During its 15 year history, the Outback has done a superb job of raising Subaru's overall market profile while significantly bolstering its sales figures. For 2010, the firm has completely redesigned this capable and comfortable on-/off-road "Sport Utility Wagon" to bring it more in step with the current state of the crossover scene. That process has taken it tastefully upscale in virtually every way as it attempts to snare an even larger slice of one market segment that continues to defy the current dismal sales environment. A recent trek to Montana provides some firsthand experience firsthand with this new Gen IV Outback as well as insight regarding how it stacks up against other players in its arena.

Available in base, Premium and Limited trims, the all-wheel-drive Outback shares a good deal of its mechanical and structural elements with the Legacy sedan, which also was redesigned for 2010. It's wagon configuration notwithstanding, there's a definite family resemblance with respect to exterior and interior styling, both of which display a greater degree of sophistication. Although an inch shorter overall than the 2009 Outback, the 2010 has gained 2.8 inches of wheelbase and is wider, taller and more spacious inside. The biggest stretch comes in the form of an extra 3.9 inches of rear leg room that will keep even six-footers happy; but overall stow space also is up significantly, whether you have the backs on its 60/40 folding -- and now reclining -- rear bench up or down.

Subaru also gave the Outback's powertrains a major reworking. While the turbocharged XT is gone for 2010, revisions to the existing 2.5-liter flat-four engine help develop its carryover 170 horsepower and 170 lb.-ft of torque at lower revs while a new six-speed manual transmission or optional continuously variable transmission (CVT) with a paddle-shiftable Sport mode increase operating efficiency as well as driving fun in 2.5i models. For those requiring a bit more performance, the previous 245-horse/3.0-liter flat-six has been replaced by the 256-horse/3.6-liter flat-six from the Tribeca in the now-renamed 3.6R trio. Sole transmission for the six is a recalibrated version of the five-speed automatic -- also with paddle-shiftable Sport mode. Unlike its 3.0 predecessor, the 3.6 drinks regular unleaded and also gets better mpg. As in the past, each engine/trans combo gets its own variation on Subaru's full-time Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive system.

Out on the road or negotiating some surprisingly challenging trails, it was immediately apparent that Subaru has endowed its new Outback with a whole lot of the right stuff. Its reinforced unit-body structure coupled with new front/rear subframes and a redesigned/retuned suspension combine to yield a right-sized package that's smoother, quieter, more refined and better controlled than ever -- no matter what terrain you may be traversing. At 4,000-plus feet of elevation, it was pretty clear that buyers who plan to regularly carry a full complement of passengers or cargo will likely be happier with one of the new 3.6R variants, but the 2.5i with CVT has a whole lot going for it, including over a 10 percent gain in both city and highway mileage (now 22/29 mpg) compared to the 2009 four-cylinder Outback with a conventional four-speed autoshifter.

One aspect of the Outback's character that has remained constant in the 2010 remake is its high-value pricing. The base 2.5i AWD opens at $23,690, which puts it nearly $3,000 under a front-drive Toyota Venza, the vehicle Subaru sees as being its closest perceived competitor. The same holds true at 3.6R level. A top-line Limited with leather upholstery and a new 440-watt harman-kardon audio system starts at $31,690. That gives it a considerable advantage over virtually all of its V6-powered AWD alternatives, including the Acura MDX, BMW X3 and Jeep Grand Cherokee.

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