There are clear and present reasons why Subaru chose to christen its new mini-van-sport-utility-wagon the Outback:

* It comes with an optional wire screen separating the cargo compartment from passengers and driver. This is to reassure owners who pick up stray dingos but don't want them getting into the groceries or eating the children.

* It is a tall, rangy, self-confident vehicle that moves with the don't-muck-with-me lilt of Crocodile Dundee.

* It is Australian for tough, mate.

"We could have called it 'Serengeti,' but it wouldn't have been quite the same," says Subaru spokesman Alex Fedorak. "Other than to call attention to the vehicle's ruggedness, the Aussie tie is really coincidental."

It certainly would not be fair to pay mind to Webster's, which defines outback as remote and uncivilized.

Far from being distant, the 1996 Legacy Outback is the warmest, friendliest chum to come out of Japan via Lafayette, Ind., since Subaru and parent Fuji Heavy Industries whelped 30-horsepower mini-cars in the '70s.

And if all-wheel drive, two air bags, power windows, automatic transmission, cruise control, anti-lock brakes and all-season radials for an estimated $22,000 be uncivilized, then competing car builders might consider converting to paganism.

Highly fascinating about the Outback, however, is that it's not really a car. Nor a van, station wagon or sport utility. In truth, it combines all four forms and functions and could well be a significant redefining of all the vehicles we drive.

Large of wheels and high of step, the Outback certainly looks like any sport-utility vehicle. A deep, square front and fog lights in cages enhance the sodbuster image. Riders look tough, feel safe and can view the passing world from personal thrones. Complete with height adjustment.

The Outback also is equipped with all-wheel drive for safer, more stable progress through minimal muck and ice. Yet it is not lumbered by a heavy, expensive, four-wheel drive system with growling gears reserved for those days when one might have to tug a lost city from the Amazon.

Industry research constantly shows that more than 95% of sport-utility owners never traverse the tules or snowbanks. So an Outback would well satisfy that huge majority interested only in the Indiana Jones look and adding a sense of security to their suburban exploring and land roving.

Minivans are marvelous people- and produce-movers. But they waddle, don't go very fast and rarely travel fully loaded. When landing at the Beverly Hills Hotel, a Mazda MPV is no guarantee of the center booth in the Polo Lounge.

The Legacy Outback handles more like a sedan than these miniature semis, and has impressive, determined road manners. It cruises happily among freeway traffic. With fold-flat rear seats, a lift gate and room behind that wire screen for half a dozen dingos, the Outback offers more than half the cargo volume of a Toyota Previa.

It is fun, slick, handsome. And valets at the Beverly Hills Hotel should applaud your acumen.


Station wagons are centaurs--half car, half van.

They wince when traveling on sod any lumpier than a county-graded dirt road.

But with almost the same ground clearance as a Chevy Blazer, its all-wheel drive and an engine more powerful than a Ford Taurus wagon, the Outback will take the higher ground.

Maybe not wilderness and gullies. But certainly rough moors and lonely mesas. And unlike typical off-roaders, the Outback doesn't stand so tall that your exit is like falling off a porch.

Last year, the term Outback referred only to the trim level of the Legacy station wagon. The 1996 Outback, which goes on sale this month, is a complete redesign offered in two versions. Least expensive comes with a 2.2-liter, 135-horsepower, four-cylinder, horizontally opposed engine mated to a five-speed manual transmission. Then there's a bolder breed with a 2.5-liter engine , 155 horsepower and a four-speed automatic.

Both come with beefsteak bumpers, a marginally stiffer suspension, a permanent roof rack, two-tone paint devoid of noisy contrasts, and white-lettered tires so essential to active lifestyle images. Also a second 12-volt electrical jack in the cargo bay for your rice steamer or electric toothbrush.

Yet for those resistant to change, Subaru's original Legacy survives as a sedan in base and luxury trims, and as a conventional station wagon. There's also a Legacy 2.5GT to satisfy buyers with supposedly sportier bloodlines.

Frankly, a week with the Outback was seven days with a new puppy. It drives without the heaviness of a truck-based sport utility. It does not flinch in crosswinds, unlike some high-profile vans that have been known to handle like tumbleweeds approaching Yuma.

There's a balanced, light heft to the doors and lift gate when loading and unloading groceries and people. Ergonomically, nothing is out of reach, out of place or out of sync with a driver's tactile instincts.

It is a very smooth, handsome vehicle obviously assembled with care, quality and a shrewd eye for subtleties of the marketplace. All of which make the Outback a creature of substance in addition to aura.

Sometimes, this car-van-wagon seems a little light on power, especially when navigating freeways at their off-peak rate of madness. So it's wise to think ahead before making any serious demands on the engine. And be prepared for some deep buzzing noises when it does start working up a sweat.

Still, the power is certainly up to compact sedan and minivan levels, which is just about where the Outback is priced and pitched. And cars like Accord or Taurus don't have to filter their horsepower through the mechanical drag of all-wheel drive.

The Outback's transmission shifts so smoothly it is barely noticeable. Although all-wheel traction is designed for less than lovely weather, it does add a certain balance and stability to cornering in the dry.


Overall, this is a distinctive, desirable vehicle stuffed with interesting innovations and seemingly cleansed of all clumsiness and systems flaws.

Except for a very weird system of rear cargo storage. Within that area is a huge organizer, a plastic bin subdivided by adjustable partitions. So unless the packages or small objects to be carried are bunny soft or a perfect fit, they will slide and clatter back there like billiard balls in a boiler.

It is worth noting that Legacy Outback is a name being marketed only in the United States.

"Legacy doesn't exist in Australia because that's the name of a World War II veterans' fund," explains Fedorak, the Subaru spokesman. "So we called the car 'Liberty.'

"There might even be some obscure reason why we can't use 'Outback' in Australia."

Not without clearing it through Crocodile Dundee.

1996 Subaru Legacy Outback 2.5L

The Good: Multiple purposes, multiple personalities, all enjoyable. Roomy and comfortable, priced right and fully equipped. All-wheel drive allows improved road manners.

The Bad: A mite underpowered.

The Ugly: Junk the cargo bin.

Cost Estimated for series: $21,000 to $25,000. (Standard equipment includes all-wheel drive, two air bags, four-speed automatic transmission, air conditioning, anti-lock brakes, cruise control, power doors and windows, extra power outlet, two-tone paint, alloy wheels, lettered tires and roof rack.)

Engine 2.5-liter, flat-four developing 155 horsepower.

Type Front-engine, all-wheel drive, four-door, minivan-sport-utility-wagon.

Performance 0-60 m.p.h., as tested, 9.8 seconds. Top speed, estimated, 108 m.p.h. Fuel consumption, EPA city and highway, 20 and 26 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 3,230 pounds.