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).

Which brings up some of that Subie magic. For instance, when not needed the roof-rack crossbars fold away into the side rails, vastly reducing wind noise-pure genius. And while most wagons and SUVs offer a roll-up tonneau cover for sheltering gear in back, in the Outback the tonneau hides away completely under the load floor (instead of, in the typical fashion, simply blocking the floor and, when you're trying to load luggage, making you yell exclamations that'll make the five-year-olds within earshot cry and send the nine-year-olds running to tattle).

More magic: With a newfound 8.7 inches of ground clearance, the 2010 Outback actually betters the SUV Grand Cherokee-yet the Subaru also offers a lower and more carlike step-in height. "A nice answer to the crossover solution of lowering an SUV to human size," notes Todd Lassa. "You feel it's 'car-ness' behind the wheel, with its long, level hood out front-yet it's nearly 66 inches tall."

While thirsty V-8s have long been the darlings of the traditional-SUV market, the Outback, weighing just 3655 pounds, manages adroitly with four- and six-cylinder offerings. The boxer four is an updated version of last year's 2.5-liter naturally aspirated mill (see sidebar below), and now pairs with either a CVT or a new six-speed manual-a welcome addition for enthusiasts. With the CVT, the Outback wrings out 22/29 city/highway EPA mpg-a new Outback benchmark. Optional is a new, DOHC 3.6-liter boxer six that-using regular fuel instead of the premium required on the outgoing 3.0-liter-delivers 256 horsepower and 247 pound-feet of torque. "Loves to rev and feels smooth and refined all the way to redline," writes Kiino. The six mates to a standard five-speed automatic that now includes paddle shifters with "blipping logic" to match revs when downshifting.

Subaru ships the Outback in three distinct all-wheel-drive flavors. Base, manual-transmission models get a viscous-coupling locking center diff with 50/50 normal torque split and the ability to shift torque away from the slipping axle. Four-cylinder Outbacks with the CVT replace the viscous coupling with an electronically controlled continuously variable clutch. Finally, all six-cylinder editions utilize Subaru's Variable Torque Distribution system, combining a planetary center diff with an electronically managed hydraulic clutch to distribute power as needed (the split in "normal" driving is 45/55 front/rear).

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.

FOURMIDABLE
Subaru's trusty flat-4 pairs up with a new CVT
By Ron Kiino

For the 2010 Outback, Subaru has made significant upgrades to its tried-and-true 2.5-liter flat-4. Peak horsepower and torque are now realized 400 rpm sooner than before, and fuel economy with an automatic, at 22/29, is superior to that of the 2009 model's 20/26. A chain-type continuously variable automatic dubbed Lineartronic replaces the old four-speed torque-converter unit and represents the world's first longitudinally mounted CVT for an all-wheel-drive production car. Our $28,690 2.5i Limited tester (a base 2.5i with six-speed manual starts at $23,690) displayed smooth acceleration and, in true CVT fashion, a knack for instantly finding the engine's sweet spot. Plus, it features standard paddle shifters for rowing through six preset ratios. Compared with the 3.6, which hits 60 in 7.1 seconds and the quarter mile in 15.5 at 90.5 mph, the 2.5 CVT is leisurely, delivering 9.7 and 17.4 at 82.0, respectively. More important, though, the 170-horse Outback is competitive within its class. A Honda CR-V EX-L AWD needs 9.5 ticks to reach 60 and 17.2 at 79.0 to nab the quarter. Thus, the 2.5 CVT is more about A-to-B impeccability than stoplight-to-stoplight bragging rights, and is perfectly happy leaving the pink-slip battles to the 3.6R.


2010 Subaru Outback 2.5i Limited
Base/tested price $28,690/$32,446
Engine 2.5L/170-hp/170-lb-ft SOHC 16-valve flat-4
Transmission Continuosly Variable Auto
Curb weight (dist f/r) 3562 lb (54/46%)
Length x width x height 188.2 x 71.7 x 63.9 in
0-60 mph 9.7 sec
Quarter mile 15.5 sec @ 90.5 mph
EPA city/hwy econ 22/29 mpg
CO2 emissions 0.79 lb/mile

DOUBLE TAKE
The look says "Soccer Mom." The numbers say "Indiana Jones."


Jeep Grand Cherokee Laredo 4WD Subaru Outback 3.6R Toyota Venza AWD V6
Engine SOHC, 12-valve 3.7L V-6; 210 hp/235 lb-ft DOHC, 24-valve 3.6L flat-6; 256 hp/247 lb-ft DOHC, 24-valve 3.5L V-6; 268 hp/246 lb-ft
EPA city/hwy fuel econ 15/20 mpg 18/25 mpg 18/25 mpg
Transmission 5-sp auto 5-sp auto 6-sp auto
Wheelbase 109.5 in 107.9 in 109.3 in
Track, front/rear 62.0/62.0 in 61.0/61.0 in 64.2/64.2 in
Length x width x height 188.0 x 84.3 x 68.9 in 188.2 x 71.7 x 65.7 in 189.0 x 75.0 x 63.4 in
Load-floor height 33.4 in 33.9 in 27.2 in
Step-in height 20.2 in 16.5 in 15.3 in
Ground clearance 8.2 in 8.7 in 8.1 in
Approach angle 35.0 deg 18.9 deg 15.6 deg
Departure angle 27.5 deg 22.2 deg 17.4 deg
Breakover angle 21.3 deg 19.5 deg N/A
Headroom, f/r 39.7/39.3 in 38.7/39.3 in 39.6/39.3 in
Legroom, f/r 41.7/35.5 in 43.0/37.8 in 40.2/39.1
Shoulder room, f/r 59.1/58.5 in 56.3/56.1 in 60.0/59.0 in
Fuel-tank capacity 21.1 gal 18.5 gal 17.7 gal
Cargo room (rear seat up/down) 34.5/67.4 cu ft 34.3/71.3 cu ft 34.4/70.1 cu ft
Tow rating 3500 lb 3000 lb 3500 lb
Base price $33,200 $28,690 $29,250

2010 Subaru Outback 3.6R Limited
POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS
Drivetrain layout Front engine, AWD
Engine type Flat-6, alum block/heads
Valvetrain DOHC, 4 valves/cyl
Displacement 221.5 cu in/3630 cc
Compression ratio 10.7:1
Power (SAE net) 256 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque (SAE net) 247 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm
Weight to power 14.3 lb/hp
Transmission 5-speed automatic
Axle/final-drive ratios 3.08:1/2.57:1
Suspension, front; rear Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Steering ratio 16.0:1
Turns lock-to-lock 3.2
Brakes, f;r 12.4 vented disc; 11.4-in vented disc, ABS
Wheels 7.0 x 17-in, cast aluminum
Tires 225/60R17 98T M+S Continental Conti Pro Contact
DIMENSIONS
Wheelbase 107.9 in
Track, f/r 61.0/61.0 in
Length x width x height 188.2 x 71.7 x 63.9 in
Ground clearance 8.7 in
Apprch/depart angle 18.9/22.2 deg
Turning circle 36.8 ft
Curb weight 3655 lb
Weight dist., f/r 57/43%
Towing capacity 3000 lb
Seating capacity 5
Headroom, f/r 38.7/39.3 in
Legroom, f/r 43.0/37.8 in
Shoulder room, f/r 56.3/56.1 in
Cargo vol behind f/r 71.3/34.3 cu ft
TEST DATA
Acceleration to mph
0-30 2.6 sec
0-40 3.8
0-50 5.4
0-60 7.1
0-70 8.3
0-80 12.1
0-90 15.3
0-100 18.9
Passing, 45-65 mph 3.5 sec
Quarter mile 15.5 sec @ 90.5 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 131 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.74 g (avg)
MT figure eight 28.6 sec @ 0.28 g (avg)
Top-gear revs @ 60 mph 1950 rpm
CONSUMER INFO
Base price $31,690
Price as tested $34,685
Stability/traction control Yes/yes
Airbags Dual front, front side, f/r curtain
Basic warranty 3 yrs/36,000 miles
Powertrain warranty 5 yrs/50,000 miles
Roadside assistance 3 yrs/36,000 miles
Fuel capacity 18.5 gal
EPA city/hwy econ 18/25 mpg
CO2 emissions 0.94 lb/mile
Recommended fuel Unleaded regular
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