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1996 Subaru Legacy Outback

  • Driver

Subaru has long labored with the handicap of being niche-challenged.

While enjoying a deserved reputation for being rugged and reliable, Subaru's products also persist with an image of off-beat simplemindedness.

That might have been true many years ago, but hardly fair to sophisticates like the Legacy sedan and station wagon.

Introduced as a '95, the latest-generation Legacy compares closely, and favorably, with segment leaders Honda Accord and Toyota Camry.

Undaunted by a playing field that appeared forever tilted, the company has brought forth the Legacy Outback, an unabashed attempt to create a niche of its own.

The Outback is an all-wheel drive (AWD) Legacy wagon that has been lifted 3.2 centimetres — almost an inch and a quarter to gain extra ground clearance.

The vehicle will now pass over obstacles that reach up 18.5 cm (7.3 inches). No other car can do that, and the clearance is competitive with many sport-utilities.

And that, dear reader, is the Outback's reason for being. Subaru's product planners have surmised that many North American buyers need or want the load space, AWD and go-anywhere talents of a sport-ute, but they don't want a truck.

An Outback could be ideal for any outdoor activity requiring a rough road or mild offroad jaunt and still be appropriate for business functions and Sunday-go-to-meetin' occasions.

However, I'm betting that most of the need is based on trips to a "summer" cottage. The cottage, that institution so revered by middle-class Canada, has become a year-round deal.

Cottage country roads and access lanes that would be readily accessible with a typical sedan or minivan in summer can become nasty with muddy ruts or deep snow in the other seasons.

Subaru has been messing with AWD for decades, and the Legacy system is cutting-edge technology. Power is apportioned between the front and rear drive wheels via a multiplate clutch controlled by the vehicle's onboard computer.

Moreover, the Legacy includes the slippery-stopping genius of a four-wheel, four-channel anti-lock mechanism that is equally enhanced by computer control. Add the Outback's lift kit, and those off-season treks seem less intimidating.

Subaru has also raised the Outback's roofline about five centimetres (two inches) for added interior room and to create a bold look to compete with the pesky sport-utes.

Both bumpers have been bulked up and the front provided with large, faired-in fog lamps that will be a godsend when the cottage lane becomes shrouded in swirling snow.

The overall look is successful, making an undeniable "I'm ready. Can do!" statement. But I'm not sure about the front bumper in isolation. Looks like big gray fish lips to me.

The interior is stock Legacy, encompassing everything we have come to expect from a fully equipped and carefully assembled mid-size Japanese car. No surprises, except for the irresponsible absence of rear head restraints.

I noted a power outlet back in the cargo area. And, a typical Subaru detail, the air bag warning stickers on the back of the passenger sunvisor do dual duty as document pockets.

Although the raised roof provides cathedral-like headroom front and rear, I didn't find the cargo area enlarged as much. The roofline tapers back down to meet the standard Legacy rear hatch. As a result, you can only take advantage of the taller interior up close to the back seat, or with part or all of the 60/40 seatback folded down.

There is, nonetheless, plenty of space for a stuff-laden cottage run. Seatbacks up, the cargo floor is a full metre long. Back near the door is an area 1.36 metres (4.5 feet) wide. Between the wheels wells it tapers to 0.96 (3.1 feet) metres.

Tie-down hooks are hidden where their hard sharpness won't molest tender luggage. When required, they can be brought through plastic-reinforced slits in the carpet.

The Outback's non-truck appeal must also include ride, handling and performance at least comparable to a standard Legacy.

Performance is no problem. For $30,895, the Outback is the first of the Subaru family available with a 2.5 litre, double overhead cam version of the horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine. Horsepower is rated at 155. The 2.5 comes only with an electronic automatic transmission.

The other Outback package includes a 2.2 litre, 135 h.p. four and a five-speed manual box ($28.995).

My 2.5 litre tester was noticeably quicker around town than the standard 2.2 litre Legacy. Due in no small part to a big lump of torque (155 poundfeet) available low in the rev range (2800 r.p.m.). In contrast, the 2.2 litre must spin up to 4400 r.p.m. to reach its 140 poundfoot maximum.

The Outback's paved road ride is virtually identical to the regular Legacy's. Handling does suffer a mite, the result of an elevated centre of gravity producing more sidetoside weight transfer. Thicker antiroll bars reduce the effect, and few drivers will notice.

Put it this way — in an all-out race, the Outback might struggle to keep up with Accords and Camrys, but it would run rings around any sport-ute.

I had a chance to test the Outback's off-pavement talents in the outback of the Port of Toronto during a visit to the In-Water Boat Show held at the beautiful Outer Harbor Marina. The marina, built on reclaimed land, has vast expanses of boat storage yard, empty at this time of year, and crisscrossed with rough, weather-ravaged laneways.

Exploring the area at low speeds, the Outback demonstrated lots of supple suspension movement that made our progress through majestic potholes reasonably comfortable.

But at high speeds, the shock absorbers could not keep up with the large and rapid wheel movements, and things quickly degenerated to hang-on-for-dear-life mode.

Boatyard bravado is not the point here. The Outback handled this as well as some 4x4s, but should have done better. A cottage-laner could encounter an unexpected frost heave or erosion rut and require every bit of available control.

Subaru is noted for shock expertise. I'm sure this will entail no more than a quick fix.

Cam McRae, who writes on light trucks and vans, prepared his assessment based on week-long driving experiences in a vehicle supplied by the manufacturer or importer.

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