When last we visited the Subaru Legacy Outback, two years ago this month, the "world's first sporty utility wagon" was the hero of an inspired series of TV commercials in which "Crocodile Dundee" (actor Paul Hogan) gave various groups of bad guys their comeuppance via car chases staged, appropriately, in the Australian Outback.
Two years later, those commercials and the repositioning of Subaru's line into strictly all-wheel-drive vehicles have proved to be one of the shrewdest marketing moves since Lee Iacocca "saved" Chrysler Corp. with an anemic little sedan called the K Car.Success was immediate and probably necessary for a marque that was rumored to be ready to call it quits in the United States, where it had struggled since the mid-1980s (Subaru entered the U.S. market in 1968). It had record sales in 1996 and record revenues of $2.6 billion in 1997 (its previous high was $1.96 billion in 1986) on overall sales of 133,783 Outbacks, Legacies, Im-prezas, the new Forester and others.
Those sales didn't make much of a dent in the total 8.2 million vehicles sold in this country last year, but they represent double-digit gains for Subaru at a time when the auto industry has been struggling just to stay even.
That means Subaru is eating a little bit of a lot of people's lunches - not the whole sandwich, just a bite here and there.
The bottom line: It's a corporate turnaround that will be studied in business schools for years to come.
Which brings us to this week's test car, a 1998 Subaru Legacy Outback Limited.
Basically, this is the same car I reviewed two years ago; Subaru isn't making record profits by changing their cars just for the sake of change. For that matter, it's not so terribly different from the 1990 Subaru Legacy that my wife and I bought in the summer of 1989.
We still have that car. It has about 125,000 miles on it and it's still going strong, so you'll find no buyer's remorse at the Knudson household. What is interesting is the difference in price.
We paid about $16,000 for our '90 Suby; the one I have been driving this past week is stickered out at $27,090, which includes the $495 delivery fee. There were no options on the car. All of the LTD equipment is standard.
What does the '98 Legacy Outback have that makes it worth $11,000 more than our '90 Legacy? Well, it has an automatic transmission vs. our 5-speed manual. It has a cassette and CD player; ours just has the cassette. It has leather seats; ours are cloth. It has not one but TWO sunroofs; ours has none.
The '98 has air bags; ours has those annoying "passive restraint" motorized seat belts; it has anti-lock brakes; ours doesn't.
I don't know. Maybe all that stuff is worth an extra 11K, what with inflation and all.
So why are so many people falling in love with Subarus? I suspect that many people who have been driving, or contemplating driving, one of the larger sport-utilities find they like the image but don't like living with them on a daily basis. They're expensive, fuel thirsty, hard to park and difficult to enter and egress.
The Outback solves a lot of those problems while retaining a modicum of the sport-ute image. Most big sport utes are built on truck chassis. The Subaru is a beefed-up car.
The Outback makes a nice compromise of the two, creating a new niche vehicle that blends the four-wheel-drive and rugged image of a sport ute with the comfort and economy of a station wagon.
To qualify as a sort-of sport ute, the Legacy's ground clearance.
Overall, the Outback gained 5 inches in height and 7.3 inches in ground clearance, sufficient to claim sport-ute status but without requiring a running board and grab handles.
Then they added a stronger suspension and bolted on some beefy bumpers, added twin fog lamps with wire rock shields to give it that Land Rover-in-Africa look, a roof rack, nifty alloy wheels with splash guards, protective side molding and stone-guard coating.
Hmmm, the more I describe the new Legacy Outback, the more I realize how many changes it has over our 9-year-old Legacy.
But not all of the changes are improvements. My wife, Karen, pointed out that the little cubby hole on the left side of the steering wheel that holds the garage door opener is AWOL on the '98 model.
Also, no one in our family was impressed with the dual sun roofs. The roof over the front seats only tilts up rather than sliding open. The roof over the rear seats slides open, but few parents are going to appreciate the opportunities for mischief this affords the kids.
In short, the dual sun roofs (Subaru call them "moon roofs") may have sounded good in a meeting between Subaru's marketers and designers, but the reality falls flat. Subaru, just give us a single, normal sun roof over the front seats.
The Legacy Outback's fuel mileage is rated at 21 mpg in city driving and 26 mpg on the highway.