It's right there in the photo: a spacious, tough, thoroughly modern, exceedingly capable sport/utility vehicle. You're forgiven if all you can see is a svelte station wagon. There's magic at work here.
For the first time since any of us can recall, an automaker has claimed the Motor Trend Sport/Utility of the Year title two years in a row. Last fall, deftly balancing efficiency and size, the all-new 2009 Subaru Forester went home with the Golden Calipers trophy. For 2010, fighting off several tough adversaries-and undoubtedly some unspoken but very real bias among our judges against repeat winners-Subaru's new, fourth-generation Outback scored a decisive 10-1 victory in the final voting.
Some vehicles arrive at our annual "Of the Year" competitions (car, SUV, truck) staking early claims to a win via bulging engine muscle, beguiling gizmos, fashion-runway sheetmetal. The Outback isn't one of those. In fact, it slipped nearly unnoticed through our early walkarounds; the pre-drives chatter seemed to focus elsewhere-the ZDX's spaceship lines, the Q5's comparison test-winning moves, the Lincoln's mighty yet efficient EcoBoost V-6. But then, one by one, our test drivers took the Outback into the field. And the buzz began to shift. Once again, it seemed, Subaru was successfully reshaping the very definition of "sport/utility vehicle"-melding the multi-mission prowess of true SUVs with the driving refinement, fuel-frugality, and easy access of wagons and sedans. Once again, our judges began taking extra notes.
In the U.S., the Legacy Outback wagon is now gone (it'll still be sold in Japan and elsewhere), replaced by this bigger, sleeker rig that drops the Legacy name altogether. The 2010 Outback platform is new, 2.8 inches longer in wheelbase, shoulders broader by two inches, front and rear overhangs nipped by two inches each to enhance off-road attacks. Though the overall package is shorter than its predecessor, interior room is up seven percent (thanks in part to a raised roof)-and rear-seat legroom climbs by a conspicuous four inches. "Roomy back seat-lots of legroom and headroom," writes Ron Kiino. "Huge cargo hold too. At 34.3/71.3 cubic feet (back seat up/down), it's got more cargo room than the Terrain and Equinox twins." Maximum cargo capacity, in fact, tops both a "classic SUV" like the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Toyota's big "it's-not-a-crossover-it's-a-car" Venza (see chart on page 4).