The Outback version of Subaru's station wagon was a harbinger of things to come when it was first introduced some eight years ago.

This car-based wagon was cast as an alternative to truck-based SUVs, and it soon created a loyal fan base, particularly in mountainous areas or northern climes where snowfall is measured in feet, not inches.

In daily driving, the Outback feels like a regular car. It has room for four without the bulk of a large vehicle, but the cargo area is modest because of the low roof. Four-wheel drive gives it good balance in turns and slippery conditions.

The stiff body structure provides a solid base for the independent suspension, and the ride is comfortable without being soft or sloppy. The Outback's taller stance gives enough ground clearance for rough roads without unduly harming the way the car handles on dry pavement.

By combining the drivability of a car with all-wheel drive and a rugged look, the Outback began to define a market segment that is now growing exponentially. Crossover SUVs, such as Subaru's own Tribeca B9, are basically larger, taller versions of the Outback concept.

For 2006, the Outback has continued to grow up in manners, if not in size. The top 3.0 R model has a 250-horsepower six-cylinder engine, and the VRDC Limited has a full complement of luxury equipment.

The test car was the VRDC Limited, and it is a far cry from its forebears. Brushed silver trim and matte-finished woodgrain trim caused a friend to comment how it has become as nice as some entry-level luxury cars. Prices start at $24,795 for the 2.5-liter four-cylinder with a manual transmission and top out at $35,695 for the VRDC Limited. Folks who are looking for Outback practicality at a lower price will find the four-cylinder model perfectly satisfying, and it starts at $24,795.

Even though the VRDC Limited is a fairly pricey model, its level of equipment is on par with other vehicles in this price segment. The interior sparkles with a nicely designed gauge package, a soft-touch surface on the instrument panel and leather upholstery. Fingertip controls on the steering wheel make it easy to change the radio. Automatic climate control and the navigation system are both part of the VRDC package.

The split-folding rear seat is a cinch to tumble when you need extra length for hauling large items. The floor-to-ceiling height is what you would expect to find in a station wagon, not an SUV, and that inhibits the size of the objects you can carry. If you need to consistently haul large items, check out the B9 Tribeca.

Power is one of the strengths of the horizontally opposed 3.0-liter six-cylinder engine. Because the cylinders are horizontal rather than vertical, the "boxer" engine configuration has a low center of gravity that contributes to good handling. Six cylinders are way smoother than four cylinders, especially in an engine with this layout. Variable valve timing and valve lift control help broaden this engine's power band, and that translates into good acceleration from a stop.

The other thing that contributes to the Outback's proficiency is Subaru's all-wheel-drive system that powers all four wheels all the time and automatically transfers more power to the wheels with the best traction. The 3.0 R VRDC's system has a variable torque distribution system that gives slightly more power to the rear wheels for better response in turns. In slippery conditions, the front wheels take more power as they need. A vehicle stability system with integrated four-wheel traction control adds to the effectiveness of four-wheel drive.

The five-speed automatic transmission has a gated shift lever with a sportshift function that enables the driver to change gears manually.

Subaru continues to add equipment and sophistication to the Outback, and the VRDC Limited sets a new standard.

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Price: The test car's base price was $35,695. Freight brought the sticker price to $36,320.

Warranty: Three years or 36,000 miles.

Engine: 3.0-liter, 250-hp 6-cylinder

Transmission: Automatic

Wheelbase: 105.1 inches

Curb weight: 3,635 lbs.

Base price: $35,695

As driven: $36,320

Mpg: 19 city, 26 hwy

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At A Glance

Point: The VRDC Limited is the most luxurious Outback yet. Soft leather, woodgrain trim and a navigation system are ideal companions to the 3.0-liter, 250-horsepower six-cylinder engine that drives all four wheels. The Outback combines attractive styling with sure traction.

Counterpoint: Because the Outback is basically a four-wheel-drive station wagon, its cargo area is somewhat limited.

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To get in touch with Tom Strongman, send e-mail to tstrongman@kc.rr.com.