Hard to believe that it’s been fifteen years since Subaru hitched its station wagon to America’s fading fascination with Paul Hogan, oversized knives, and shrimps on the barbie by creating the Outback. The dang thing has proven to be so enduring that it even managed to survive a guest spot in “Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles”, the third film in the series, where it was the titular character’s painfully obvious car of choice. Now entering its fourth generation, the Outback moves one sequel ahead of its big screen counterpart.

Here’s hoping it stays that way.

Taller, wider, and roomier, but shorter in length that the outgoing model, the Indiana-assembled 2010 Outback may have actually crossed over into the crossover ranks. The added width, and a longer wheelbase that opens up an extra 4 inches of rear legroom put the car near the top of the midsize category in interior space. It’s so capacious now that it has more total cargo room than a Ford Escape, Chevy Equinox, or even a Jeep Grand Cherokee.

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The exterior design hides the new bulk well without straying too far from Outback convention. With a customer retention rate rivaled only by the Mafia, Subaru wasn’t about to mess this one up, though some traditionalists might balk at the loss of the blacked out rear roof pillars.

Inside the changes are just as dramatically evolutionary. The dashboard keeps a familiar layout, but with extra surface detail to give it a more upscale appearance. Don’t touch it, though, hard plastic is the rule. But it looks so rich that most people shouldn’t notice.

The optional leather on the seats is more impressive and, since you spend a lot more time in contact with them, a better expenditure of the decorating budget.

Underpinning it all is a choice of three drivetrain combinations: a 170 horsepower flat-four-cylinder connected to either a 6-speed manual or a continuously variable automatic transmission, and the 256 horsepower 3.6 liter flat-six-cylinder available only with a five-speed automatic that I spent a week trudging through slush, sand, and sunny skies with.

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All models are equipped with Subaru’s Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system, which sends power to all four wheels all the time, not just when the rear tires start slipping. In fact, in the six-cylinder model most of the power is directed to the rear under normal circumstances to enhance dry weather traction and give the Outback a more neutral on-road balance.

Considering that the Outback’s 8.7 inches of ground clearance puts it in the same league with off-road stalwarts like the Jeep Wrangler and Toyota Land Cruiser, it feels pretty pinned to the road. The low center of gravity provided by the flat-six engine surely helps out a lot in this area.

The motor projects that unique whirr the design is known for, and Subaru’s proud engineers let just enough of it seep into the otherwise coffin-quiet interior to remind you that there’s something special under the hood. Power is healthy enough, as long as the sometimes slow to kick down transmission is in the right gear. Only having five speeds seems a little archaic these days, but whether trudging through boggy mud, or cruising down the parkway, the engine never seems to be wanting for any more.

Steering response is just a little bit slower than you might expect in a pure car, surely a nod to the 20 percent of owners that Subaru claims use their Outbacks off-road monthly, at least. Similarly, the brake pedal starts off mushy, but progresses quickly, offering excellent feedback during panic stops, like when a couple of whitetail deer jump out in front of you on a dirt road.

True story.

Even with the traction control turned off, it’s tough to get the wheels to spin on slippery surfaces, let alone blacktop. Stability control remains active at all times. When I put the Outback into a fast serpentine on a sandy road, I could hear the anti-lock brakes working hard from side to side to keep me from sliding into the pine forest where those deer came from, but forward momentum was minimally affected. A hill hold feature is also standard, though I can never figure out why you need it in a car with an automatic transmission.

A couple of unique features include a cubby under the cargo bay floor where you can store the luggage cover, and fold away crossbars for the roof rack that help to cut down on wind noise when they’re not needed. Both are effective, and classic “why didn’t I think of that” solutions to two of the most annoying problems in autodom. However, while Subaru says most existing Outback accessories are compatible with the new roof rack system, ‘most’ is not all, and buzz on owner’s forums is that a number of aftermarket accessories will not fit, either. So, if you’re a current owner of such things, you might want to bring them along to the dealership before committing to the typical long-term relationship Outbacks often engender.

To that end, the price of a base four-cylinder model is $22,995, while sixes start at $27,995 and step their way up through three trim levels to the $30,995 3.6 R Limited I tested, all less than the closest equivalent 2009 models. The most you could possibly spend on an Outback this year is $33,990, which would be 3.6 R Limited fitted with its $2,995 moonroof/navigation system option.

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Save the money. The nav system might be a lot better than the one from the outgoing model, but it lacks features like live traffic and weather that would help to justify the price. A calendar and calculator are pretty much the extent of the infotainment side of it. It’s a shame, because unlike many cars these days with center consoles that angle away from the driver and put their touch screens out of reach, the one in the Outback protrudes, bringing it close to hand. Oh well, at least you can fiddle easily with all of the settings on the outstanding 440-watt harmon/kardon audio system that’s optional on lower models, and standard on the Limited.

That’s about it for the nits, except that the side mirrors don’t fold, which seems to be an issue for Outbackers who spend a lot of time in narrow spaces. If that’s the main thing they have to complain about, that pretty much sums up the car. Besides, a Subaru insider tells me that they’re working on it.

Clearly, they always are.

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2010 Subaru Outback 3.6 R Limited

Base price: $30,995

As tested: $33,990

Type: 5-passenger, all-wheel-drive, 5-door wagon

Engine: 3.6-liter flat-six-cylinder

Power: 256 hp, 247 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 5-speed automatic

MPG: 18 city/25 hwy

What do you think of the Outback?

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