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Having released a six-cylinder Outback last year, Subaru has further expanded the line for 2002 with two additional six-cylinder models. Four-cylinder Outbacks continue nearly unchanged.
With either engine, Outback offers an attractive alternative to a bulkier, truck-based sport-utility. Even the powerful six-cylinder versions rate 20/26 mpg city/highway, and while that's not exactly economy-car territory, it's significantly better than the 15/20 mpg you can expect from even a mid-size SUV. Four-cylinder Outbacks deliver more than adequate performance, and get 22/27 mpg.
An Outback won't wring your wallet dry, and it it'll ride and handle much better than a truck. Yet it will give you a tall seating position, large cargo capacity, and foul-weather capability. In other words, the Outback will give you most of the positive attributes of an SUV. Unless you're genuinely interested in serious off-road adventure (and most SUV buyers are not), the Outback gives you everything you need. It works great on wet pavement, dirt roads, and on snow and ice. It's even fun to drive on dry pavement. And isn't that really where you drive most of the time?
Subaru is is a world leader in all-wheel-drive expertise. Subaru actually builds three different all-wheel-drive systems. Manual-transmission models rely on a viscous coupling, a kind of speed-sensitive automatic clutch, to limit wheel slip at either end of the car. The system is purely mechanical, and nominally distributes driving torque 50/50, front/rear.
Active All-Wheel Drive, standard on automatic Outbacks, replaces the viscous coupling with an electronically managed multi-disc clutch. Torque distribution remains 50/50, but Subaru claims this system can respond more quickly to changing conditions.
Finally, Variable Torque Distribution combines the electronically managed clutch with a planetary gear that splits torque 45/55 front/rear, for a ``performance-driving feel.'' Additional electronic sensors monitor the position of the throttle and steering wheel, as well as the vehicle's yaw rate and the individual speed of each wheel. When combined with traction control, claims Subaru, this system can actually anticipate a loss of traction before it happens. New for 2002 is a switch to turn the traction-control function off, a feature that may be useful in deep snow or mud.
The new 3.0-liter horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine produces 212 horsepower and 210 pounds-feet of torque. The 2.5-liter horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine makes 165 horsepower and 166 pounds-feet of torque, still competitive for this class.
The power boost from the bigger motor is not readily apparent except in high-demand situations, like passing. Many of us who have owned four-cylinder cars over the years have become accustomed to tepid performance as a tradeoff for fuel economy, and we've learned to wait for a stiff tailwind before attempting a passing maneuver. No need with the Subaru H-6. The power peaks at 6000 rpm, so when you kick down the automatic transmission and step out to pass you're not out there for long. By the EPA's reckoning, fuel economy measures 20 mpg city/26 highway for the six-cylinder VDC, nearly as good as for the four-cylinder models. (Our test drive netted 22 miles per gallon in a mix of city and country driving.)
Handling is more car-like than truck-like because the Outback is essentially a car. More than 7 inches of ground clearance doesn't make the VDC corner like a sports car, but the Outback is still noticeably nimbler than taller, slower-maneuvering SUVs. The Outback delivers a comfortable ride quality, too. And you won't need a rope ladder or a running start to hoist yourself into the cabin.
The VDC concept combines sophisticated all-wheel drive with traction control to assure that you get a grip on the road, and keep it. This is not to say that you won't ever get into trouble if you encounter bad road conditions or exercise poor judgment. But it is reassuring to know that the Subaru system is there to help you maintain control, when foul weather or ragged roads make for rough sledding. Subaru's technology also helps make driving in adverse weather much easier, less stressful and more enjoyable.
Subaru's line of Outbacks can conquer the worst road conditions, and the Outback Wagons continue to serve as sensible alternatives to big, heavy sport-utility vehicles. They are practical, comfortable, useful vehicles.
The VDC and Bean models inject power, luxury and enhanced traction into the relentlessly sensible Subaru lineup. Six-cylinder engines coupled with the latest electronic stability control systems improve safety and increase performance at the same time. Though loaded with features, these top two models are also pricey. At $31,895, the Outback VDC is priced close enough to invite comparisons with base models from upscale manufacturers, for example, the Volvo Cross Country ($36,500), Lexus RX300 ($35,955), and Acura MDX ($34,370).
The best values in the Outback lineup remain the less expensive and highly competent four-cylinder models, starting at $22,895.