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Self-Assured Agility
2009 Subaru Outback

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 2, 2008

CORNWALL, N.Y. -- Schunemunk Mountain looms high in the autumn sky in bright orange, red and yellow. It is a splendid sight, well worth the 300-mile trip here from my home in Virginia, where similar natural beauty abounds.

Staying home was an option. But I enjoy driving. Coming here to a daughter's home in the shadow of the Schunemunk was reason enough to hit the road. The 2009 Subaru Outback 2.5i Limited wagon available for the drive was an added attraction.

The new Outback is much changed from the predecessor model that began life in the United States in 1995 as a jacked-up, duded-up Subaru Legacy L wagon. It still shares Legacy structure and components. But through the twin magic of computer-assisted design and engineering, it has shed the truck-like pretensions of that earlier model without losing any of Subaru's famed all-wheel-drive agility.

The new Outback, instead, is a mid-size family wagon perfectly happy in its own skin. It seats five people comfortably. It offers reasonable onboard utility. With the standard 2.5-liter, 170-horsepower, flat four-cylinder engine in the model driven for this column, it gets about 20 miles per gallon in the city and up to 31 miles per gallon on the highway -- when driven at posted speed limits.

It is a wonderfully odd piece of work.

You'd think that a wagon with a ground clearance of 8.4 inches, which is the case here, would be clumsy, tipsy -- reluctantly responsive to emergency steering maneuvers. But the Outback is remarkably responsive to the slightest steering input, accurate in compliance with steering demands. That can prove useful on long drives, as discovered by Ria Manglapus, my associate in vehicle evaluations.

There is a new law in place in Virginia and other jurisdictions designed to protect the lives of law enforcement officers making traffic stops. For example, motorists approaching police vehicles involved in traffic stops on the right side of the road are now obliged to move one lane over to the left. That makes sense. Too many law enforcement officers have been killed or maimed accidentally while standing on the side of the road issuing a summons to errant drivers.

But making that emergency lane change in heavy highway traffic can be a problem in an unresponsive or poorly responsive car or truck. It can even be dangerous.

"You want to get over fast without getting in the way of oncoming traffic," Ria said. You can do that in an Outback while maintaining perfect control of the wagon.

You can also climb steep mountain roads in the rain, thanks to the Outback's symmetrical all-wheel-drive system, which simultaneously transmits drive power to all four wheels. There is both balance and grip in that arrangement -- reassuring virtues on high, wet roads that sometimes lack the benefit of guard rails.

Also helpful in the highlands are automatic transmissions that can be shifted manually. The Outback 2.5i Limited comes with a four-speed version -- not exactly optimum in a world rapidly moving toward five-, six-, and seven-speed gearboxes. But it works.

In automatic mode, the Outback's four-speed automatic is something of a groaner on high roads, evidencing all of the stress of its limitations. But slapping the transmission lever to the left of the gearbox and operating it manually increases torque and relieves the stress.

Of course, more power is always helpful and often desirable, especially for driving at high altitudes. Subaru offers stronger engines for the Outback -- a turbocharged, 243-horsepower version of the 2.5-liter, flat four-cylinder engine; and a 3-liter, 245-horsepower, six-cylinder model.

But life is a matter of choices and trade-offs. The standard four-cylinder engine runs well on regular unleaded gasoline. The turbocharged version requires more expensive premium fuel. And the six-cylinder model drinks more gasoline than I'm willing to pay for. I'd rather spend my money on apples picked from groves after viewing the foliage.

ON WHEELS WITH WARREN BROWN Listen from noon to 1 p.m. Tuesdays on WMET World Radio (1160 AM) or http://www.wmet1160.com.

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