Review: 2008 Subaru Impreza Outback Sport

2008 Impreza Outback Sport – Click above for high-res image gallery

The standard new generation evolution usually goes like this: bigger, roomier, longer, wider. For some models, it's not such a big deal to go fiddling with the specs, on certain cars it's even a welcome improvement. Subaru, however, has a conundrum on their hands when they go messing with the Impreza formulation. There's a loveable quirkiness to the recipe; start tinkering too much, though, and you'll end up with New Coke.

Thus, it's with trepidation that we sampled the 2008 Impreza. It certainly looks different than those which came before. New duds don't mean an expanded waistline here, the 2008 model actually twirls out considerably less measuring tape in several dimensions than its forebear, while gaining inches and tenths where they make the most difference. Better doesn't have enough depth to fully convey the marked improvements Subaru has made in their entry-level model for 2008. Even stretching to "a lot better" leaves more to be said

All photos ©2007 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.

Something that will not pass without controversy is the new styling direction the Impreza has taken. The bug-eyed, ugly to the point of cute previous version is replaced by sheetmetal that follows Subaru's new styling playbook. The Impreza and the revised Tribeca have both shed their off-center exteriors for less outré designs. While we weren't in love with the new look when we first saw it, we've come to appreciate how the clean flanks and crisp surfacing are handsome without being overwrought. The Impreza Outback Sport 5-door carries a stylish hatch profile on its tight dimensions.

The design might be viewed as bland by some, but there are hints of adventure. The hood has a couple of quick, gestural creases, and the C-Pillar has the reverse-kick that's become universally popular as a way to suggest you're an iconoclast. The angle of the backlight and shoulder line converge at the rear light clusters, seemingly the point where the sheetmetal was drawn tight at the factory. It's a nice effect, and the way reflections take on an arrow shape when you're taking in the rear three-quarter view is entertaining. The five-door's rump is far more successful than the sedan, which has a trunk awkwardly tacked on.

Fender flares are hinted at by clever (or clumsy, opinions vary) use of contrasting paint. The effect looks better in person, but the arc traced by the paint doesn't necessarily track any type of body feature, so it can appear awkward. The rear fenders do actually flare a bit, but it's more of a subtle swelling than a well-defined bulge. The highlighted fender arches and rockers is a look that Subaru's been carrying since the first Outbacks in the mid 1990s, and the Outback Sport has always avoided the mobile melanoma of cladding that has developed on the Legacy-based Outbacks. All Outback Sports have a silver or gray accent color but the the color tricks look best with the bluish-gray our tester wore, called Steel Silver Metallic. A close second is Obsidian Black Pearl, which uses a slightly darker shade to trace the wheels. Say what you will about the two-tone, it's better than the tacky bodykit that the WRX models get, and foregoing cladding denies corrosive muck a place to infiltrate and collect.

The Impreza's length is down, but width and wheelbase have both increased, changing the Impreza's demeanor and environment for the better. Weight is within the same range as before, topping out a little heftier depending on equipment levels. The bodyshell has seen rigidity improvements which lets the suspension perform its duties better, since the structure's not acting as a fifth spring. Subaru has drawn fire for the softer suspension calibration of this time around. The ride is everyday comfortable, soaking up impacts without any residual quivers from the body or wasted motion as the dampers smoothly cycle from jounce to rebound. The body rolls when you bite into a highway ramp or round a corner with some enthusiasm, but the Bridgestone tires are the strong, silent type. The rubber doesn't complain audibly, but once you pass 7/10s it lets its displeasure be known by going squirmy. Cornering and braking are among this car's favorite pastimes, though.

Wringing the Impreza out will easily become a hobby of yours, too. The chunky leather wrapped wheel is just right with a meaty rim and spoke-mounted cruise and audio controls. The steering is ideally weighted and you always have a sense of what the tires are coping with. Overall, the Impreza feels planted and well balanced. The car is eager to turn in, and the AWD covers even the most ham-fisted drivers. Throttle moves have the expected effect on cornering attitude, and there's a forgiving quality to the Impreza that makes you the hero of the off-ramp.

Subaru's ever-present boxer engine is here, displacing 2.5 liters and grunting out 170 horsepower and the same helping of pound-feet. While that's not immediately impressive when a V6 can whip out 300 horsepower, it's plenty. Peaking at 4400 rpm, the boxer's torque delivery is prompt; there's no need to rev the bejeezus out of the Impreza. The 50-horsepower bump provided by the WRX sounds like it'd be just the ticket, but you're not left wanting in the Outback Sport. The composed chassis and just-right power level make for a car that covers your arse. In fact, more power might just get you deeper into trouble than you want to be.

The standard-issue transmission is a five speed manual, and the car we drove was equipped with the four speed automatic. Rowing the ratios yourself would add to the entertainment, but the auto doesn't sponge up proceedings disagreeably. The automatic is a member of the slow-downshift club, though. Dropping out of high gear into a lower ratio takes an eternity. The trans behaved well enough that we never felt the need to use the manual gate that everyone's putting on their autos now. Our fuel mileage might have been better with a manual, too. We saw low 20s, certainly not as good as some of the other options in the Impreza's low $20,000's price bracket, but you do get AWD standard in the Impreza.

While the steering wheel gets a leather sheath, the rest of the interior isn't quite as upscale. That's not to say that the fitment is downmarket, but you don't hear raves about Subaru interiors like the praise showered on Audi, for example. Interior plastics have attractive graining and a low lustre. The seats are covered in cloth carrying a multicolor pattern that's subdued. We liked the way the Impreza's dash mimics the swoopy style of the Tribeca's panel, with a sweep of silver trim. Simple, straightforward controls are easy to use, though they don't have the tight quality feel to top the class. Never does the Impreza feel cheap, though, it's just not a luxury car.

Hatchbacks are eminently useful, and the Impreza doesn't disappoint, even with its shortening. Swallowing large and bulky items is not a problem, and when it's time to carry humans, the back seat is capable of supporting life. The front seats are comfortable and provide decent support, though bolstering could be sportier. One aspect that marred our time with the Impreza is the racket the roof load bars make. Get the speedometer indicating 30 miles per hour, and the crossbars are whistling loudly. The extra wind noise might be reduced with a deflector panel like you can get for Thule or Yakima racks, and the whistling transitions into a more acceptable rushing of air at higher speeds. The crossbars themselves appear strong and well constructed, and Subaru offers a variety of attachments for carrying bikes, skis, kayaks, even a cargo box.

Forget the past, this Impreza is satisfying and entertaining while also being comfortable and refined. Some of the rogueish edge may have been smoothed over, but we found the 2008 Impreza Outback Sport agreeable to our automotive palette. The flingable chassis is reminiscent of what made the Mk1 GTIs so popular – a simple, straighforward, solid-driving car, while the ride, styling, and quality means you can show it off to Mom and Dad without excuses. The AWD and modest power level keep you out of trouble, and are a welcome feature in snowy climes. The Impreza doesn't try to be a premium small car like the C30 or the MINI – it's just a good honest car that performs well and doesn't cost a fortune.

All photos ©2007 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.

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