By infusing all-weather cars with SUV attitude and ground clearance, wagons have become cool. There isn't a major manufacturer not working on its own interpretation of this Subaru-proven formula. While the trend-setting Outback blazes a market segment path wearing body cladding and dripping Aussie attitude, the Legacy platform had not been known for performance until this year.

With competitors coming on strong, Subaru has added almost 30 percent more power to the Outback from a new 3.0-liter boxer engine for 2001. Offered only in two new top-of-the-line models, the flat six produces a respectable 212 horsepower and 210 lb-ft of torque. The increased output handily bests the BMW 325i, Volkswagen Passat, and even the Volvo Cross Country. Both the top-range Outback H6-3.0 VDC and the Outback H6-3.0 L.L. Bean Edition are equipped with a four-speed automatic, though these premium models differ in AWD systems and content.

Both versions have the upscale amenities of the Outback Limited, plus exclusive design alloy wheels, auto climate control, eight-way power driver's seat, rear-seat center armrest, and Momo-designed mahogany and leather steering wheel. The H6-3.0 VDC features an audiophile-caliber McIntosh AM/FM/WB/CD/cassette head unit and 11 premium speakers. With the exception of the audio system, the H6-3.0 L.L. Bean Edition shares the VDC's features and adds an auto-dimming rearview mirror with compass, air filtration, security system, L.L. Bean logo two-tone leather/floor mats/exterior badges, plus an exclusive three-year scheduled maintenance plan.

Our first drive of the Outback H6-3.0 VDC was on the curvy back roads of coastal Maine, where commonly seen Subarus carry seasonal rooftop cargoes ranging from kayaks to snow skis. Power delivery is smooth with a distinct intake noise as the engine gulps air, though exhaust is nearly silent. The boxer engine is very smooth under part throttle or highway cruising, where it is eager to accelerate. Off the line, the Outback is competent, but the flat-six really comes to life north of 3500 rpm, perfect for passing maneuvers.

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.

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