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Review 2002 Subaru Outback H6-3.0 VDC

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SEE ALSO: Subaru Buyer's Guide

2002 Subaru Outback H6-3.0 VDC
Base price: $31,895
Price as tested: $32,420
EPA mileage: 20 city/ 26 highway

By Des Toups
	A six-cylinder engine makes the Subaru Outback feel like a different 
machine, more adult and more serene than its four-banger siblings. It also 
makes the rest of the Outback, by all standards a thoroughly competent 
vehicle, feel a little chintzy.
	Not for lack of trying on Subaru's part. The $32,420 H6-3.0 VDC is its top 
of the line, awash in leather and wood trim and high-end stereo. Dual 
sunroofs above, a reassuring stability-control system underneath. But strip 
away the alphanumeric soup and it's the same Outback as the $24,220 base 
model -- not a bad thing, merely a far less inexpensive thing.
	By now, anyone with a television is reasonably familiar with the virtues 
Crocodile Dundee extols: all-wheel-drive, a little more cargo space and a 
little extra ground clearance. The Outback is a tastes-great, less-filling 
alternative to the Toyota 4Runner and Ford Explorer, cheaper because it's 
built as a car, not a truck, and more agile for the same reason.
	In its second generation, unveiled for 2000, the Outback grew a bit 
larger, a bit cushier and a bit heavier. With weight closing in on two 
tons, even Subaru's torquey 165-horsepower four felt somewhat strained, 
especially with an automatic transmission. For 2002, Subaru brought in a 
212-horsepower six-cylinder, like the four configured with the carmaker's 
trademark horizontally opposed cylinders (they face each other rather than 
sit upright). The additional 47 ponies -- and more important, a similar 
boost in torque, the muscle that actually moves the car -- nudges the 
Outback over that invisible line between sluggish and adequate.
	It should do even more. The four-speed automatic transmission is geared 
too tall to take real advantage of the newfound power, and like automatics 
in other Subarus, it shifts annoyingly between third and fourth on slight 
inclines (The lever can be shifted manually to third, but there's no 
overdrive lockout button.). What's worse is the tranny's hesitant 
downshifting in situations where power is needed instantly -- an extra 
heartbeat as you try to avoid a collision or pass quickly.
	If you're not in a hurry, the automatic shifts unobtrusively, and you can 
enjoy the silence and smoothness of the flat six. It's a lovely, relaxed 
engine, with none of the familiar Subaru lumpiness in its idle or exhaust 
note, and it makes the Outback feel bigger and more expensive (which, of 
course, it is). The transmission and steering convey zero friction from the 
all-wheel-drive, allowing the Outback to coast silkily, unlike many of its 
all-weather rivals.
	In almost all other respects the VDC is like any other Outback, which is 
to say it's tidily sized, not especially roomy and very easy to maneuver. 
The seats are heated and grippy even in leather, though taller drivers may 
find themselves feeling pinched. There are two sunroofs, a small one over 
the front seats that tilts only, and a bigger one over the rear seats that 
retracts. The giant sunroof in the smaller Forester, so big it extends over 
both seats, exposes Outback's dual units for what they are: gimmickry.
	Other little things help lend an impression that there's less here than 
meets the eye. The doors don't have frames for the windows, for example, 
giving an impression of flimsiness. There's no retained power for the 
electric windows after the key is removed. Plastic is hard where it should 
be soft-touch; the simulated wood trim isn't especially attractive (though 
the real wood-and-leather steering wheel is top notch), and there's far too 
much of it.
	An H6-3.0 VDC exclusive is an 11-speaker McIntosh stereo with remarkably 
rich sound, though it has but a single CD slot and is tuned with rather 
retro-looking knobs (and still retains a cassette player -- how '90s is 
that?). There are no steering-wheel radio controls; at this price, there 
should be. It's also mounted below the ventilation controls, rather than 
above, where it would be easier to reach.
	Also unique to the H6-3.0 VDC is its Vehicle Dynamics Control system 
(that's the VDC) that steps in when the road turns hairy, first by sending 
power to the appropriate corners, then by using the antilock system to 
brake slipping wheels and finally by cutting engine power until the car 
regains stability. Seattle summers are a dry as the winters are wet, so we 
were able to provoke a reaction from the VDC only in the snowy corners of a 
high mountain dirt road. With the VDC turned off, we could break the back 
end loose on icy spots. Switched on, the VDC shut down the fun early and 
decisively. Sheer idiocy could probably defeat the system -- and it does 
nothing to stop the car more quickly, only keeping it on its intended path 
-- but it could be a decisive factor for those who encounter black ice 
	On pavement, steering is nicely precise, sending back a nice picture of 
road conditions, and the turning circle is a tidy 36.7 feet. All corners of 
the car are easily visible from the driver's seat, and front valance is 
high enough not to scrape parking-lot logs and steep driveways. At 63 
inches tall, the Outback is easily a foot shorter than most 
sport-utilities, which makes lifting bicycles or kayaks to its roof an easy 
chore rather than a trial.
	The flip side of the Outback's reasonable dimensions, of course, is that 
it lacks the room and commanding presence now available in such car-based 
machines as the Honda Pilot, let alone truck-based rivals such as the Ford 
Explorer. Towing, for example, is limited to 2,000 pounds, enough a small 
pop-up camper but not enough to tow many boats and trailers. The seating 
position is low, rather than the king-of-the-highway view a taller machine 
offers. Perhaps fuel economy in the low 20s rather than the low teens 
offsets that.
	Once the Outback was the only game in town for anybody wanting all-weather 
traction, carlike handling and decent cargo capacity. Now it's hemmed in on 
every side: The similarly sized and priced Volkswagen Passat 4Motion is 
every bit as smooth, with world-class fit and finish and a high-style 
interior that belongs in a $32,000 car. Tall wagons such as the Pilot and 
Toyota Highlander offer car-based ride and competent handling, far more 
room and that mile-high view. At this elevated price level, the Outback 
H6-3.0 VDC is an unconvincing luxury car and no one's idea of a people hauler.
	But at $25,000, it's would be a class of one. Let's hope Subaru makes this 
sweet six available across the line.
Des Toups is a Seattle free-lance writer whose work has appeared in 
AutoWorld magazine, The Seattle Times and newspapers nationwide.