Long before taking the keys to our Azurite Blue Pearl 2010 Subaru Outback 2.5i Limited (our 2010 Sport/Utility Vehicle of the Year, by the way), we decided to forgo ordering its 3.6R flat-six sibling packing 256 ponies and a traditional five-speed auto. At first, it was a move that had some staffers wishing for more Boxer might.

Once we received the Outback, doubters quickly changed their opinions. Entries praising the crossover's 2.5-liter flat-four and its smooth Lineartronic continuously variable transmission poured into our logbook after only a few days in the fleet. "The four-banger has plenty of grunt," wrote associate online editor Kirill Ougarov. With steering-wheel-mounted paddles allowing drivers to select predetermined gear "ratios," digging for extra highway speed or engine braking rpm was as simple as a quick tug on the left paddle.

Rated at 170 horsepower and 170 pound-feet of torque, the engine consistently returned fuel economy in the high 20- to low 30-mpg range, with the computer indicating a 30.8-mpg average during a trip to San Diego and 28.5 mpg over a weekend in Los Angeles. Our average over 28,000 miles was 25.0 mpg- 1 mpg above the EPA's combined estimate. Tank ranges of 350-plus miles were the norm.

The mill's major downfall was that it needed to dwell high in the tach range to produce any substantial pull, so "those used to gobs of torque or stirring acceleration at the crack of the gas pedal need to look elsewhere," per executive editor Edward Loh. Senior editor Jonny Lieberman echoed the sentiment and called the powertrain "pokey."

In Limited trim, our Outback felt like a rolling Grand Tourer. Replete with a maximum cargo area of 71.3 cubic feet (rear seats folded) and goodies like leather, 440-watt nine-speaker harman/kardon stereo, iPod/USB inputs, heated front seats, and Bluetooth connectivity, the Outback offered plenty from the get-go.

Loaded with $2995 worth of moonroof and navigation package meant the Subaru was one of the most comfortable crossovers in the fleet. The stout build made for a medium-size vehicle that was fun to toss around.

While on workhorse duty, photographers Brian Vance and Julia LaPalme often took the Subie on multi-day shoots that required nearly all of its total cargo volume be filled with necessary gear. Vance especially took a liking to the rear cargo hold's rubber liner, which could be shaken out like a giant rug. If things got really messy, it could be hosed down and scrubbed.

On more than one occasion, things did get very dirty. Staffers loved taking the Outback on soft roads filled with rocks, ruts, and mildly challenging climbs, where it performed exceptionally well. During a rare downpour in Los Angeles, art director Mike Royer noted that the generous 8.7 inches of ground clearance gave him "all kinds of 'puddle-confidence.' "

In reliability, the Outback shined. We hit three maintenance stops at 7500-mile intervals. The first entailed an oil change, tire rotation, and full vehicle inspection ($147.52). At 15,000 miles, technicians replaced the cabin and engine air filters, too ($264.98). The last stop, at 22,500 miles, had the usual oil change and tire rotation, but also included a brake cleaning ($150.20), bringing our year=long service total to a commendable $562.70.

As usual, staffers did log a few niggles. Most dealt with some aspect of the interior. Radio controls (after one service, for example, radio station presets failed to stick; then there was the indecipherable equalizer function), cheap-looking wood, and cream leather that showed dirt too easily were at the top of the list. Others found the CVT too noisy, the mill uninspiring ("If you're looking for passion, keep walking," said associate online editor Scott Evans), and the exterior styling frumpy and ungainly.

Even so, the Subaru Outback proved itself the automotive equivalent of a Swiss Army knife, thanks to its uncanny ability to perform a multitude of tasks nearly anywhere at any time. In just 365 days, the part wagon, part sport/ute, part comfy cruiser successfully exceeded almost all our expectations and earned a sincere place in our collective hearts. And that's a pretty tough task.?

From The Logbook

"Not once on my trip did I stop and think to myself, gee, I really wish I had the 3.6R's 86 extra horses and conventional automatic. I never really needed them. The 2.5i and CVT provided enough power for every activity I took on, from climbing a 4000-foot grade to descending a severely pitted dirt road-and in snow or sunshine. Plus, after delivering 25 mpg over my 800-mile jaunt, the 2.5's fuel economy is hard to fault."
- Ron Kiino

"There's something tacky and out of place about the fake, glossy burled wood inserts. Oldsmobile, sure-but in an Outback? They feel unusually artificial."
- Jonny Lieberman

"Most people couldn't care less about how little power this car has, and it's true that a majority of the time you don't need the V-6 around town. At wide-open throttle, though, the car sounded as though it was saying, "I'm trying!" without actually moving forward too quickly."
- Zach Gale


Our Car
Base price $28,690
Options Option Package: 08 ($2995: Power moonroof, navigation, iPod integration, rear camera, Bluetooth), Sirius Satellite Kit ($461)
MSRP, as tested $32,446
Total mileage $28,217
Avg fuel economy 25.0 mpg
Problem areas None
Maintenance cost $662.60
Normal-wear cost $0
Three-year residual value* $17,845
Recalls (* Automotive Lease Guide) Transmission, cooling hose, ABS cover

2010 Subaru Outback 2.5i Limited
POWERTRAIN/CHASSIS
Drivetrain layout Front engine, AWD
Engine type Flat-4, aluminum block/heads
Valvetrain SOHC, 4 valves/cyl
Displacement 149.9 cu in/2457 cc
Compression ratio 10.0:1
Power (SAE net) 170 hp @ 5600 rpm
Torque (SAE net) 170 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm
Redline 6400 rpm
Weight to power 21.0 lb/hp
Transmission Cont variable auto
Axle/final-drive ratios 3.90:1/2.38:1
Suspension, front; rear Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Steering ratio 16.0:1
Turns lock-to-lock 3.1
Brakes, f;r 11.6-in vented disc; 11.3-in disc, ABS
Wheels 7.0 x 17-in, cast aluminum
Tires 225/60R17 98T
Continental
ContiProContact
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
Approach/depart angle 18.9/22.2 deg
Turning circle 36.8 ft
Curb weight 3567 lb
Weight dist, f/r 56/44%
Towing capacity 2700 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 3.6 sec
0-40 5.3
0-50 7.3
0-60 9.7
0-70 12.7
0-80 16.5
0-90 21.5
0-100 28.2
Passing, 45-65 mph 4.9
Quarter mile 17.4 sec @ 82.0 mph
Braking, 60-0 mph 129 ft
Lateral acceleration 0.78 g (avg)
MT figure eight 29.1 sec @ 0.56 g (avg)
Top-gear revs @ 60 mph 1800 rpm
CONSUMER INFO
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 economy 22/29 mpg
Energy cons, city/hwy 153/116 kW-hrs/100 mi
CO2 emissions 0.79 lb/mi
Recommended fuel Unleaded regular
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