer price. To make the most of its aspirations as an off-road-going SUV, actor Paul Hogan reprised his backcountry Aussie character to promote its capabilities.

No more jokes about shrimp on the barbie, please. Hogan was retired several seasons ago, and so was the badge-engineered Outback. The Legacy was discontinued, and the Outback has morphed into a proper crossover SUV by gaining four inches of height.

The change is all to the good. Besides getting a good chunk of additional interior space, the Outlook actually looks better as a cube than it did as a lozenge. For perhaps the first time, Subaru can accurately be described as a styling leader.

The exterior has a nicely chiseled, up-to-date appearance without being trendy, while the interior is a model of high-quality finishes delivered in a durable package. The instrument panel, in particular, is a model of transparency and functionality.

Some reviewers have complained about the impact of the extra height on Outlook handling. But it is inconspicuous under normal driving conditions, and those who want a hot-shoe Subaru are anyway more likely to gravitate to the turbocharged Impreza WRX.

The 2.5 liter 170-horsepower engine provides plenty of pep, though don’t ask for zero to 60 times. Most Subaru owners don’t care. They are more interested in functionality, quality, and value. With an as-tested price of $27,780, my Premium model — made at Subaru’s plant in Lafayette, Indiana, delivered on all three counts.

Take that, Crocodile Dundee.

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