For those want the flexibility of a four-wheel-drive vehicle without losing the handling and economy of a compact car, the Subaru Outback offers a go-anywhere compromise.Basically a jacked-up all-wheel-drive Legacy wagon with some muscular body cladding and oversized wheels and tires, the Outback has the adventurous look so desired by sports-utility drivers without the size or gas-hog expense. Subaru has a well-nurtured reputation as a quirky, Granola-munchin' kind of automaker, and the Outback engenders some of that appeal (for those who find that appealing). The Outback is certainly individualistic, and sets its driver apart on highways crowded with Explorers and 4Runners. Subaru is a longtime builder of all-wheel-drive automobiles, making its mark in the snow belt with tough four-wheeling sedans and station wagons. Subaru's system uses viscous couplings to hook up the car's front-wheel-drive to power the rear wheels as well, a setup that's not rugged enough for Jeeplike duties but for most drivers, it should be hardy enough. The Outback has proved a solid winner for Subaru, which has enlisted a notorious denison of the Australian Outback, actor Paul Hogan, to star in a series of highly successful ads. The Japanese automaker also has applied the Outback treatment to its smaller all-wheel-drive Impreza wagon, a less-expensive package geared to the younger crowd. The Outback drives pretty much like a normal car, a bit higher up with a heavier feel, but without the body sway or trucklike cornering of a big sports-ute. The lofty seating position favored by many sports-utility drivers is also missing, though. So is the expansive cargo space and towing ability. But that's the tradeoff. Carlike behavior and economy vs. trucklike convenience. On a dirt road, the Outback can be driven quickly and comfortably. Compared with the sports-utility vehicles, it feels more racy and sporting. The pliant suspension soaks up the rough stuff without feeling too soft or sloppy, and the quick steering helps straighten out the hairpins. There are limitations of ground clearance and drive-line durability, though, that have to be considered before taking this thing onto any hard-core trails. The Outback arrived just before Toyota's RAV4 and the yet-to-appear Honda CR-V, both light-duty, compact sports-utility vehicles with similar drive systems. Both the Toyota and Honda have more of a rough-and-tumble aspect, but the Subaru beats them in handling and sophistication. The Outback comes in two performance levels, both with Subaru's usual opposed-four-cylinder engine, similar in layout to that of a Volkswagen Beetle, except Subaru's is located in the front and is water-cooled. The base model is equipped with a 2.2-liter engine that produces 135 horsepower coupled with a five-speed stick shift, while the upscale version has a 2.5-liter engine, rated at 155 horsepower, hooked up to a four-speed automatic. We tested the upper-end Outback, which proved powerful and fun to drive, though it would be nice to have the stickshift available with the bigger engine. Part of the strong acceleration and decent gas mileage is because of the Outback's relatively light weight of 3,230 pounds. The interior is roomy and the cargo space is decent. Friendly and flexible, the Outback has a lot to recommend it, not the least being Subaru's reputation, aside from that Granola stuff, for vehicles that are virtually bulletproof. 1996 Subaru Legacy Outback Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door wagon, all-wheel-drive. Base price: $21,995. Price as tested: $24,498. Engine: 2.5-liter horizontally opposed square four, 155 horsepower at 5,600 rpm, 155 pound-feet of torque at 2,800 rpm. Transmission: Four-speed automatic. Curb weight: 3,230 pounds. Length: 183.9 inches. Wheelbase: 103.5 inches. Safety features: Dual air bags , antiloc k brakes. EPA fuel economy: 20 mpg city, 26 mpg highway.
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