by Sue Mead
Ready to rally to the store.
Base Price $17,995
As Tested $21,241
What does racing rally cars have to do with driving to the grocery store? Everything, Subaru would tell you. Subaru specializes in all-wheel drive and has enhanced its reputation by winning the World Rally Championship where drivers race on ice, snow, dirt, mud, and wet and dry pavement. It's the ultimate performance and durability test.
So when you drive to the local grocery store in a Subaru you have the benefit of what the company has learned racing around the world. And, in the case of the Impreza Outback Sport, its rally styling cues make you feel like a racer when you bring home the bread and milk.
All Subarus nowadays are equipped with all-wheel drive. The beauty of all-wheel drive is that it applies power to the tires with the best grip. All-wheel drive offers better performance than traction control, which typically limits power to reduce wheelspin. And Subaru's seamless system provides better fuel economy than the part-time four-wheel-drive systems found on many sport-utility vehicles.
It's important not to confuse our Impreza Outback Sport with the larger Legacy Outback. While the Legacy Outback is driven by Crocodile Dundee in Subaru's commercials, the Outback Sport is driven by Crocodile's young nephew. It's a clever advertising campaign that does a great job of pointing out the advantages all-wheel-drive cars have over four-wheel-drive sport-utilities. And Crocodile's nephew appears to be a young, active type -- just the sort of person who would consider the Outback Sport.
Based on the Subaru Impreza, the Outback Sport has a 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.
Subaru did not raise prices on the Outback Sport for 1998. Because it's an all-wheel-drive subcompact, the Outback Sport is unique to the market. It's a sure-footed alternative to sporty compact cars. And to some extent, it competes with the mini sport-utility vehicles: Toyota RAV4, Honda CR-V, Suzuki Sidekick and Chevy Tracker. This group is clearly outclassed by the Outback Sport's impressive handling and acceleration performance, however.
The Outback Sport's aggressive styling is endearing. An attractive grille and functional cooling vents complement the front bumper. A big hood scoop just like the one on Subaru's red-hot rally car sits atop the hood near the base of the windshield. While appealing to our driving team from the outside, some of us found the scoop a bit too noticeable from the inside. Two-tone exterior body paint, white-lettered 15-inch, all-season radial tires, splash guards, protective lower body cladding, a rear bumper cover and a raised suspension enhance the racy, rugged facade. Fog lamps ($245) and alloy wheels ($550) are optional.
Big windows make visibility excellent from inside. 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. An integrated roof rack is ready for the kayak. The rear door opens upward to reveal up to 62 cubic feet of storage when the split rear seat is folded flat.
The Inside Story
The Outback Sport's interior is a bit 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 lower ride height, wide door opening and ample head room. Reclining front bucket seats are comfortable and nicely contoured.
A new dash and instrument cluster makes gauges easier to see and controls and cupholders are conveniently located. New inside door panels freshen the interior. An new optional Gauge Pack ($395) includes a barometer, compass, altimeter and ambient temperature gauge -- useful information for traversing the Outback. The Sport comes with a high level of standard equipment including a center console that was optional last year.
The rear cargo area features a 12-volt power outlet, rear cargo hooks, a cargo cover and a heavy-duty storage tray. The Sport comes with halogen headlights that shut down automatically when the ignition is turned off to prevent battery drain. Remote keyless entry is available for $225. Standard safety features include airbags, side-impact door beams, collapsible steering column, four-channel ABS, front and rear three-point manual seatbelts and child safety locks on the rear doors. Our test model came with optional cruise control ($357), and CD player ($420).
Ride & Drive
The Outback Sport is a lot of fun to drive. We drove it down twisting two-lane roads in Utah's Bryce Canyon, across flat, four-lane stretches of the Southwest and through the mountains of New England. We raced around an autocross course complete with water hazards and sand traps. And we rallied through harsh weather to buy bread and milk. Everywhere we went, 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. This system reduces the chance of getting stuck, but it also dramatically improves handling by distributing traction to the appropriate tires. It's one sure-footed car on a dark and stormy night.
Subaru's 2.2-liter flat four-cylinder engine spins out 137 horsepower at 5400 rpm. This is considerably more robust than the standard 1.8-liter Impreza models. The Outback Sport accelerates quickly off the line yet has plenty of power throughout the range, which makes passing a breeze. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, with a four-speed automatic available for $800. We tried both and recommend the sporty, smooth-shifting manual for closet rally drivers and anyone else who wants the best performance and fuel economy.
Much of the Outback Sport's handling performance comes from lessons Subaru learned on the rally circuit. A combination of soft springs, stiff shocks and long suspension travel keep all four wheels planted on the ground when driving quickly around bumpy corners, a huge benefit on dirt roads. This long-stroke, four-wheel independent MacPherson strut suspension, along with Subaru's boxer engine and grapefruit-size center differential also help increase ground clearance without raising the car up in the air.
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. It does a great job getting to favorite trout streams, but it's no Jeep Wrangler for extreme off-roading. Tackling the Rubicon Trail is not a good idea without skid plates and a low-range set of gears. But the Outback Sport runs away from off-road vehicles on twisty dirt roads, just like in the ads. Its power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering is tuned for precision in corners, while 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 trucks.
It is truly a sports car you can take off the road. With its 1500-pound towing capacity, the Outback Sport can pull a canoe 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 along with its 30-mpg fuel economy.
Rally racing is a test bed. Hopefully, your roads are better and your ride to the grocery store less grueling. But, you can rest assured that the lessons Subaru has learned from the World Rally Championship will help you get home safely with the bread and milk.
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