I've always liked the all-wheel drive and boxer engines found in most Subarus. The well-mannered ride and handling, along with economical performance, give Subarus a recognizable engineering identity and common "feel" that extends beyond the interior and dashboard layout. But I always had one major complaint with the Subaru line: in the cars and SUVs I drove, the bodywork seemed flimsy, almost too light to do the job. This was evident in the door-slamming test. The doors just didn't have the heft and solidity that most drivers associate with durability and craftsmanship.

The new Outback H6-3.0 Legacy sedan is either the exception to the rule or a sign Subaru is paying as much attention to the body as it does to the engine/suspension set up. Or it could just reflect the fact that this four-door sedan costs three or four thousand dollars more than Subarus I've driven in the past. Regardless, the fit and finish of the bodywork combined with the reduced noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH) imply quality and substance.

Under the hood, a horizontally opposed, DOHC six cylinder sends up to 212 hp and 210 lb-ft of peak torque through a four-speed electronic transmission. The AWD system sends power to the front and rear wheels based on traction needs and weight transfers that occur during acceleration, braking, and cornering. The system uses several parameters to determine optimal power distribution. When the driver hits the accelerator, for instance, the system sends more power to the rear wheels to account for the momentary shift of the car's weight. A limited-slip rear differential helps by directing power to the rear wheel that needs it most. All of this is transparent to drivers, except they notice the car behaves much better and grips the road more tightly.

Inside, the car seats four comfortably, and the driver gets the advantage of an eight-way power seat. Controls and dials are well positioned and the CD/cassette and radio sound good. The only ergonomic faux pas, a common one in many cars these days, is an ashtray that is inaccessible when in park.

Another area that could use improvement is exterior styling. Maybe blandness and a faint resemblance to the AMC Pacer is a selling point with loyal Subaru customers, but to me, Subarus have about as much eye appeal as a Maytag washer with a racing stripe.

All that aside, the $28,000 Legacy Outback comes well equipped, part of Subaru's philosophy of packaging all the options together for one price. For example, such things as the moonroof, keyless entry, heated seats, 200-W stereo, and halogen fog lamps are all included. It makes a fine (small) family sedan, especially for winter driving.