Some of the hipper auto analysts have been saying not only that minivans are out, but that station wagons are coming back. Wagons hardly pose a threat to the booming sport-utility market, but at least one brand provides an alternative. Subaru practically invented the inexpensive all-wheel-drive station wagon. And while its top-of-the-line 2000 Outback Limited wagon is no longer that cheap - our test vehicle carried a $27,900 sticker - it still has a lot of value. But if you're going to spend that kind of money, you'd better have a taste for dual power moonroofs and gold-accent alloy wheels. She: I was getting my nails done yesterday and once the manicurist found out that I review cars, she asked me the inevitable question. What do you drive? I told her we've got that terrific Volvo Cross Country wagon which we leased for two reasons: Its all-wheel-drive capability in bad Michigan weather and its safety features, such as side air bags. But I secretly thought to myself - we're probably going to dump the Volvo now that we're paying two out-of-state college tuitions and get something cheaper. But we won't have to compromise much if we pick the 2000 Subaru Outback wagon. It's got the features of the Volvo without the steep price. He: I wouldn't call $28,000 a bargain. That's the bottom line on the Outback Limited wagon that we tested. Although for the money, you get a pretty loaded vehicle. You can get a basic Outback for around $23,000, or if you don't want all that fancy utility-looking stuff, the basic Legacy wagon on which the Outback is based starts at less than $19,000. Is the Outback Limited that we drove worth another $9,000? I don't think so. She: That just means you have to be careful in picking the Outback model that best fits your family's needs. For example, the optional fold-down child seat, which is a great feature that's becoming a rarity on a lot of cars, is not available on the Outback Limited. But if you want side air bags, you can only get them on the Limited and not the regular Outback wagons. And then, of course, there is the cosmetic problem of the car's styling. I think it looks bloated - kind of puffy. He: Are you sure it wasn't that sinus infection you've had for the last week or so? You've been kind of puffy yourself. She: That's so rude. Picking on sick people. He: Speaking of sick people, I noticed you have a new bad habit. You're hooked on the weather band. I'm sorry Subaru decided to include that on the Outback radio. You must think it's the perfect adjunct to the Weather Channel. Besides, who cares about the weather if you're driving an Outback? It comes with standard all-wheel drive and anti-lock brakes, and is one of the safest vehicles you can drive in lousy weather. She: No, that weather band reinforces your wise decision in buying the Outback. It's like having a 24-hour Weather Channel in your car. And it's great. Once we got out of the Outback and into oth er test vehicles, I found myself getting angry that they didn't have a weatherband. For some odd reason, I desperately wanted to know the wave heights on Lake Erie. If you get used to that feature, it will keep you hooked on Subarus for the rest of your life. He: It seems like you've had this weird love/hate relationship with the various Subarus we've tested over the years. I seem to recall that you hated the Outback Sedan we drove last year, back when it was still called the Legacy SUS, or Sport Utility Sedan. She: No, I think I had more of a problem with the marketing. I actually like this wagon. It didn't have an obnoxious ride, like a lot of conventional sport-utilities. But then again, it's not a sport-utility. It's sort of a pseudo-ute. But it's a very reassuring feeling to know that your car has all-wheel drive. It would have helped to had a slightly bigger engine. He: Subaru says it plans to offer an optional six-cylinder engine, but not until next year. I he meantime, if you really want a wagon with all-wheel drive, your choices are pretty much limited to Subaru, Audi and Volvo - and the two European brands are going to cost you more money. You can still get into an Audi A4 Avant Quattro for under $30,000, so you might want to consider that as an alternative to the top-of-the-line Outback Limited. She: But the rest of the Outback line seems pretty reasonably priced compared to the competition. And you won't find yourself paying for such extravagances as those dual moonroofs and gold-accent wheels. 2000 Subaru Outback Limited Anita's rating: above average Paul's rating: above average Type: Front-engine, all-wheel-drive, five-passenger station wagon Price: Base, $26,895; as tested, $27,900 (including $495 destination charge) Engine: 2.5-liter H-4; 165 hp; 166 lb-ft torque EPA fuel economy: N/A 12-month insurance cost, according to AAA Michigan*: $1,293 (Estimate. Rates may be higher or lower, depending on coverage and driving record.) Where built: Lafayette, Ind. What we liked: Subaru offers a wide range of all-wheel-drive wagons for under $30,000; Anita is hooked on the weather-band radio; great alternative for wagon owners who don't want to move to a truck-based SUV; lots of amenities packed into the Limited, from heated seats to dual power moonroofs What we didn't like: Top-of-the-line Outback Limited costs nearly as much as an Audi A4 Avant Quattro; side air bags only on more expensive Limited; still lacks an optional six-cylinder engine
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