SEE ALSO: Subaru Buyer's Guide
Subaru's success with the Legacy Outback, "the world's first sport-utility wagon", has spawned a smaller, Impreza-based version. But the Outback's little cousin has a subtly different character. The Legacy Outback is a return-to-the-roots all-weather family wagon with sport-utility styling. The Impreza Outback Sport may have what is interpreted in the U. S. as a "sport-utility" look, but don't be fooled. It is a G-rated-for-America rally car.
Performance rallying is the branch of motorsports that is closest to the point-to-point road races of the early days of the automobile. High-speed special stages, run over closed, unpaved forest roads, put a premium on sturdy construction and maximum traction. The cars run in the World Rally Championship are based on production automobiles. Subaru Imprezas have been very successful, winning the title in 1995.
Rally-spec Imprezas have upwards of 300 horsepower from a turbocharged version of the Subaru flat-four engine. Unlike most race cars, they have a long-travel suspension and plenty of ground clearance. All-wheel drive is used for maximum traction and control. A street-legal 275-horsepower rally-replica Impreza is sold in Japan. Called the WRX, it looks like a normal Impreza coupe except for a large hood scoop to feed the turbo and several smaller vents. I've driven one. It was ferociously fast and not very practical, needing a can of octane boost with every fillup to keep the highly-tuned engine happy.
The scoop is now found on the sportier 1997 Subarus as a tribute to the company's rally successes. It's mostly cosmetic in function, although it does allow cool air into the engine compartment. The Impreza Outback Sport is closest in this country to the rally cars in hood ventilation and character. After several days of driving in the vicinity of Zion National Park during the press introduction last fall, and a recent week at home, the Outback Sport impressed me with its uniqueness, versatility, and handling. It combines the practical space and accessibility of a small station wagon with the performance and handling of a sports coupe. With all-wheel drive and 6.5 inches of ground clearance, it can handle roads and conditions that will leave most sports coupes in the garage. Few cars that I've driven have been so much fun in so many different environments.
APPEARANCE: The Outback Sport started life last year as a cosmetic package on an Impreza wagon. This year it gets the full Outback treatment and more. The basic Impreza wagon is a conservative, unobtrusive mix of gently-rounded forms. Bigger wheels and tires, redesigned bumper fascias, and a large hood scoop give the 1997 Outback Sport a more aggressive appearance. The two-tone paint scheme, with bumpers and lower side panels contrasting with the main color, is very sport-utilitylike, as are the roof rack and mudflaps.
COMFORT: Inside, the smallest Outback is practical with plenty of style and comfort. It has room inside for 4 people on a regular basis. A fifth passenger, in the center rear seat, is not unreasonable. With 4 doors, access is easy. The large rear hatch is held open by hydraulic struts, allowing easy use of the cargo space. The cargo area can be covered with a sunshade, and the rear seat folds with a 60/40 split when necessary. The cloth upholstery is done in a modern, youthful op-art motif. Fully-reclining front seats have good side bolstering and support for long-distance comfort, and the steering wheel adjusts for tilt. Instrument and control layout is generally good, although careful use of the front cupholders is necessary to keep the stereo healthy. That AM/FM/cassette stereo and air conditioning are both standard features, as are power windows, mirrors, and door locks.
SAFETY: For safety, the 1997 Subaru Impreza Outback Sport has standard all-wheel drive, antilock brakes, side-impact door beams, dual front air bags, and child safety locks.
ROADABILITY: All wheel drive has benefits on all surfaces, not merely those with poor traction. Subaru's all-wheel drive system puts the engine's power to the wheels that can best use it. The result is improved traction and more responsive handling - on all types of road surface. The Outback Sport feels, and is, very sure-footed on twisting mountain roads or in city traffic. It is a very enjoyable car to drive. It is not designed for serious off-road use, but with its good ground clearance it can handle Forest Service dirt roads just fine.
PERFORMANCE: With a 137-horsepower 2.2-liter engine, the Outback Sport has a bit more power than previously. It's no WRX; on the other hand, it subsists on a meager diet of unleaded regular gasoline with no need for exotic additives. The 5-speed manual gearbox adds sporty character, but the engine has great midrange response and power at all speeds, making it well-suited to the optional automatic.
CONCLUSIONS: The 1997 Subaru Impreza Outback Sport combines sport coupe fun with small wagon utility and economy to blaze its own trail in the automotive jungle.
SPECIFICATIONS 1997 Subaru Impreza Outback Sport Base Price $ 17,995 Price As Tested $ 18,490 Engine Type horizontally-opposed 4-cylinder, single overhead cam per bank,16 valves Engine Size 2.2 liters / 134 cu. in. Horsepower 137 @ 5400 Torque (lb-ft) 145 @ 4000 Transmission 5-speed manual Wheelbase / Length 99.2 in. / 172.2 in. Curb Weight 2835 lbs. Pounds Per Horsepower 20.7 Fuel Capacity 13.2 gal. Fuel Requirement unleaded regular Tires P205/60 R15 B. F. Goodrich Radial T/A Brakes, front/rear vented disc / drum, antilock standard Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent MacPherson strut Drivetrain front engine, all-wheel drive PERFORMANCE EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon city / highway / observed 23/30/25 0 to 60 mph 9.0 sec ¼ mile (E.T.) 17.5 sec Coefficient of Drag (cd) 0.36