Subaru calls the Outback the "world's first sport-utility wagon," a claim that AMC Eagle owners seem too embarrassed to dispute. The Outback may be just a Legacy in high heels and chaps, but that takes nothing away from its usefulness and comfort, nor does it detract from its importance to Subaru's fortunes. For the first time in history, this car gave the company a sales pitch that non-NPR listeners can appreciate: The Outback is like an SUV, just a lot harder to flip over.
Now, a season after an all-new Legacy hit the road in Japan to justifiably hearty reviews, that car and its Outback sister are coming to North America. At the top of the line is the slothlike 3.0 R six-cylinder, but don't bother with that one. The lighter, cheaper Outback XT's turbo four engine makes the same amount of horsepower (250) and lots more torque (250 versus 219 pound-feet), all at lower revs. The XT is also shockingly fun to drive, with excellent balance and steering that are a lot more reminiscent of the Legacy GT wagon than the lumbering 4x4s that Subaru hopes to lure you away from.
Subaru's trademarked "Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive" slogan is just another way to say that the engine is still dangling out past the front axle, but the XT's revamped four-cylinder, WRX STi-derived, aluminum boxer is so short, light, and low that this hardly matters. Also finely done is a new doll of a five-speed automatic called (in shouting all caps) SPORT-SHIFT. This manual-shift automatic also brings steering-wheel-mounted shift buttons on the XT and a Variable Torque Distribution center differential. The latter sends more power to the rear axle in most conditions, providing legitimate rear-wheel-drive handling.
Elsewhere, the '05 Outback is both bigger and lighter (though still hardly sylphlike); it also has much better styling with less dorky cladding, a lower center of gravity despite higher total ground clearance, and a nicely done interior with an optional bomb-bay-sized two-piece moonroof. For 98 percent of America's drivers, there's nothing it won't do better than a herd of traditional SUVs.