FARMINGTON, Pa. -- Outback, the five-door crossover wagon built by Subaru at a factory in Indiana, lives up to its rugged name.
It has the rigid unibody structure of a car but a hiked suspension which compares in height to a sport utility vehicle.
It also carries an all-wheel-drive (AWD) traction system that's always engaged.
With all tires clawing for grip and the chassis elevated, an Outback can bump across a rocky field, scamper through a creek bed and zip down a rugged two-track trail to reach a backwoods campground.
And Outback scoots through snow like a snowmobile, which may explain why Outback sales run so high in Snow Belt states like Vermont, Colorado and Washington.
But Outback also delivers the poise and easy-to-drive traits of a fine sedan, with a cushy ride quality, comfy seats and cabin perks comparable to a luxury car.
Then too there's the generous cabin of a station wagon with a cargo bay behind the second row of seats so you can haul a load of gear in addition to a family of five.
So Outback functions as an easy-rider car, a pack-horse wagon and a sure-grip AWD sport utility -- three vehicles wrapped in a five-door wagon structure with mid-size dimensions for the five-seat passenger compartment.
When Subaru introduced Outback in 1996, it became the world's first crossover vehicle, although at the time no one knew what a crossover was -- one vehicle with pliable traits of a sporty car in a format that resembles either a high-hiked station wagon or a dropped-down SUV.
Subaru added refinements to Outback through three generations, beefing it up with rugged body work and bigger tires, more sophisticated vehicle controls and powertrain options.
But the new Outback of 2010 -- marking a fourth generation -- elevates the concept with modern package styling, better utility and boosted performance.
The structure of Outback '10 expands in every direction to forge a larger vehicle with more room for passengers and their gear.
Mechanical hardware has been upgraded and fortified to create a smoother and more responsive ride quality and there are electronic controls for steering and braking, plus different takes on Subaru's AWD traction system.
And there are two choices in powertrains, each delivering more power and torque than ever before.
Styling for the sheetmetal is fresh, spread over a taller and broader frame.
Outback's wheelbase draws 2.8 inches longer than the previous model, which increases legroom for backseat riders by almost 4 inches, although the overall length of the vehicle decreases by half an inch because the new design whittles front and rear overhangs by a couple of inches.
The chiseled prow looks aggressive posed on the end of a sculpted hood. There are dramatic hawk-eye headlamps mounted high on front corners and flanking the horizontal grille split by parallel bars with a chrome crown, and a lower fascia houses wide air intakes and round foglamps.
Flanks show bulging wheelwell blisters and protective body cladding, taller black-out roof pillars and a rear-sloped roofline capped by standard rack rails.
Outback's platform reveals a wider track and a lower center of gravity, although the chassis ground clearance has been raised to 8.6 inches.
The suspension is fully independent with tuned MacPherson struts up front and a new double wishbone in back designed to generate smooth-ride traits as well as consume less space so the rear cargo bay expands.
And the steering system, through a rack and pinion arrangement, is tuned for quick responses with a precise on-center feel from the wheel.
The four-wheel disc brakes tie to an anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake distribution (EBD) and electronic brake assist (EBA) plus a stability system under Subaru's label of Vehicle Dynamics Control (VDC) with a four-wheel traction control system (TCS).
Subaru segments Outback 2010 by two powertrains, then lists three trim tiers for each engine -- Base, Premium and Limited.
Outback's entry-level engine is a single-cam 2.5-liter four-cylinder design with cylinders opposed horizontally and set perpendicular to the drive line.
The four-pack plant produces 170 hp at 5600 rpm and torque of 170 lb-ft at 4000 rpm.
This engine works with a six-speed manual transmission or Subaru's new Lineartronic CVT (continuously variable transmission) which has a manual shift mode and paddle shifters at hand on the steering wheel.
Three top editions -- Outback 3.6R, 3.6R Premium and 3.6R Limited -- tote Subaru's horizontally-opposed six-cylinder engine which displaces 3.6 liters and features dual overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder with AVCS (active valve control system) variable valve timing on intake and exhaust valves.
The 3.6-liter engine delivers a robust 256 hp at 6000 rpm plus torque of 247 lb-ft at 4400 rpm.
It links to Subaru's electronically controlled five-speed SportShift automatic which features RMDBC (rev-matching downshift blipping control) and steering wheel paddle shifters.
All editions of Outback 2010 employ AWD equipment, although the device differs by transmission type.
With a manual six-speed shifter, the continuous AWD system has a viscous-coupling locking center differential (VCLCD) designed to distribute the engine's power evenly between front and rear wheels. Slippage of front or back wheels may prompt the device to redirect some of the power to the wheels not slipping, and it's possible to send all of the torque to the front or rear.
With the CVT, the active AWD system has a continuously variable hydraulic transfer clutch (CVHTC) managed electronically, while for the electronic automatic transmission, Subaru adds variable torque distribution (VTD) to the AWD system with a planetary center differential and an electronically controlled CVHTC to distribute the power, which normally split 45/55 percent front/rear but can modify that ratio if tires slip.
MSRP figures for the new and improved Outback of 2010 range from $22,995 to $30,995.