Subaru Creates New SUV Niche

Article excerpt

Subaru is either the Dr. Frankenstein or Dr. Schweitzer of carmakers. They build cars with a definite difference - but always with clear benefits. What's new for 1997? A subcompact on steroids.

The 1997 Subaru Impreza Outback Sport muscles out a new niche as a mini-sport/utility wagon; and it adds to Subaru's collection of "hybrid" cars. That is, vehicles with the size and handling of small passenger cars, but with the traction and control of sport/utilities. Like its successful big brother, the equally unique Legacy Outback, the Outback Sport is a pumped-up version of a standard production model.

The first thing I noticed about the Outback Sport is the snarl on its face. A beefy bumper, vented grille, functional hood scoop, and louvers create the aggressive grin of an attack dog. Two-tone paint, a raised suspension, and 15-inch tires complete the exterior picture. So when I looked at it from the side, I was surprised to find this cute hatchback wagon.

Lest it be merely a poodle in Rottweiler skin, I bounced on over the desert mountains of Arizona. Again, I was surprised. The Impreza absorbed the rutted trails with minimum fuss. The long-stroke four-wheel independent suspension kept the tires grounded and the handling controlled. Subaru's proven all-wheel-drive system responded without effort.

However, even with the larger tires and an increased spring rate, ground clearance is only 6.5 inches. Can this compete with trucklike sport/utilities? I'm afraid not. For serious boulder climbing, a low gear four-wheel-drive system and higher clearance are needed. But for zipping over backroads, sandy washes, or snow pack, the Impreza Sport performs ably. After all, this is the vehicle that won the 1995 FIA World Rally Championship - the only race for production cars over extraordinarily bad off-road conditions.

Although the Impreza Sport's handling can beat the compacts off-road, it also shined over my daily commute. Recent engineering studies show that AWD improves driver confidence and driving safety on all road surfaces. With that in mind, Subaru has switched to selling only all-wheel-drive cars in the United States beginning in 1997. …