The VDC (Vehicle Dynamics Control) model's Variable Torque Distribution (VTD) AWD is the more advanced and performance-driving oriented system offered on the Outback. As we experienced in our confidence-inspiring drives, VTD constantly optimizes the front/rear power split. Simultaneously, the VDC stability control system detects and corrects oversteer and understeer, preserving a neutral handling balance. The Outback H6-3.0 L.L. Bean uses the proven Active All-Wheel-Drive System and limited-slip rear differential found on all other automatic Outbacks. With all four tires clawing for traction, the tall Bean machine held the road, whether dirt or paved, commendably, removing drama from brisk drives through the dense New England forests. While acceleration has been cranked up a notch, handling limits remain tame. The upside to the pedestrian independent suspension tuning is a controlled, comfortable ride that neither leans toward sponge or bounce like many truck-based SUVs.

Like the Maine-based outfitter, the L.L. Bean edition is in its element in the North East. Tasteful, limited application of corporate logos succeeds in promoting a positive tie-in that makes this special-edition Outback feel like an upscale, yet understated, product ordered straight from an L.L. Bean catalog. We question whether the target active lifestylers would prefer real wood, in place of the plasticky trim, and a simpler, easy-to-clean wheel.

In either trim, the Legacy-based Outback wagon is a compelling SUV alternative. Up front, nominally sculpted bucket seats lean to the firm end of the spectrum, but remain comfortable. Controls are logically placed and easy to manipulate. And numerous storage compartments are appreciated for essential travel sundries. Like the front, rear passengers have generous enough room to ride in comfort. As cool as dual moonroofs may be, second-row passengers would happily trade the expensive addition for another inch of tasseled ski-hat space. With five people onboard, there is 34.3 cubic feet of storage in the rear. Flip and fold flat the 60/40 split seat to open up a voluminous 68.6 cubic feet - much more than a Chevrolet Blazer and only three cubic feet less than a Jeep Grand Cherokee.

Heavily laden with power, performance, and safety features, the H6-fitted models are the most expensive Outbacks yet. However, with the money you'll save over a competitive European AWD wagon, you can buy lots more shrimp for the barbie and have room to tote them. Or in the L.L. Bean Edition's case, giant Maine lobster and a classic wooden trap.