Subaru built a solid reputation for itself in the 1970s, 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 attract. 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 legendary all-wheel drive system. Subaru 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 format. Traditional front-wheel drive editions have been banished from the roster.
For 1999, Subaru boosts power and torque in L and Outback Sport models. The automatic transmission has been revised to operate more efficiently as well. All Imprezas get multi-reflector halogen headlights this year and two new colors are available. The Outback Sport has a revised grille.
The racy rally-inspired 2.5 RS dumps its gold alloys for more conventional silver wheels and gets a revised front bumper. Torque from the 2.5's 2.5-liter flat four is up for 1999, and white-faced gauges lend a sportier appearance to the interior. New fabric and upgraded leather on the steering wheel and gearshift knob round out the 1999 2.5 RS, a fun car to drive in any type of weather.
Lesser Imprezas are a good time, too. All Imprezas behave like street-legal rally cars, and they're a hoot to toss around. Fling one 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. There is one thing that bothers us about the Impreza lineup, and that's the lack of an antilock brake option on the L model. To get ABS, you must order the Outback Sport or 2.5 RS. This doesn't make much sense from a company touting safety in its advertising.
Overall, we find much to like about the Impreza. We've driven Outback Sport, 2.5 RS, 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? The L coupe starts at $16,400 including destination charges. Better accommodations will run you as much as $17,600 for an L Wagon with an automatic transmission. Want ABS? Plan to spend another grand on the Outback Sport. Despite the benefits of all-wheel drive, the budget-minded compact shopper must ask whether the price commanded by the Subaru is worth it. As much as we like the Impreza, we're skeptical.