IT'S AN ORDINARY Subaru Legacy station wagon, but it doesn't feel that way. It has four-wheel-drive, sure. But it also has a built-in feeling of invincibility, which comes from its name, which is misleading.It's the 1995 Subaru Legacy Outback, a specially equipped, mid-size station wagon for people who, according to Subaru's publicists, "want a sport-utility vehicle, but who do not want to drive a truck." The implication is that the Legacy Outback can go off-road, say, like a Jeep Grand Cherokee, Isuzu Trooper or Chevrolet Blazer. Don't try it! The Outback is a tough little station wagon with a catchy moniker, but going outback in this one could get you stuck. I know. I took the test wagon into a muddy, rocky Virginia field without reading the caveats in the owner's manual, which was dumb. But with its 15-inch, all-season radial tires and its roof rack and projector-beam fog lamps, the Outback looked like it could handle it. It couldn't. Extrication involved the placement of rocks and branches beneath the tires. But, hey, the Outback is a darned good wagon, especially in heavy rains on regular roads. It even does nicely on something like a dirt or gravel-strewn trail leading to a camping site. But pllleeezze don't try to drive it on any surface more difficult. Background: The Outback is a smart marketing package. The folks at Subaru know that most of the buyers of four-wheel-drive vehicles simply want something that runs well through rain and snow and that gives them confidence to picnic in the woods or to park near the sand on the beach. The trick is to imbue such a wagon with a personality that gives the impression it could do even more. Subaru accomplished this by giving the Outback a rugged-looking, two-tone-paint exterior, a standard roof rack, bigger tires and a 12-volt power socket in the cargo area. But beneath all of the muscular glitz is a humble, hard-working, ordinary Subaru Legacy wagon -- one equipped with a standard 2.2-liter, horizontally opposed, single-overhead cam, four-cylinder engine rated 135 horsepower at 5,400 rpm. Torque is set at 140 pound-feet at 4,400 rpm. You'll find that same engine in the base, front-wheel-drive Legacy L; the upscale, all-wheel-drive Legacy LS; the posh, all-wheel-drive Legacy LSi wagons; and the special edition, all-wheel-drive Legacy Brighton wagon. A five-speed manual transmission is standard in the Legacy wagons. An electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission is optional. Standard brakes in the base Legacy wagons include power front discs/rear drums. The upscale Legacy wagons get power four-wheel-disc brakes with anti-lock backup. Dual air bags are standard. And, yes, the 1995 Legacy wagons meet the tougher 1997 federal standards for occupant protection in side-impact crashes. All Legacy wagons can seat five in comfort. Cargo capacity is 36 cubic feet with the rear seats up and 73 cubic feet with the rear seats down. Complaints: Subaru needs to make clear, up front, that the Outback is not a substitute for a sport-utility vehicle in the purest sense -- that is, a vehicle that does well climbing rocks, fording streams, that sort of thing. Praise: The Legacy Outback, when used within the bounds of common sense, is an exceptionally pleasant, reliable station wagon. Head-turning quotient: Manages to appear rugged while being sedate -- a vehicle from the Banana Republic School of Design. Ride, acceleration and handling: A triumvirate of decency, particularly in foul weather. Braking was excellent. Mileage: In the tested Outback with five-speed manual transmission, about 22 miles per gallon (15.9-gallon tank, estimated 340-mile range on usable volume of regular unleaded), combined city-highway and wheel-spinning in mud; driver only with 150 pounds of cargo. Sound system: Four-speaker, AM/FM stereo radio and cass tte installed by Subaru. Very good. Price: Base price on the tested Outback with five-speed manual is $20,620. Dealer invoice on that model is $18,475. Price as tested is $21,095, including a $475 destination charge. Purse-strings note: Seems pricey, but when you throw in the four-wheel-drive and anti-lock systems, along with other goodies, the Outback is a pretty good value. Goof alert: In a recent column, I said that the 1995 Toyota Avalon had a 3.8 V-6. 'Twas a typo. The Avalon has a 3-liter V-6. Start your engines: Yo! Team Weekend, including yours truly, is racing Sunday, May 7, in the Red Dog DC Grand Prix for Multiple Sclerosis. The mini-Indy car race is from 10 to 4 in downtown Washington, with the start/finish line at 19th and M streets NW. See you there.
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