With the exceptional ground clearance, the solid AWD systems afford a level of all-weather and off-road competence that's unusually high for a machine with such a carlike character. "Dynamically, it's one of the best SUVs out here," writes Lassa. Agrees Kim Reynolds: "Feels like it could trundle around the off-road loop all month without complaint, yet very pleasant on-road, too. Lovely steering feel upon turn-in. Good ride." Says Ed Loh: "Exceedingly comfortable for day-to-day driving. Lots of smooth travel in the suspension." No, the Outback doesn't flaunt the extreme approach or departure angles that enable a rig like the Grand Cherokee to scale boulders, but it's far better equipped than most so-called crossovers. You could drive it through all but the toughest trails in Moab. It'll also shrug off all but the deepest snow (no wonder Subaru appears to be the unofficial state car of Vermont).

So, yes, the Outback shines with bona-fide SUV prowess and versatility. Yet it does so without typical SUV penalties. Fuel economy with the six-cylinder, for instance, is 18/25 EPA mpg-compared with 15/20 for the V-6 Grand Cherokee 4WD. And while the purposeful 4Runner took dings for "slobbery" on-road handling, the Outback drew applause. "Fun to drive, really like a car," says Loh. Writes Kiino: "The ride is amazing-supple, quiet, and controlled, yet the handling doesn't suffer. Some roll and understeer, but overall the feeling is confidence-inspiring. Structure is very solid too."

Solid, also, is the Outback's value quotient. A manual-shifter, four-cylinder base car starts at just $23,690-a cool $2K under the price of the similarly equipped vehicle it replaces. (For a $300 premium, Subaru also offers five four-cylinder models with a Partial Zero Emissions-PZEV-rating that meets California's most strict air standards.) A 3.6R Limited-with leather seats, 440-watt harmon/karmon audio, and dual-zone climate checks in at $31,690. Among the few extras are touchscreen navigation ($2000) and a power-glass moonroof ($995).

Loh offers a neat summary: "I'm particularly impressed by how Subaru's engineers got the big and the little things right. From the ground up, they've baked in features like high ground clearance, low curb weight, and a fuel-sipping CVT-plus details like the hideaway roof rack and tonneau cover. Subaru did its homework."

"Balance," in other words. That's the key to the Subaru Outback's victory. And maybe a little magic, too.