In its 15-year history, the Outback has helped transition Subaru from a cult favorite to a quasi-mainstream player. Now entering its fourth generation, "The World's First Sport/Utility Wagon" (with apologies to the AMC Eagle wagon fans) is on a new and equally ambitious mission: Grab an even larger share of the hot midsize crossover market. To assess its chances for success in that quest, we traveled to western Montana and put all three variations on the new Outback theme through their paces on a variety of paved and unpaved venues.

Sharing many structural and mechanical elements with the also-new-for-2010 Legacy sedan, Subaru's contemporary AWD crossover gets an extra measure of everything that really matters to the active-lifestyle buyers it's seeking: bolder character, enhanced functionality, and improved performance. Visually, the new Outback complements edgier sheetmetal and lighting elements with shorter front/rear overhangs and wider front/rear track spans. Overall length drops 0.8 inch, but a 2.8-inch wheelbase stretch (to 107.9 in.), a 2.0-inch bump in width, and 2.3-inch-taller roofline net a more aggressive stance and significant gains in passenger/cargo space. While the base 2.5i wears 215/70 all-season tires on 16-inch steel wheels, all other models get 17-inch alloys wrapped in 225/60 rubber -- and all Outbacks now have a segment-leading 8.7 inches of ground clearance. Topping things off is a new roof-rail system with noise-reducing crossbars that swing out of the way when not in use.

Base, Premium, or Limited trims, the upscaling process is equally evident in the Outback's Legacy-inspired cabin treatment. The lengthy standards roster boasts everything from air conditioning, a full array of power assists and cruise control to new functional touches like a trip computer/info display and an electronic parking brake system that incorporates Hill Holder circuitry. Limited models also feature leather upholstery, a new 440-watt harman-kardon audio system (a Premium option) and an optional voice-activated GPS navigation upgrade that brings a backup camera, Bluetooth and iPod/USB inputs.

New goodies aside, the most profound enhancement to the 2010 Outback mix is an additional 8.0-9.8 cubic feet of interior volume that comes courtesy of its mini growth spurt and a new, more-compact dual-wishbone rear suspension. The result is more stretch space everywhere -- highlighted by an extra 3.9 inches of rear-seat legroom. While its redesigned front buckets remain the best seats in the house, a new 60/40-split rear bench now runs a closer second thanks to the addition of adjustable-rake backrests. And a quick flip/fold expands the Outback's easily accessed 34.3-cubic-foot cargo bay into a 71.3-cubic-foot mini cave.