What I'm Driving At: Out and Back

So fascinating is the contemporary story of Subaru in America that it's almost a shame to take up space discussing just one of its cars. But it is in large part because of just one Subaru model that this Japanese auto maker's story is so compelling. In case you've been asleep at the switch lately, that car is the Subaru Legacy Outback. It's dubbed a sport-wagon by its makers, and its every media appearance is graced by the accompaniment of that Australian national pet, "Crocodile" Dundee, and his cheerfully guttural "G'day."My fascination with the Outback has two different sources -- one practical, the other psychological. First the practical explanation: I have spent a great deal of time with various models of the Legacy Outback in both '96 and '97 trim, and without reservation I must admit that the car works -- as advertised, and without making any apologies for following its own eccentric muse.To put the matter in context, this is a car and a company that raised more eyebrows than enthusiasm when it first unveiled the Outback during the 1995 Chicago Auto Show. Most people in the industry thought the company was simply papering over its lack of a sport/utility vehicle at a time when the SUV trend was becoming a craze. After all, the standard reasoning went, here was a company whose recent marketing fiascoes had financially restricted its ability to "freshen" an aging product line. Having slogged through the '70s and '80s with a technically brilliant all-wheel-drive power train that most consumers considered merely clever if not odd, Subaru was now about to miss the 4WD party completely for lack of legitimate sport/ute. By all superficial appearances, what Subaru came up with was a cartoon-version station wagonette with frog-eye fog lamps, bulbous bumpers, and exaggerated wheel wells. Ground clearance was bumped up about 20 percent to 7.3 inches (largely due to wheels and tires), and a decal with the word "Outback" in Marvel comics-style lettering was pasted on the sides and back."Sure," sneered all of us experts in the automotive sniping community, "like that's really gonna compete with the Ford Explorer and the Jeep Grand Cherokee." It just so happens that's exactly what it did -- and continues to do. While sales of the best-selling SUVs from the Big Three grew anywhere from 2 to 14 percent in '96, sales of the American-made Subaru Legacy -- fueled by Outback-mania -- swelled 28 percent. Now, that's not just a g'day; that's a darn g'year.Clearly, there's more at work here than smoke-and-mirrors marketing. The proof is in the test drive, which showcases the car's disciplined, athletic character. The interior, for example, proffers no frills whatsoever, but neither driver nor passengers are left wanting. All the power conveniences and controls are handy, for example; and although tightly upholstered and suspiciously under-cushioned, the bucket seats up front and the bench in the rear provide all the right supports for most body shapes and seating positions.On streets and highways, what's most noticeable is what's not. In other words, you'd never know you were in an all-wheel-drive vehicle, since there's none of that clunky steering bind that plagues lesser AWD power trains. Thanks to a viscous fluid coupling between the front and rear drive lines (which apportions variable "traction" where and when needed), there's no apparent drag on engine power. The car also sports a snappy "boxer-style," opposed-cylinder motor -- an engine configuration it shares solely with Porsche.Pull off the pavement, and the Outback is ready, willing, and able -- sometimes too able for its own good, in fact. After one especially aggressive off-road session in a very gooey mud and fieldstone stew, I once had an Outback clamoring for more, until a dreadful, bone-jarring "thunk" against an exposed exhaust header shamed the car for lacking any protective skid plates "down under." But with the outer limit of the car's capabilities thus established, it's clear that for a typical owner's more standard fare of dirt roads, snowy streets, and an occasional creek crossing, the Outback won't even break a sweat -- or part of its undercarriage, for that matter. What the Outback has broken, rather, is a streak of self-inflicted bad luck for Subaru. Despite the depiction of the Pleiades twinkling from the car manufacturer's logo, that hopeful constellation belies the company's star-crossed fortunes from the late '80s until, well, just recently. Having burst into the American auto market with great fanfare and technical imagination in the '70s, Subaru wallowed through the next decade with such aimlessness that it inspired author Randall Rothenberg to chronicle the debacle in his 1994 book Where the Suckers Moon. In a work that has attained textbook status in marketing and advertising circles, Rothenberg's essential premise is that Subaru mindlessly squandered precious goodwill by entrusting its image to hip, self-indulgent advertising aesthetes who were clueless about cars. Yet it is precisely because of image rehabilitations like the Outback -- which after all is really just a clever case of product repositioning -- that Subaru is enjoying its comeback. The idea that both consumers and companies are so blithely vulnerable to marketing mood shifts is precisely what enlivens this secondary, psychological aspect of the Subaru story. But you can bet that automotive pop psychology is not the inspiration for a spate of glowing grins and fervent handshakes from Subaru executives and dealers lately. For them, the happy news is a lot more visceral: The popularity of the Outback Legacy sport-wagon means they're no longer down and out. Instead, they're back from the brink.

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