2009 Subaru Outback front view
 2009 Subaru Outback front view
 2009 Subaru Outback interior shot
 2009 Subaru Outback gauge cluster

The Subaru Outback has been one of the most practical vehicles on the market for the past several years. It earns strong reliability ratings according to almost all who chart such measurements, is reasonably priced, gets good gas mileage, and of course has the famous all-wheel-drive system that Subaru is known for. But one of the dirty little secrets of the automotive marketplace is that "practical" is often a euphemism for "boring." Does that hold true for the 2009 version of the Outback?

Well, uh, maybe just a little bit. But that certainly should not disqualify it from consideration among those who need a nice family vehicle that is, well, practical. The Outback is somewhat like that girl who lived down the street from you and went to school with you. She was smart, kind-hearted and a good friend. And while she wasn't at all unpleasant to look at, you didn't think of her first on Saturday night as you were thumbing through your little black book (which nobody has anymore; everybody stores numbers in their phones these days, right?)

But as you get a little older in life, you begin to realize that every night isn't Saturday night. The Outback can get you comfortably through a Wednesday night, and you'll especially appreciate it if that Wednesday night is cold and snowy. We didn't get to test it in those conditions (thank goodness), but what was evident was that the comfort this vehicle provides would only enhance its bad-weather performance capability.

To start with, its exterior styling is solid. Sure, it's still a wagon/crossover type thing, but there are sporty undertones, including the angular front end and the almost muscular-looking rear. On the interior, the cabin is full of quality materials that are neatly arranged. The fit and finish of the textured surfaces is good, and the controls are arranged in a practical (there's that word again) manner. The wood trim adds a bit of class.

The only thing we were disappointed in was that it was somewhat difficult to read the gauges at night, because they never seemed to light up too brightly. Well, maybe not the only thing. What's up with the window controls being awkwardly behind the door handle? It's as if they didn't want it to be easy for you to open and close your windows.

Just like when that girl down the street would wear a cool necklace, the Outback has a few features that show it can have fun. That would include the Harman-Kardon sound system that can play MP3 files and has an auxiliary input. Also, the navigation system was not bad. It took us awhile longer to figure this one out, compared with other models, for some reason, but it was manageable. It addition to directions, it offered fuel mileage data and a display of maintenance records.

Our tester was a Limited trim level, a step above the base, and had dual power moonroofs and leather upholstery. Out on the road, the Outback delivers a dependable, albeit not drama-filled, ride. Subaru became famous for its all-wheel-drive system.

The system, which the company calls Symmetrical AWD, is said to provide ideal balance that brings stability and poise. Subaru says it's the only system that mates a horizontally opposed engine and a symmetrically arranged AWD system, resulting in a better transmission of power, better grip and quicker responsiveness. That's probably all true, even though we didn't put it on any challenging road surfaces. The 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine makes 170 horsepower.

Not terribly exciting, but certainly adequate to give you the pickup you need for most traffic situations. The tester had a four-speed automatic transmission that was, if not flawless, at least smooth enough. When you need some juice for the highway, you'll get it, in a steady allocation. Gas mileage was good for this five-passenger vehicle; 20 mpg city and 26 highway.

When something is this practical, safety features usually come along for the ride, and the Outlook is no exception. It has anti-lock brakes and front seatbelts with load limiters and pre-tensioners. Side airbags come standard on the Limited. Also available is a stability control system that helps cut the risk of dangerous skids or spins. Our tester had a sticker price of $31,211.

So, practical is good, right? Of course. And so is the Outback.

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