CHICAGO – Subaru of America Inc. says its new-for-’05 Outback lineup is designed to meet increasing customer demand for more SUV-type features.

With the revamped models also comes a change in classification from car to truck – something that has drawn the ire of environmental groups that charge the move is a way for Subaru to dodge tougher passenger-car fuel-economy standards.

However, the auto maker insists the “thorough redesign” is motivated solely by the shift in customer preference to truck-like vehicles.

But while the new Outback, slated to arrive at dealers this spring, looks no less like a truck than competitors such as the Chrysler Pacifica or Volvo Cross Country, it also does not represent a revolutionary departure from the previous-generation model. And rather than emphasize the SUV-like features, Subaru is putting the accent on the ’05 models’ improved performance.

Subaru Outback is new for ’05.

“By offering new high-performance, premium-content Outback models, Subaru is positioned to compete with the growing number and diversity of crossover vehicles,” says Fred Adcock, Subaru executive vice president. “And, quite simply, the Outback 2.5 XT is designed to be the ultimate performance crossover wagon.”

The XT is a new variant for the Outback, and perhaps the most attractively packaged. It’s powered by a 2.5L turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 4-cyl. boxer engine that makes 250 hp and features a functional and stylish hood scoop.

It can be mated to either a 5-speed manual or an all-new 5-speed direct control automatic with a floor-shift-handle or steering-wheel-button controlled manual-shift option.

The new transmission comes standard on the other more performance-oriented variant: the 3.0 R models. Powered by a 3L 6-cyl. that also produces 250 hp, the R variants – a 3.0 R LL Bean Edition and 3.0 R VDC Limited – also come loaded with premium content, so they can be positioned against a broad range of CUVs.

The base model 2.5i and 2.5i Limited are powered by a revised 168-hp normally aspirated SOHC 2.5L 4-cyl. boxer engine.

Four-wheel-disk antilock brakes with brake-force distribution come standard on all models, as does Subaru’s trademark all-wheel drive.

While styling largely resembles the past generation, the Outback has grown slightly in length, track and wheelbase. Despite the size increase, more ground clearance and a higher seating position, the center of gravity is lower (thanks to a lower engine mount) and the total vehicle is as much as 180 lbs. (82 kg) lighter.

The auto maker also emphasizes a higher standard of safety on the new Outback – starting with a stiffer unitized body structure that makes greater use of high-strength steel and aluminum, as well as advanced construction techniques such as hydroforming and tailored-blank welding. The vehicle also is built on a new version of Subaru’s Ring-Shaped Reinforcement Frame safety structure and includes as standard equipment front seat side-impact airbags and side curtain airbags.

kzachary@primediabusiness.com