Subaru Impreza Outback Sport is a subcompact for the snowbelt. Its all-wheel drive will get you home when you probably shouldn't have been out, as well as provide extra traction and handling on wet pavement. It's all new for 2002.
Like the other Impreza models, this year's Outback Sport boasts a new chassis and styling, and a larger standard engine. (See nctd.com for review of the sporty Impreza 2.5 RS and WRX models.)
The Outback Sport's spunky 2.5-liter engine and all-wheel drive push this outdoorsy wagon out of the budget wheels category. Subaru recognizes this by equipping it with features usually optional on entry level models. The price, starting at $18,695, also pushes it well above small wagons such as the Kia Rio Cinco or the Ford Focus wagon. But then, the Outback Sport offers much more.
Experienced drivers notice that there's something different under the hood of the Outback Sport. All Subarus now sold in the U.S. have horizontally opposed engines. In other words, instead of cylinders in a line or in a vee shape, they stick out to either side opposite one another. This has a number of technical advantages, but the most noticeable is engine smoothness. The reciprocating masses cancel the worst of the vibrations.
As a result, the big 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine in the Outback Sport is relatively smooth without power-sapping add-ons such as balance shafts or expensive vibration-damping engine mounts. The Subaru four-cylinder engine isn't the silkiest engine running, and it has its own distinctive sound, but it's quiet at idle and cruise.
Outback Sport's 165 horsepower is more than expected in a subcompact and its 166 pounds-feet of torque is especially useful climbing hills and for producing brisk acceleration around town. The VW Jetta wagon 1.8T trumps it with 180 horsepower, but lacks the outdoors atmosphere, and all-wheel drive, of the Outback Sport, while the new subcompact wagon from Mazda, the Protege5, produces a mere 130 horsepower.
Our Outback Sport came equipped with the four-speed automatic transmission. The shifter is located on the console and requires lateral movement to shift from one position to another, except between Neutral, Drive and Drive3. This makes it easy to select Drive3 when starting out by mistake, then drive around for awhile before noticing you're not in high gear. It's also easy to shift into neutral when shifting out of a lower gear. Familiarization will no doubt reduce these occurrences, and having Drive3 and Drive close together is handy when shifting back and forth in town or in the mountains. Like any automatic transmission, it does sap some power from the four-cylinder engine. A driver of a 1999 Subaru L wagon with a five-speed manual commented that the 165-horsepower 2002 model equipped with the automatic did not feel any peppier than her 142-horsepower wagon. There's a price to be paid for the convenience of the automatic.
One might not expect sports car-like handling from an SUV-like crossover vehicle such as the Outback Sport, but remember that the Impreza's chassis was laid out to optimize its performance in the high-performance WRX and sporty 2.5 RS models. So the basic vehicle has the bones for it. The Outback Sport is responsive and nimble and more stable in corners than the mini-SUVs such as the Toyota RAV4, Ford Escape or Subaru's own Forester, all taller than the Outback Sport.
All-wheel drive gives the Outback Sport a leg up, or perhaps two legs up, on its front-drive competition, on dry pavement but especially on wet roads or gravel, and very especially on snow or ice. Traction control and front-wheel drive are good, but no match for grip from all four wheels. The all-wheel drive is engaged full-time, unlike systems that require activation, and can be used on dry pavement, which some truckish part-time four-wheel drive systems cannot. The editor got a chance to try the Outback Sport in the snow when a winter storm dumped nearly 10 inches on the Eastern Seaboard. All-wheel drive gave the Outback Sport the traction needed to venture out when others were left stranded or struggling. It also helped keep the car pointed in more or less the direction being traveled. It doesn't make the car invincible, but it'll stop in a shorter distance than a heavier SUV.
The Outback Sport has front disc and rear drum brakes fully capable of slowing this car. The four-channel, four-sensor anti-lock braking system will provide shorter stops in slippery conditions, as each wheel can use braking to the limit of traction. That's better than cheaper systems that, for example, include both rear wheels on the same circuit, which can only apply the braking force to the limit of the wheel with the least amount of traction.
The Outback Sport shares a common shortcomi
The Outback Sport provides something offered in no other car on the U.S. market: all-wheel drive in a compact wagon at a sub-$20,000 price. More expensive than most of its competitors in this size class, it offers more mechanically along with more features than the others.
The outdoorsy motif is a plus for those who don't want to drive an ordinary car, while the wagon format and standard roof rack provide utility. The Outback Sport will best the boxy and tall mini-SUVs for fuel economy as well. For those who can afford the extra premium over most small cars, the Outback Sport is a little hauler that will get you to the slopes, or anywhere else, on time.