Refined, rough and ready. by Sue Mead
All vehicles sold by Subaru of America nowadays are equipped with all-wheel drive. This represents a return to the company's roots and we think it makes a lot of sense.
The beauty of all-wheel drive is that it applies power to the tires with the best grip. All-wheel drive offers much better performance than the less expensive traction control, which limits power to reduce wheelspin.
Subaru put its all-wheel drive to good use by winning last year's World Rally Championship, a grueling test of man and machinery that pits mega-horsepower sedans against the worst roads imaginable. Rally drivers race on ice, snow, dirt, mud and wet and dry pavement. Usually the weather is lousy and often it's at night. Rallying is the ultimate performance and durability test of production-based cars.
Most manufacturers have had little success marketing all-wheel drive in America, where its traction benefits are misunderstood. This gives Subaru a niche. It also provides the company with technology that can offer the traction benefits of a sport-utility vehicle with the superior handling of a car.
The Impreza Outback, or Outback Sport, should not be confused with the larger Legacy Outback wagon. While the Legacy Outback is driven by Crocodile Dundee, the Outback Sport is driven by Crocodile's young nephew. It's a clever advertising campaign that does a good job of pointing out the benefits of all-wheel drive, while positioning them appropriately to their anticipated buyers.
The Impreza Outback has a rough and rugged appearance that includes larger wheels and tires for added ground clearance, a hood scoop, body side molding, a new grille, hood and integrated lower front bumper and spoiler.
While the Impreza Outback is unique to the market, its competitors may include the Suzuki Sidekick, Toyota RAV4, Geo Tracker and Suzuki X-90. None of these can match the Outback's superior handling and performance, however.
The Impreza Outback's aggressive styling is endearing. The look starts with a redesigned front bumper which houses an all-new grille and cooling vents. The facelift is carried over to the hood that blisters with a functional hood scoop similar to the one on Subaru's red-hot rally car.
Two-tone exterior body paint, white-lettered 15-inch, all-season radial tires with splash guards, protective lower body cladding, a rear bumper cover and a raised suspension enhance the racy, rugged facade. Fog lamps ($237) and alloy wheels ($629) are optional.
The Outback Sport benefits from a generous greenhouse. Narrow A-pillars allow for expansive tinted glass in the front that continues through the elongated side and stylish rear quarter-panel windows in the back. The roof is topped with an integrated rack. The rear door opens upward to allow stowage of up to 62 cubic feet of goods with the split rear seat folded flat.
The '97 Outback Sport comes in three new exterior colors: Glacier White, Acadia Green Metallic and Brisbane Blue Pearl. Factory undercoating and rust proofing along with a protective clearcoat finish are standard.
The Inside Story
The Outback Sport's interior is short on luxury and length, but it's a comfortable cabin with practical and tasteful styling. It's easy to get in and out of this five-passenger, four-door wagon due to its comfortable ride height.
Seats, which include dual reclining front buckets, are comfortable and nicely contoured. Gauges, controls and dual cupholders are conveniently located. Standard are power windows, door locks and side view mirrors, air conditioning, two-speed intermittent wipers with rear window wiper/washer, and a new 80-watt AM/FM cassette stereo with four speakers and a clock.
New for '97 is a redesigned rear cargo area with practical features such as a 12-volt power outlet, rear cargo hooks, cargo cover and a heavy-duty storage tray. The Sport also comes with halogen headlights. They shut down automatically when the ignition is turned off to prevent battery drain. Remote keyless entry is available for $225.
The roster of standard safety features includes dual airbags, side impact door beams, collapsible steering column, four-channel ABS, front and rear three-point manual seatbelts, child safety locks on the rear doors and the previously mentioned all-wheel drive.
Our test model came with carpeted floor mats ($64), cruise control ($357), a CD player ($420) and the $134 optional center armrest.
Ride & Drive
The Outback Sport is a lot of fun to drive. We drove it over a wide variety of terrain, from the two-lane tight and twisties of Utah's Bryce Canyon to flat-as-a-roadmap, four-lane stretches of the Southwest. We maneuvered around an autocross course with water and sand traps. We found the ride quality, handling, and braking to be superb.
Under normal conditions, the power from Subaru's horizontally opposed boxer engine is directed to the front wheels. But when traction is lost the viscous coupling locks up and sends up to 50 percent of the power to the rear wheels. Besides reducing the chance of getting stuck, this system improves handling dramatically in all conditions by more effectively distributing traction in the corners.
For '97 the 2.2-liter four-cylinder engine delivers more punch, spinning out 137 horsepower at 5400 rpm. Torque and fuel economy are improved as well.
Standard Impreza models are equipped with 1.8-liter four-cylinder horizontally opposed engines that generate 115 horsepower at 5600 rpm and 120 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm.
A five-speed manual transmission is standard, with a four-speed automatic for $800. We tried both and recommend the sporty, smooth-shifting manual, particularly if you're a closet rally racer. There is good power off the line, throughout the range and the Sport has a broad power band to aid with passing.
The long-stroke, four-wheel independent MacPherson strut suspension found on the Outback Sport is standard on all Imprezas. This suspension allows the rear differential to be mounted higher in the chassis, which allows greater ground clearance and a more direct flow of power to the transmission.
For off-road applications, this suspension system helps keep all four wheels on the ground while traveling over obstacles, through ruts or being tossed around on dirt roads. Additional ground clearance is realized by virtue of the transfer case differential being no larger than a grapefruit.
We found the Outback Sport highly capable in all types of on-road driving conditions. On dirt roads, it handles extremely well and is a lot of fun to drive. Don't confuse it with a Jeep Wrangler, however. The Outback lacks the skid plates and low-range set of gears necessary for tackling the Rubicon Trail.
The Outback Sport's power-assisted rack and pinion steering is precisely tuned to give Velcro-like stick in corners. Power-assisted four-channel anti-lock brakes do a good job of slowing things down.
The Outback Sport is in a class by itself. This four-door wagon with rally-inspired handling is a practical, small car with plenty of get up and go. Toss in all-wheel drive with standard ABS, a high ground clearance and a competent four-wheel independent suspension and you've got off-road capability previously only found in larger trucks.
With its 1500-pound towing capacity, the Outback Sport can pull a small fishing boat and a carload of fishermen and their tackle. And, if the best spot is in the mountains high above the snowline, you have the peace of mind that Subaru's all-wheel drive provides.
As the sport-utility craze wears on, some may discover they don't like climbing up into a truck every morning. Subaru's combination of all-wheel drive traction, sports sedan handling and impressive 30-mpg fuel economy might be just right.
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