The Mitsubishi's 2.4-liter/140-horsepower inline-four doesn't make the Outlander a rocketship, but it isn't anemic either. Power delivery is adequate and linear throughout the band. Peak torque occurs low in the rev range (2500 rpm), but there isn't much passing power above 60 mph, as the engine starts wheezing. The standard-issue four-speed manumatic offers a good compromise between conventional slushbox and manual-gear rowing, and we found it easier to manage grades when we were in control of the cog changes. In full auto mode, it tends to hunt like Elmer Fudd: shooting erratically into gear and whenever you least expected it.

The Forester has a slight displacement advantage, a few more lb-ft of torque, and a whole lot more ponies underhood. At 2.5 liters and 165 horsepower, the Forester provides ample tug--though it packs only 9.0 lb-ft more torque than the Mitsu. Unlike the Outlander, which runs out of steam early in the game, the Forester keeps pulling through the upper rev band. Our well-calibrated Butt-O-Meter confirmed the numbers from the test track: The Subaru posted a 9.8-second time to 60 mph and a 17.3-second/77.8-mph run through the quarter mile. We could've used an egg timer to clock the Mitsubishi's 12.4 pull to 60 and 18.6/72.7 quarter-mile run.

We expected the Outlander to take longer to stop (with an extra 325 pounds to haul around, rear drum brakes, and no ABS assist); 10 feet more isn't bad. Chief-tester Chris Walton noted there wasn't much feedback through the brake pedal--you just have to listen for squealing tires. The Forester braked straight and true, with a bit of nosedive, standard ABS with electronic brake-force distribution grinding it to a stop.

The Forester snaked through our slalom-cone test with a 61.3-mph pass to beat the Mitsubishi's 59.9. If you think Subaru's crown resides on its AWD system, it's more complex than that. Both systems utilize a viscous-coupling system that splits torque 50/50 until slip is detected. Tires are nearly identical Yokohama Geolandars: the Outlander wearing 225/60R16 G035s and the Forester with the more aggressive 215/60R16 G90 treads. The subtle difference in tires, combined with a stiffer suspension, allowed the Forester to overtake the Outlander.

Back on the road, the clouds gathered quickly as we sped up Highway 395, cutting along the spine of the Sierras. We stopped in the town of Lone Pine for a photo shoot in the Alabama Hills (filming location for old Hollywood Westerns). The following morning, we were greeted with sub-zero temperatures and an ever-darkening sky. "Snow's gonna hit soon," the innkeeper growled as we checked out. "You can feel it in the air."