Subaru's unique selling proposition has always been its excellent all-wheel-drive (AWD) systems. In previous years, buyers had to put up with quirky, unrefined vehicles to get that AWD capability. But thanks to a fresh new approach at Subaru, the cars have been modernized and refined so that they are attractive - with or without AWD.
For 1995, the Impreza lineup of subcompacts receives several important changes. First, the 135-hp 2.2-liter engine that powers the Legacy has become available on all Impreza models (except the base), which zooms this subcompact to the head of the horsepower class - topped among its major competitors only by the 150-hp Plymouth Neon coupe. Second, a stylish coupe version has been introduced. And a third, minor change is the new Outback graphics package to dress up the sport wagon.
The Impreza has an attractive, smooth shape and a tall passenger compartment. The car's lines are unusual - a Subaru tradition but not hard to like.
The Impreza lineup consists of three body shapes: sedan, wagon and the new coupe. The sedan and coupe are the most conventional-looking; the wagon has the quirkiest shape. But styling cues such as a front spoiler (standard on even the base models) and exotic paint colors are a clue to the playful nature of the Impreza.
The new coupe, with its egg shape, short front nose and high rear deck, is an appealing package. The optional foglights integrated into the front spoiler, combined with the rear deck spoiler, give the coupe a sporty appearance that is completely justified when equipped with the 2.2-liter engine. For the economy-minded, the coupe body is also available with the 1.8-liter base engine.
Another new look fo 1995 is the Outback Sport Wagon package, the image - if not the reality - of a rugged miniature sport/utility. It has stripes, graphics and a 2-tone paint scheme consisting of a slate metallic lower body and bumpers and a choice of outdoorsy colors for the upper body. A roof rack, splash guards and big all-season radials complete the off-road appearance.
There is an anomaly here, though. The 1.8-liter Outback wagon is not available with AWD because Subaru believes it would raise the price too high for an Impreza buyer. If you want an AWD wagon, you must settle for the 2.2-liter Sport Wagon, on which the added traction is standard.
Subaru's trump card is its AWD. No other automaker offers it in a moderately priced car. (Audi, taking a leaf from Subaru's marketing book, began offering AWD as a freestanding option fo 1995, but its car prices start roughly where Subaru's - save the exotic Subaru SVX sport coupe - leave off.)
Subaru packages its AWD along with anti-lock brakes. If you want one system, you automatically get the other, ordered as an option on any L or LX model sedan, coupe or wagon.
Why opt for AWD? For improving traction in all kinds of conditions, AWD (full-time 4-wheel drive) has an edge over part-time 4-wheel drive. Although both are excellent in snow, AWD is more useful on wet, slippery roads.
Subaru claims its system also offers superior performance over front-drive cars on dry roads. On a daily basis, subaru's AWD performs transparently, with minimal impact on fuel economy and no truck-like effect on ride.
The interior of the Impreza is classic Japanese subcompact. It's smooth, rounded and modern, with most controls easy to see and use. The instrument panel includes analog gauges for speed, fuel and engine temperature. The large rotary-dial ventilation controls are placed high on the center console and are easy to use. One longtime Subaru great idea: The headlights automatically turn off with the ignition. Subaru's answer to the battery-saver feature is just now beginning to show up on other vehicles. Compared with all the chimes, bells and buzzers that other automakers employ to remind you the headlights are still on, this simple system is smart and effective.
A few items are not so well-placed. The dash-mounted power side-mirror controls are obscured by the steering wheel; a tall cup in the cupholder, which pops out of the center console, will obscure the fan controls above and the radio controls below when a CD player is installed.
A few shortcuts are visible, too, as one would expect in a car of this class. The map pockets are net bags attached to the doors. Storage in the center console consists of a small bin the size of two cassette tapes and two half-moon coin holders.
But overall the interior works well and looks good. The doors of the LX coupe that we drove had upholstered panels that matched the seats and gave the interior a nicely finished air. Dual airbags are standard, as well as height-adjustable seat belts.
The doors meet the 1997 federal side-impact standards. Interior space is quite roomy, with ample leg- and headroom in the rear. A fold-down split rear seat lets you carry long items in the already large trunk, making this car a handy all-around hauler.
That versatility becomes even more appealing when you consider what a fun car this is to drive. Built on a shortened version of the Legacy platform, the Impreza has an impressive ride.
Our test car was the coupe with the 2.2-liter engine and AWD. It had a rear anti-roll bar, which the 1.8-liter cars do not, providing a little better handling.
The ride was firm and stable, even over rough roads. Cornering was flat and collected. On rainy days, the sure-footedness of the AWD was a noticeable pleasure. The variable-assist power steering is calibrated to feel secure, almost heavy, with no wavering to correct.
The optional 4-speed automatic transmission was exceptional and made an excellent companion to the zippy engine. It was geared for lots of pep off the line, smooth down-shifting for braking and good speed out of corners. Automatic transmissions are generally more attractive for their convenience than their spirit, but this is one automatic that's fun to drive.
Base Imprezas are equipped with a 110-hp 1.8-liter 4-cylinder in subaru's signature design: flat, with horizontally opposed cylinders (as is the 2.2-liter engine). Although these engines aren't as smooth as some in competing subcompacts, they're strong at low speeds and have an enviable record for durability and reliability.
The 1.8-liter provides adequate power, but the step up to the 2.2-liter engine is well worth considering, particularly if the car is carrying the added weight of the AWD system.
Although there is little difference in fuel economy between the front-wheel-drive and AWD versions, both are weaker than their competitors in this regard. A front-wheel-drive Impreza coupe with the 1.8-liter engine and manual transmission is rated at 25 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway. A comparable Honda Civic coupe gets 34 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway.
The Impreza is impressive. Equipped with the 2.2-liter engine, it is more powerful than almost any of its competitors and has a firm, substantial feel. Its optional AWD isn't available among any of its competitors, while its fit-and-finish are well within the standards of the class.
Subarus also have a very good reputation for being able to take a licking and keep on ticking.
Perhaps the biggest drawback to ownership is the spotty nature of the dealer network, which tends to be stronger in certain regions, particularly in the Northeast, Northwest and Southwest.