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The holy roller

Why does anybody care about the badge on the nose of a car? Why do we care about brands?

You may, of course, resort to conventional wisdom, by way of David Brooks, author of “Bobos in Paradise”: Brands are metaphoric shorthand, signifying who we are and what we want to be -- and that is, in consumerist America, more affluent than thou.

Much has been written about the class-scaling appetites that name brands satisfy. But there is another way to think about brands: as emblems not of class but of community, of shared values and belonging. Even churches. Consider the holy-war religiosity of the Mac versus Windows debate.

Subaru is the Unitarian Church of automotive brands: ecumenical, accepting, self-sufficient, observant of the natural world and reverent before it. Thoreau would have driven a Subaru, if you could have gotten him to stop playing with the windshield wipers.

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Hummer, meanwhile, is your typical End-Is-Near rapture cult that meets in a double-wide surrounded with cattle wire.

Subaru of America has probably the most coherent buyer profile of any car company, a profile boiled down to the Walden-esque description “inspired pragmatists.” Subaru is big with teachers, healthcare workers, technical professionals, skiers, cyclists, kayakers, lesbians.

Yes, the “L” word. It’s not like I’m outing Subaru. According to Tim Bennett, director of advertising for Subaru of America, the company has been cultivating bonds to the gay and lesbian community for longer than a decade, supporting its causes, such as the Rainbow Endowment, and specialty media.

Subaru also sponsors or funds dozens of skiing, cycling, kayaking and environmental organizations, as well as organizations for speech pathologists, geologists and horticulturalists.

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Subaru is to cars what Ben & Jerry’s is to cholesterol. It’s a for-profit that kicks back to nonprofits that are important to its customers. In the land of designer ice cream, such relationship marketing is a form of tithing.

So it is that, with the possible exceptions of Harley-Davidson and Mini, no company’s customers’ feel more spiritually connected than Subaru’s. In the week I drove the Outback 2.5 XT Limited Wagon, I got plenty of waves from drivers in kayak-hatted Outbacks and even a WRX STi, a monster-motored car with a whole different kind of Subaru groove going on.

BUT now Subaru has a problem, exemplified by this very car: a turbocharged, 250-hp all-wheel-drive, $30,000 premium-esque sport wagon, with leather and power seats, heated mirrors, sunroof, electroluminescent instruments and glowing logos in the door thresholds.

Simply put: Can a brand so strongly identified with progressive causes appeal to the wider audience this car implies? Or will Subaru hit a green ceiling?

A little context: Subaru sold 187,400 cars in the U.S. in 2004. Its days as a bongs-and-beards specialty brand are well behind it. Next month it starts selling the B9 Tribeca, a five- or seven-seat crossover van that can cost nearly $38,000 with all the trimmings. With the B9 in the mix, Subaru hopes to sell more than 200,000 cars. That’s a lot of converts.

How does Subie transition to a mainstream brand while keeping the faithful?

For one thing, keep the machinery intact. The new Outback comes with three engines, all traditional boxer style: a four-cylinder, 2.5-liter normally aspirated (168 hp); an intercooled/turbocharged 2.5-liter boxer with dual-overhead cams (250 hp), a detuned version of the 300-hp bazooka in the WRX STi; and a normally aspirated, 3.0-liter flat-six (also 250 hp) that should offer smoother and torque-rich driving character.

The Outback 2.5 XT can be had with a five-speed manual or a five-speed automatic shiftable at the gate or steering wheel. Subaru reserves its stability control system -- called Vehicle Dynamics Control -- for its top-shelf Outback 3.0 R VDC Limited models. And no, I don’t know why the names are so long.

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All-wheel drive: Although lots of companies are surfing the AWD wave, such as Ford with its 500 and Chrysler with its 300, both with optional AWD, it’s no option for Subaru. Every model comes with some flavor of AWD. In our test car, it’s the Variable Torque Distribution kind, which uses a continuously variable electronically controlled transfer clutch to sluice power fore and aft as wheel slip dictates.

Put it all together and the Outback 2.5 XT has an appealingly peaky, rev-happy disposition with nice balance and reasonable grip from its 17-inch mud-and-snow tires. At full throttle, the automatic tranny kicks through the gears without a pause for breath. It’s plenty drivable around town, though you can certainly tell it’s off the ventilator at low rpms. When your right foot nudges the turbocharger to life, the 2.5 XT surges like a runaway circular saw. Zero to 60 mph is handily in the seven-second range.

The car cuts a handsome bevel around corners, with moderate and well-damped body roll. Like a lot of these crossover cars, however, the tires are set on “compromise,” between asphalt rip and off-road snort. The Outback XT, at about 3,500 pounds, is not a small car, regardless of whatever eco-imagery surrounds it, and it pays a penalty in overall cornering. The steering is locked in and settled, with a nice, easy heft and minimum kickback on rough pavement, and very good turning radius. I didn’t have a chance to put the car in any low-traction conditions, however. Bloody spring weather.

Meanwhile, the XT’s belly clearance has been raised to 8.7 inches, so even as the car becomes more asphalt tolerant, it still has the enzymes to digest dirt.

A little over an inch longer than the year before, the Outback models look lean and outdoorsy. The wheel wells are compass-cut into the body work and side moldings. The turbo models get the cool hood gill like that on the WRX model. I love the roof racks.

CERTAINLY, one of the biggest surprises in this car is the interior redesign, which is full of well-executed faux-lux touches, such as the chrome bezel around the luminescent dials, whose needles do a little dance when you start the car. Our Limited Wagon had wood trim around the center console and on the gearshift. No trees were harmed in the making of this interior. This trim is plastic wood grain.

The rest is satiny sheen plastic and dense, pebbled vinyl and dense rubber. Overall, the interior handily exceeds Subie expectations.

The Subaru brand is something of a delicate myth: a socially responsible, politically progressive car company, who’da thunk? The company has to remain true blue to its long-standing values lest it be seen by loyal customers as selling out to the Bobos. But in order to grow, they have to make converts. Perhaps America will come around to cherish the values Subaru claims to represent.

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Let us pray.

Automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at dan.neil @latimes.com.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Subaru Outback 2.5 XT Limited Wagon

Base price: $30,795

Price, as tested: $32,851

Powertrain: 2.5-liter, DOHC intercooled and turbocharged flat four cylinder; five-speed automatic transmission; permanent AWD

Horsepower: 250 at 6,000 rpm

Torque: 250 foot-pounds at 3,600 rpm

Wheelbase: 105.1 inches

Overall length: 188.7 inches

Curb weight: 3,480 pounds

0-60 mph: 7.1 seconds*

EPA fuel economy: 19 miles per gallon city; 24 highway*

Final thoughts: Green Goddess dressing

*Car and Driver magazine


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