Road Test_ 2013 Honda Accord

Earlier this year, Subaru said its 2013 Outback would be getting some upgrades--a tweak here, a tuck there, a new engine and some dandy new safety features. You'd have thought someone was spreading rumors that the official transportation of drum circles and Lilith Fairs everywhere was turning into a Republican National Committee shuttle bus. So many of you kept coming back to find out exactly what was going on, we called up Subaru and demanded an answer. Or, actually, a road-test vehicle. We took to the mean streets of Palo Alto, where coffee houses only slightly outnumber the local Ph.D.s, and headed from HGM's palatial headquarters complex (free Twix!) to the foothills outside Stanford, hoping to attract attention and commentary on the new Outback while not drawing too much attention for shooting video without a permit in fee-happy California. What we found: nothing shocking. The Outback's new flat-four engine delivers a little better fuel economy, and about the same noise and vibration through the continuously variable transmission (CVT) that's in most models sold today. The space that's always taken us aback--in the right way--is untouched, but the interior's been dressed up a little more with some woodgrain trim that we are completely certain is sustainable, naturally harvested, organic in nature, and vegan-friendly. And in a mix of light trail riding and street cruising, the Outback's even demeanor reminded us why shoppers snap them up in steadily climbing numbers. It's a no-brainer if you live in the snow belt--but who doesn't like the reassurance of all-wheel drive and a reputation for great resale value and durability? Two features probably will divide the Subaru loyalists from the arrivistes. One's a fab Harman/Kardon sound system with 440 watts of power. It'll pump out NPR's Morning Edition with such clarity, even Nina Totenberg will make perfect sense. The other's EyeSight, billed as a first from Subaru, but coming from another related automaker in the very, very short term. It uses twin cameras--they look like binoculars above the rearview mirror--to detect obstacles ahead and feed info to lane-departure warning systems, active cruise control, and more. It's pretty fancy for a Subaru, and can drive the price of an Outback well past the mid-$30,000 range. The rest of the crossover world is shying away, bit by bit, from the kind of SUV imagery that once held complete sway. Not so the Outback. It's a diehard. It's always had a more rugged flavor than the Venza, the Murano, and the Edge. And now with the Ford Escape shrinking and getting more dartlike, the Outback's real competition has narrowed down to, and turns out to be, interestingly enough, the Jeep Grand Cherokee.

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