I asked my husband if he wanted to join the kids and I in taking "Subie" out for a spin, and it dawned on me: I have been affectionately referring to the Subaru Outback as Subie, as if it is the newest addition to our family. I don't dole out nicknames routinely, so this air of familiarity shows how quickly the Subaru Outback wormed its way into my heart. Why, you ask?

Well, the Outback has all the function I need without many of the dispensable extras. I love that it's roomy enough to haul the basics, yet compact enough to squeeze into that must-have, skinny parking spot, as well as rugged enough (all-wheel drive) to take me just about anywhere.

The 60/40-split rear seat afforded me the option of maximizing cargo space when needed, and the easily removable plastic cargo-area tray, which collects spills and dirt, is a mom's dream. It completely addresses my filthy cargo-area dilemma, caused specifically (but not exclusively) by my indispensable stroller. A stroller sees the light of day, every day, without fail, and therefore forces me to address issues like mud, dripping water, melting snow and annoying pebbles and grit. And I haven't yet mentioned the even nastier things like gum and, in super-rare but equally repulsive cases, doggie poo poo. You name it, my stroller has seen it. For instant cleanliness, I simply remove Subie's cargo insert and give it a good shake or washing. Brilliant! Any manufacturers willing to design a tray that slips under my children's car seats?

My husband and I frequently compete for temperature control, but the Outback's dual-zone temperature adjustment completely alleviates this struggle. Furthermore, the multi-setting driver and passenger seat heaters allow us to independently take charge and indulge. The perforated leather upholstery also enables my derriere to warm instantly. On a kiddie note, though, little crumbs just don't mix with all those tiny holes. Smooth leather is so much easier to clean!

Nickname or not, Subie does have some other shortcomings.

One gripe is the steering-wheel buttons, of which there are two on each side. I assumed that the plus/minus buttons referred to volume level or audio seeking options, but no: Both sets of buttons do exactly the same thing. They're meant for sport-mode driving, allowing me to up- or down-shift with my fingertips. Well, since I have absolutely no desire to drive in anything other than plain old automatic mode, these fantastically located buttons are rendered useless. While I realize there are plenty of people who go ga ga over sport-mode driving, the prime location (safety-safety-safety) of these buttons is too valuable for solely shifting purposes.

On another note, as I began to load the cargo area from a grocery-store run, I allowed my toddler to climb into the trunk. From there he swiftly clambered into the main cabin and within a split second mischievously peered over the rear seat, my lipstick in hand. Knowing I had little time to spare before my lipstick was forever transformed (I already own a few of these mutant creations) I desperately double-clicked the key fob to get into the rear door. It took a few tries, and I concluded that this fob requires patience. Is that a subtle hint that it's time for this mama to slow down?

Lastly, I was glad only one of my car seats utilizes a top-tether anchor, which are housed in the ceiling of the Subaru Outback. For anyone with multiple car seats that use these anchors, I envision a web of top tethers, further complicated by the use of the middle rear seat belt, which also pulls out from the ceiling. Thankfully, I had the option of removing the small rectangular plastic shields in the seatbacks to get to the Latches. Be aware of the sharp plastic edges, though. I couldn't get my fingers back out fast enough.

The Subaru Outback suits me and feels right. Even though it's compact, I appreciate that I can safely drive the Outback on muddy dirt roads, in snowy mountains or on narrow city streets, all without breaking the bank at the pump. It's like having many of the benefits of an SUV without the cash drain of a gas-guzzler. I also liked its sleek interior styling and array of useful features, including a navigation system, tire pressure monitoring system and absolutely gigantic sunroof. Although I wished for some minor changes, I definitely dug Subie.

*For more information on the Subaru Outback and its safety features, visit www.cars.com.

LET'S TALK NUMBERS

LATCH Connectors: 2

Seating Capacity (includes driver): 5

IT'S THE LITTLE THINGS THAT COUNT

Storage Compartments (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Fair

Cargo/Trunk Space (Puny, Fair, Ample, Galore): Fair - Ample

SENSE AND STYLE

Family Friendly (Not Really, Fair, Great, Excellent): Great

Fun-Factor (None, Some, Good Times, Groove-On): Some