What's New for 1997
Imprezas receive a facelifted front end that includes a Hemi-size hood scoop. A new Outback Sport Wagon debuts, with over six inches of ground clearance, foglights and a slightly raised roof. LX model disappears, which means only the Outback is equipped with ABS. Power and torque for both Impreza engines are up for 1997, and some new colors are available. HVAC controls are revised.
Subaru built a solid reputation for itself in the Seventies building inexpensive (and built to stay that way) four-wheel drive passenger cars. The company enjoyed success in the Northeast, Rocky Mountains, and Northwest, providing people with reliable transportation that could thwart most attempts by Mother Nature to keep them from arriving at their destinations. Aside from a major rusting habit and offbeat styling, Subarus kept loyal owners happy.
Then Subaru decided it wanted a bigger piece of the auto market pie. The Impreza was originally conceived to battle the Ford Escorts, Toyota Corollas and Chevy Cavaliers that sold so well to young adults. A zippy ad campaign touting the underpowered Impreza as What to Drive alienated traditional Sube buyers and turned off the young adults it was supposed to appeal to. Sales of the Impreza were less than successful, and Subaru scrambled to find a solution.
Wonder of wonders, the company decided to reacquaint itself with its legend. Subaru is concentrating on all-wheel drive cars again, and is emphasizing AWD in every ad, article and brochure you can lay your hands on. Ah yes, The Beauty Of All-wheel Drive. The Impreza is available in coupe, sedan and wagon form. Traditional front-wheel drive editions have been banished from the roster.
For 1997, Subaru infuses the anemic 1.8-liter and 2.2-liter engines with additional horsepower and torque. Peak torque occurs lower in the 2.2's rev range, providing more useable oomph. The Outback Sport is the big news this year; it features a suspension lift, more ground clearance, and snazzy styling that should appeal to SUV intenders. All Imprezas are facelifted, featuring new grilles and large functional hood scoops that suck in air to help cool the engine bay.
Good thing the hood scoop has been added, because you'll keep the zingy 2.2-liter boxer engine revved up. The Impreza behaves like a street-legal rally car, and is a hoot to toss around. Fling it into a corner, and it clings to the pavement. The Impreza is comfortable, though the side glass feels a bit too close. Steering and braking is communicative, and the interior is well-laid out with easy-to-use controls and legible analog gauges.
Two other developments for 1997 disturb us, however. The LX model disappears from the lineup, and most of its standard equipment can be ordered for the L Coupe. Model simplification is a good thing, but the LX's anti-lock brakes did not make the transition to the L's options list. To get ABS, you must order the Outback Sport. This doesn't make much sense from a company touting safety in its advertising. Also new are the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) controls. The 1996 Impreza had three simple to use rotary dials. For 1997, HVAC controls are a combination of slide levers and knobs that don't look or function as nicely as those from last year.
Overall, we find much to like about the Impreza. We've driven Outback Sport and L Coupe models, and thoroughly enjoyed them. The wagon has a small cargo area when the rear seat is raised, partially due to the steeply raked rear window. Drop the seat, though, and you've got 62 cubic feet to mess around with. Other quibbles include a cramped rear seat and ugly K-Mart issue plastic wheelcovers on the Outback Sport.
Subaru is aiming the Outback Sport at consumers who would otherwise be considering a Toyota RAV4, Geo Tracker, or Kia Sportage. Unfortunately, it has trouble delivering what most folks want in a sport-utility. It's not capable of serious off-road adventure, and it doesn't provide a commanding view of traffic. Cargo volume with the rear seat up can't match the Kia or the Toyota for usability. However, Imprezas are a blast to drive hard and fast, and the all-wheel drive system performs brilliantly on a variety of road surfaces.
What's it cost for a fun car with all-wheel drive peace of mind? Brightons start at just over $14,000 including destination charges. Better accommodations will run you as much as $17,500 for an L Wagon with an automatic transmission. Want ABS? Plan to spend at least another grand. As good as all-wheel drive is, the budget-minded compact shopper must ask whether the price commanded by the Impreza is worth it. As much as we like the Impreza, we're skeptical.