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The Station Wagon Stealthily Returns

2005 Subaru Outback 3.0 R/L.L. Bean Edition wagon

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 29, 2004; Page G01

It was a "pre-production model," which means it wasn't ready for market. But that may have been a ruse, a hedge against something that could have gone wrong on the test drive.

Car companies do that sort of thing when introducing new models to the media. The "pre-production" label provides a built-in excuse for possible error. "We'll fix that in the regular production run," auto executives say.

2005 Subaru Outback 3.0R/L.L. Bean Edition wagon

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But there was little need for that funny business with the 2005 Subaru Outback 3.0 R/L.L. Bean Edition wagon. Maybe the name could have been shortened. But that was about it. "Pre-production" or not, the wagon was darned near perfect. It proved yet again that Subaru was right to flirt with, but not commit itself to, the SUV craze.

The flirtation began in 1995, when America's greatly misunderstood and misdiagnosed lust for sport-utility vehicles was coming into full bloom. It wasn't a matter of unbridled ego, or wanton disregard for the environment or public safety, as alleged in Keith Bradsher's hysterical and statistically inaccurate tome, "High and Mighty SUVs: The World's Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way."

It was a matter of rational, compensatory consumer behavior.

The U.S. government all but killed family station wagons in the 1970s with its politically inspired, non-science-based corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) rule. CAFE required car companies to sell new-vehicle fleets having an arbitrarily pegged miles-per-gallon standard.

That "sell" verb is all-important, because CAFE did not and does not require consumers to buy what the car companies want to sell. Moreover, it was a loophole-ridden rule that restricted sales of fuel-efficient, foreign-made vehicles for CAFE purposes. That is, a U.S. car company could not use products made overseas to improve its CAFE score.

So, U.S. car companies got into a frenzy of vehicle downsizing that eventually led to the near-death of the station wagon and other big family carriers. The problem was that big families didn't die. They continued, along with their need for vehicles that carry lots of people and stuff.

Chrysler in 1984 exploited one of those CAFE loopholes by introducing a truck-based "minivan," which, because it was regarded as a truck, had a lower CAFE standard than a car. Ford Motor Co. and what was then the American Motors Corp.'s Jeep went several steps further, turning trucks into "sport-utility vehicles" -- family rides that had a higher sex appeal than minivans.

Consumers went SUV crazy. Why not? They got family haulers with cachet instead of CAFÉ at what appeared to be reasonable prices in a land with the cheapest gasoline in the developed world. It was a good fit for them and for auto marketers, so much so that Subaru in 1995 decided to introduce the "rugged" Outback, which then was nothing more than a Subaru Legacy wagon with SUV pretensions. Surprisingly, that fake-mobile sold and sold well.

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