Ride, Handling & Braking

Employing a car-based four-wheel-independent suspension since its mid-1990s inception, the Outback displays admirable ride quality. It soaks up bumps with little driver disturbance but maintains good control over stretches of broken pavement. Rough pavement can stunt a soft-riding car's reflexes and leave it bobbing up and down, but the Outback suffers little of that.

Steering and handling are good, if not as sharp as they were in the last Outback. Driving enthusiasts will appreciate the steering wheel's heavy weight at low speeds, while average drivers will want more power assist for easier parking-lot maneuvers. On the highway, I could use a little less assist. Holding the wheel at 12 o'clock, it feels a bit too loose.

Find a winding road, however, and the Outback handles well. The steering has good turn-in precision and little midcorner sloppiness. The nose pushes wide in hard corners, exacerbated by our tester's all-season Continental ContiProContact tires, which didn't offer much grip. Stomp hard on the gas coming out of a sweeping corner, though, and you can swing the tail out eventually. Credit the standard all-wheel drive, whose power distribution skews slightly rearward in six-cylinder Outbacks. All automatic Outbacks distribute power between the axles electronically; the manual Outback uses a simpler viscous coupling that's less proactive in doling out power when the wheels start to slip. Still, both systems distribute constant power to each axle. Many on-demand systems send power rearward only when a drive wheel begins to slip; some allow you to enforce a 50/50 split via a locking center differential. We've driven previous Outbacks on trails, and the all-wheel drive Ч along with an impressive 8.7 inches of ground clearance Ч make for better capability than you'd expect in a crossover.

Four-wheel-disc antilock brakes are standard, with larger discs installed on six-cylinder Outbacks. The pedal has linear response, making it easy to smooth out your stops. Cram the car full of passengers, and you'll want to plan your stopping distances accordingly. Loaded down with some 500 pounds of cargo, our test car took significantly farther to come to a halt.

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