SEATTLE - Within just the last few years, Subaru has carved a cozy little niche for itself in the U.S. In terms of U.S. sales, Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd., Subaru's parent, has been one of the fastest growing automakers over the last five years.

It's especially noticeable around here, where Birkenstock-shod folk - fresh from their kayak and hiking trips - congregate in the plethora of coffeehouses nestled in the shadow of Mt. Rainier. This is a place where the word "lifestyle" always seems to be preceded by "active."

And where the active seem to choose Subarus more frequently than the more sofa-bound types.

It's Subaru's steadfast image that helped it garner such a loyal following, its dedication to a core set of identifying ideals. For 2000, Subaru has its sights set on strengthening that image. It will offer its third-generation Legacy, in sedan and wagon variants, and the Outback, Subaru's signature crossover vehicle, which sees itself distinguished from its other lines with the elimination of the Legacy from its name. Outback also will offer wagon and sedan versions.

Subaru says its identity revolves around three core mechanicals: its all-wheel-drive (AWD) system, boxer engines and optimally tuned suspensions.

Subaru actually offers two different AWD systems. All manual transmission models, whether Legacies or Outbacks, get the continuous AWD system, which splits engine power 50/50 between the front and rear wheels. If any wheel starts to spin, its viscous coupling transfers power to the wheel or wheels with grip.

Vehicles equipped with the 4-speed automatic gearbox benefit from an electronically managed, variable transfer clutch differential. Under normal driving conditions, 90% of the power is sent to the vehicle's front wheels. The system is capable of shooting more torque to any wheel with better traction - even before a tire actually slips. The system uses a series of sensors to monitor shifts in vehicle weight - and Subaru engineers say the system can predict slippage even before it occurs.

The automaker made the leap to offering nothing but AWD vehicles in North America in 1994. The move corresponds with a 45% sales explosion since 1993. The perks: The additional sales have come with higher transaction prices, fewer incentives and a simplification of product variants. All that adds up to a record-breaking 1998, the first time Subaru saw its revenues climb over the $3 billion mark.

Perhaps as distinguishing as its AWD systems are Subaru's horizontally opposed, or boxer, engines. The flat 2.5L engine powering both the Legacy and the Outback cranks out a peak 165 hp at 5,600 rpm and 166 lb.-ft. (225 Nm) of torque at 4,000 rpm.

The 2.5L received a pretty hefty makeover last year when the Phase II version saw first duty in the Forester. That's where its SOHC, two-valve heads debuted, replacing the seemingly more sophisticated DOHC layout of the Phase I. The 2000 Legacy and Outback now benefit from the same fitment.

The switch to SOHC from DOHC was made, Subaru says, to reduce the engine's weight, friction losses and complexity. The additional valvetrain space also allows for larger valves, higher valve lift and a wider angle between valves. The intake also is moved further away to draw in cooler air than the 2.5L DOHC Phase I engine was able to obtain.

All this adds up to better air/fuel mixing and more rapid, thorough combustion; improved combustion translates directly into more low-end torque and better driveability for the new 2.5L boxer, say Subaru engineers.

Although peak torque is improved only by 4 lb.-ft. (5 Nm), under part-throttle conditions is where the boost in torque shows. The 2.5L offers a 20% improvement at 1,250 rpm, 30% at 2,400 rpm and 50% at 3,250 rpm.

Subaru officials and marketers concede, however, that the company's strategy of employing only 4-cyl. engines does not completely satisfy the U.S. market, and company sources say the Outback will be offered with an all-new, 6-cyl. boxer engine by 2001 or 2002 at the latest. The new 6-cyl. boxer will displace 3L and develop somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 hp.

The third component to Subaru's identity is its long-stroking suspension. Subaru found that in redesigning the Legacy and Outback wagons, a key target was to improve their cornering dynamics - and to maintain those same dynamics with a full payload. To do so, the rear suspension was replaced with a multilink design, while the 2000 models also enjoy the elimination of struts in favor of coil-over shocks.

The net results are manifold, says Subaru. Compared to the previous model, noise, vibration and harshness is reduced, as is rear suspension friction by 20%. Lateral rigidity also has been improved by 20%.

One convenient bonus: increased trunk capacity. The elimination of the rear struts means the cargo area is now unimpeded by the intrusion of strut towers. What were already the best-selling wagons - import or domestic - in the U.S. for the last three years should see that trend continue with such meaningful refinements.

Subaru is targeting 145,500 total U.S. sales for calendar-year 1999. The 2000 Subaru Legacy and Outback undoubtedly will help the automaker reach that goal. The vehicles hit showrooms in June.