Minggu, 08 Juni 2008



By Brendan McAleer

I don’t get veggie-burgers. If something didn’t actually die for my dinner, I reckon it should at least have been pretty severely inconvenienced. What’s more, a good burger is always bad for you (arterial distress on a sesame-seed bun). So it is with the Subaru Impreza 2.5i Sport Wagon. Why would anyone buy such an entirely sensible vehicle when they could drive away in a full-fat, hormone-injected WRX Sport Wagon? Why indeed. It’s time for a serious sampling of Fuji Heavy Industries Lite.

At first glance, the 2.5i Sport Wagon isn’t what you’d call an appetizing proposition. The Wagon’s snout-mounted upside-down Alfa-Romeo radiator-hole looks decidedly indelicate. At least the 2.5i’s got a more graceful front end than the WRX Sports Wagon, whose hood scoop gives it a nostrilly appearance that only Prince Charles could truly love. The rest of the 2.5i’s body is blissfully free from flared wheel-arches, rear spoilers and other vulgarities. It’s as restrained as muesli.

There aren’t many other external clues differentiating the 2.5i Impreza from its beefcake cousin. In fact, park the 2.5i next to older versions of the same car, and you’d be hard pressed to date the evolution. Yes, every couple of years Subaru fits new alloys and affixes prettier tail-lights to its Imprezas. But that’s the same sleight of hand used by every 17-year-old when pimping out a mid-nineties Civic hatchback. Suddenly, that wacky schnoz starts to make sense; it’s the only easily identifiable (and how) feature in an otherwise humdrum design.

Open the SW’s sashless doors and you’ll discover more blast-from-the-past-ery. Judging from the dubious quality of it’s-a-hard-knock-life plastics deployed throughout the cabin, Subie’s parent must shelter a shopping-bag recycling company under its corporate wing. If you can bear touching the 2.5i’s shiny, not-so-happy control surfaces, all the basic amenities are pleasant and accounted for: A/C, cruise control, in-dash CD, keyless entry, etc. The controls and dials are laid out with all the simplicity befitting their, um, simplicity.

The 2.5i’s front seats are well bolstered beneath their cheap upholstery. The Wagon’s back seats are comfy enough– provided you’ve got rubber femurs. Folding down the rear chairs creates a cargo space large enough to stow both bicycles and battered guitar cases. But let’s be honest: the SW is no wood-panelled ocean-liner of a Vista Cruiser. In fact, it’s nothing more or less than a capacious hatchback, offering the same 62 cubic foot cargo capacity found in my old Mazda 626 liftback. Hey Doc, maybe if I drive the little Subie 88 miles per hour I can get back to 1991.

Great Scott! Cranking over the Sport Wagon’s 2.5-litre boxer engine generates the sort of agricultural noise normally heard whilst perched atop the red horseshoe seat of an antique Massey-Ferguson. Luckily, everything soon settles down to a dull wobble. This is your first clue to the Impreza’s dynamic personality. “Hello!” the offbeat vibrations say, “This is not a normal car.”

Although the 2.5i’s engine is only good for 173hp @ a relatively lofty 6000rpm, the SW musters-up enough twist (166 lb-ft @ 4,400 rpm) to take some hoon-oriented liberties with its electronically controlled variable transfer clutch (a.k.a. all wheel-drive). The little Impreza practically leaps off the line– and then strolls to sixty in a shade over eight seconds. Never mind; at full chat, the Subie’s boxer engine roars like a bathtub speedster. It simply begs to be flung into the nearest corner.

Ah yes, corners. The Impreza 2.5i Sport Wagon may slingshot out of turns with less alacrity than a WRX, but at least it does so with equal bravado. With its compact engine mounted longitudinally on the down low, and a sports-tuned four-wheel independent suspension, the SW is a superbly sure-footed, balanced performer. Body roll is minimal, tire adhesion predictable, throttle response enjoyable and braking thank-God-able.

In the rain, driving the Sports Wagon is like playing football on a muddy field wearing cleats— when everyone else is slipping around in sneakers. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Rudyard Kipling’s ride: “If you can keep your head while all about you are losing theirs, you’re probably driving a Subaru.”

There are a few quirky quibbles. The Sport Wagon’s clutch pedal action is funny. The shifter has a slightly plasticky feeling (shopping bags again). And… that’s about it. In fact, the Sports Wagon is everything an enthusiast could want in a family hatchback– save good looks, touchy-feely materials and neck snapping acceleration. It’s so multi-purpose, it ought to come with a corkscrew attachment. At a hair under $18k, what’s stopping you?

The WRX Sport Wagon. For another $7k you get better tunes, improved plastics, sportier dials, a roof spoiler and 51 more horses. While the veggie-burger edition is thoroughly justifiable and a lot less unsatisfying than you’d imagine, the red meat iteration is, dare I say it, irresistible.


2009 Subaru Forester

By Paul Niedermeyer

Back in the day, Subaru couldn’t afford to build a new vehicle to compete in the smoking hot SUV sector. So they took an Impreza, jacked it up a couple of inches, raised the roof and reskinned the body. The result was a hit, and helped define the modern small CUV. Ten years later, the Subaru Forester battles on, facing its third gen competitors (Honda CRV and Toyota RAV4) with nothing more than a few questionable sheet metal creases, a spiffed up interior, and the addition of the turbocharged XT model. The CUV pool’s getting more crowded by the day, and, compared to the Subie’s well-worn REI fleece, the competition looks like its wearing designer duds. We checked out an XT to answer a simple question: is it a classic or a relic?

The basic package hasn’t changed, nor should it. The Popemobile proportions (tall windshield and high roof) are a motorized mitzvah for tall drivers. While the result flies in the face of history– when Chrysler President K. T. Keller insisted that tall men should be able to wear fedoras in his cars, he almost killed the company—the resulting visibility is virtually unparalleled. Swoopy cars, low angle windshields and obese pillars be damned; Forester owners want to see who they’re cutting off where they’re parking.

The Forester’s boxy exterior has suffered a reverse face lift (a face drop?): folds and lines have replaced youthful smoothness. Or is it just aging naturally? Something short, ugly and Russian comes to mind; either a Lada Niva or an old babushka. Who cares; the Forester was born ugly, but it remains true to its mother’s wise admonition: “It’s what’s inside that counts.”

And mother’s advice has been well heeded. Compared to lesser Foresters of yore, stepping into the ’07 XT is like visiting your favorite old diner after it’s been turned into the Trattoria de Toscano. Subaru’s replaced the old fabric booth with heated leather seats that wouldn’t be out of place in a German motor. The steering wheel is like putting on expensive leather gloves. The instruments are clean and classic; no trendy gimmicks. The aluminesque center panel is a la mode, but the controls are logical and obvious. Workmanship: a solid B+. A good thing too, because with that lovely big sky-light overhead, flaws have no place to hide.

Unfortunately, there’s one less-then-salubrious carryover: rear leg room. The Forester’s second row is as ergonomically challenged as the third row of a transplant CUV. My teenage son’s solution: stretch his feet out between the front seats. How safe (and smelly) is that?

The Forrester XT’s inner beauty really shines in the engine compartment. The 2.5 liter flat four cranks out 224 horsepower and 226 ft/lbs of torque, and with its inherent nigh-perfect balance, it always stays cool and smooth. It lets you know it’s there with that turbo-whistle, but it’s never objectionable, unless Lexus is your benchmark.

Like most turbos, it’s a little coy at low revs, but once past 3000rpm the sex bomb explodes all the way to its 6500rpm redline. With AWD keeping the XT’s footwear firmly in contact with the pavement, redlining first gear is like high school hot-rod antics for grown-ups: all the fun, but none of the attention-grabbing tell-tale of burning rubber. Second gear takes you to 60mph in just 5.3 seconds. Keep rowing and the quarter mile arrives in 13.8. There’s more bang on offer than you’ll find at a percussionist’s convention.

The XT’s traction, ride and handling are up to the accelerative challenge. The all-season 17” rubber sing their surrender to lateral g-forces too early, but that’s a fair trade-off for getting to the ski lodge. With its low center of gravity (a la boxer engine), SUV vertigo is noticeable by its absence. Whether throwing the machine sideways on blind-corner gravel logging roads, bumping down a rocky path to a hiking trail, making high speed runs on deserted desert roads or barreling through snow, ice, wind and rain; the XT is always supple, accomplished and confident.

When cruising the freeway, the XT’s low gearing is a lot less helpful. I kept reaching out to the shifter in hopes that it had miraculously grown a sixth gear. At 75mph or so, an extra cog would put the revs right at the intersection of turbo-plateau and turbo-boost, in that preferred state of restful alertness rather than futile restlessness. Sigh.

After the styling miscalculation with the B9 Tribeca, trepidation as to what Subaru will throw our way with the next gen Forester is warranted. They seem to be chasing an Audi/Volvoesque styling direction, with highly uneven results. The current Forester may well end up being the last in a long lineage of Subaru funky boxes. Buy or wait? My take: better the devil you know


By Robert Farago

Readers may recall that my previous review of the Subaru Tribeca described the SUV’s front end as a flying vagina. Shortly after this aesthetic assessment hit the web, the San Francisco Chronicle canceled my regular reviews. Both Subaru and BMW banned The Truth About Cars from their press cars. While the column is history and the ban remains, Subaru got the message. The new Tribeca’s front end looks nothing like airborne pudenda, and everything like a Chrysler Pacifica.

Subaru deserves props for abandoning the only automotive design capable of making a Pontiac Aztek look like a mistake (rather than an affront). But patterning the Tribeca’s snout after the prow of Chrysler’s bilious station-wagon-on-stilts is yet another mysterious miscalculation. While the Tribeca’s new nose is as innocuous as the previous one was pervy, why would Subie want potential customers to mistake its SUV for a failed product from a struggling American automaker?

At least the sanitization of the Tribeca’s Area 51-themed rear end leaves the Subaru’s butt looking like the posterior parts of the entirely successful (if now dated) Lexus RX. It's a distinctly upscale makeover compared the Tribeca’s side profile, which is now a dead ringer for the Toyota RAV4. Put it together and what have you got? Something deeply derivative and wildly innocuous with about as much Subaru brand DNA as Japanese knotweed.

The Tribeca’s interior carries over from the previous version; it’s still swoopy in a vaguely nauseating sort of way, adorned with the same flat silver plastic that Revell uses to give their model airplane wings their trademark sheen. The cowled instruments make no sense in this application, aside from diverting your eyes from the over-sized, ‘70’s-style digital readouts hovering inside the climate control knobs. On the positive side, tweaking the Tribeca's stereo’s mid-range and treble controls delivers serious tuneage.

The Tribeca’s seats offer about as much lateral support as a Sit-‘N-Spin, with the extra disadvantage of a steering wheel that doesn’t adjust for reach. And if you’re thinking about using the Tribeca’s third row for anything other than the kiddies’ stuffed animals, it’s best not to mention the middle row’s fore and aft adjustment to sugar-crazed siblings.

Getting the “old” Tribeca to move out of its own way was like asking an inceberg to dance. Given the previous engine’s impolite appetite for premium fuel, there wasn’t much Subaru could do to rectify the Tribeca’s sloth. So they didn’t do much. They modified the existing H6 engine package to run on regular, added variable valve timing to the exhaust valves and fitted a shortened conrod. Voila! The Tribeca’s powerplant grows from 3.0-liters to 3.6-liters, increasing power by 11 horses (to 256hp) and adding 32 ft-lbs. of torque (up to 247 ft.-lbs.).

Factoring the Tribeca’s 4250 lbs. curb weight, the SUV's gone from woefully slow to a kinda slow. Unfortunately the Tribeca still has a prodigious thirst for dead dinoflagellates. Call me carbon positive, but I reckon a SUV whose city mileage struggles to hit sweet 16 is OK if it accommodates seven genuine people and/or holsters a bad-ass V8. Otherwise, not.

More productively, Subaru took another bash at the Tribeca’s five-speed autobox, whose previous unwillingness to shift would test the patience of an opium addled Maharishi. Although shifts are noticeably faster and smoother, the engine now sounds like your mother’s old Hoover. Worse, the Tribeca’s slushbox remains obstinate on inclines, holding onto higher gears as if the lower ones didn’t exist.

The steering is equally unresponsive, with enough slop to feed a large family of pigs. But Subaru’s tweaks to the Tribeca’s rear suspension are easily the worst part of the car’s less than stellar driving dynamics. Not only does every lump and bump send a muffled shudder through the otherwise serene cabin, but it all goes seriously wrong over badly broken pavement.

On anything less than a smooth surface, the Tribeca’s newly recalibrated suspension’s rebound rate fails to catch up with even a minor series of horizontal jolts. I don’t know exactly what Subie’s boffins did to the Tribeca’s front McPherson struts and rear wishbone, but the result is so uncomfortable I actually began to feel carsick. No wonder Subaru removed the “B9” designation from the model’s moniker.

For an automaker famous for creating cars that can carve-up a country road and leave it for dead, a company that advertised its car-based models as SUV alternatives, Subie's SUV is an unabashed and unforgivable brand betrayal. The only real question is when the company will "face" the fact that shooting the messenger doesn't alter the truth: you can't make a silk SUV out of sow's ear or, you know, whatever.


By Michael Martineck

According to psychologists, the middle child fights an endless, depressing battle for parental attention. So pity the poor Legacy 2.5i Special Edition, sitting between the WRX and Outback. The WRX is the pistonheads' golden child. Older brother Outback is largely credited with the family's success– despite the fact that the Legacy was Subaru's sales leader in May. The shrinks say lavishing praise on the neglected sib is the best way to cure middle child syndrome. Ah, but is the Legacy 2.5i Special Edition (SE) special enough to deserve it?

The SE looks handsome, in a black turtle and khakis kind of way. Enthusiasts won't slow down to get a better look; but nor will status-conscious suburbanites rush to park the lower-end Legacy behind a garage door. The SE has the kind of solid, understated charm– derived from its crisp lines and aesthetic restraint– that once typified BMW and Mercedes, right down to the blacked-out window chrome.

That said, Subaru's due on a Montel Williams' "Who's the Father of My Baby?" episode any day. Look! It's got Chrysler's nose! The hood scoop is the only remaining link between models, and the Legacy Special Edition isn't special enough (i.e. turbocharged) to have one. Who'd a thunk we'd be arguing for a fake hood-mounted air inlet? But there it isn't.

The restraint continues inside, almost to a fault. The switchgear and buttonology have been arranged with reachable righteousness, but it's all lost in a sea of sameness. Our test car "featured" charcoals and silver, silver and charcoal. The hazard light button sticks out nicely, as it should, and that's it. The gauges are so restrained they look delicate. What's up with that?

Nobody wants their sports sedan associated with "frail." Thankfully, the steering wheel is thick and shapely enough to allay such fears. Luckily, any remaining concerns disappear entirely when you use the SE as the gods of speed intended.

Subaru has been refining this 2.5-liter SOHC aluminum-alloy 16-valve horizontally opposed (boxer) four-cylinder engine for more than a decade, adding an i-Active Valve Lift System, platinum-tipped spark plugs and other similar goodies continuously, year after year, with continuous consistency that would make W. Edwards Deming proud. The envelope please: 175 hp and 169 pound-feet of torque.

The power is smooth and plentiful. As with everything Legacy, forward acceleration lives somewhere between snapping your neck and leaving you embarrassed; say, just under eight seconds from rest to 60mph. To the base model's motive capabilities, the Legacy Special Edition adds a moonroof and power seat.

All of Subaru's cars come equipped with a stick shift, s'il vous plait. Get one, skip to the end of the review and smile. That's because all of Subie's automotive "specials" get a four-speed adaptive electronic direct-control automatic gearbox with SPORTSHIFT® manual control. Translation: you can change gears with the stick shift or not; if not, the system adapts to your driving style.

The first part is highly entertaining… for about a minute-and-a-half. For the second bit, the autobox' electronic brain supposedly adjusts the shift points and speed thereof accordingly to your driving style. Unfortunately, even after its finished studying an enthusiast's habits, it still acts like the kid in the back of the class who didn't read last night's chapter. Stomp on the gas and the tranny goes "Huh? What?" And then plays catch up.

That's fine for people who don't drive like there's a T-Rex in their rearview mirror (metaphors may be closer than they appear). But anyone who really likes to get a move on, or even thinks about running with the big dogs, will find their hand wandering back to the SPORTSHIFT. And longing for a stick.

Still, mileage you know. And it's only because the SE's so damn personable that the autobox' slushiness stands out. And slush is really where this car really shines, er, excels. Nice weather didn't permit an appropriately gooey test drive, but the Subie's symmetrical all-wheel drive system hasn't changed. So we can expect the same grippy properties from the Legacy SE that made the brand a staple in the Northeast.

On dry pavement, the system is as noticeable as an Izod shirt at a Daughters of the American Revolution ("I want your DAR!") golf tournament. Aside from the lack of bracing forward thrust, the Legacy lacks the heavy feeling one expects from a car with four wheel-drive. It's nimble enough for government work.

No question: the Legacy SE won't thrill you like its siblings. It does, however, offer excellent utility and phenomenal bad weather stability at a family-friendly price. It does nothing truly exceptional, nor does it completely fail in any specific area. On just about every scale, the Subaru Legacy 2.5i Special Edition is a happy medium. All the little Subie needs is a better autobox and a bit more love.


Fifth Gear - 2008 Subaru WRX STI

By Brendan McAleer

When the redesigned 2008 Impreza WRX made its New York debut, you could hear the collective creak from the upturned conks of the cognoscenti. What’s with the Camry clone? Somehow Subie thwacked a dart-full of its patented anti-fun serum into the styling of one of the world’s most “enigmatic” designs. But just how bad is the damage? Have Subaru’s efforts to re-brand the rockstar ‘Rex as a kinder, gentler, pop-idol created a yawnster? More importantly: is it possible to be a bad Subaru, but a good car?

Initial impressions: welcome to the new Subaru3. The good news is that the car may be less photogenic than Tara Reid, but in person it’s not too bad– even with those stainless-steel-horseshoe taillights and uni-brow grille. Sharp creases along either side work well here (as they’ve worked well elsewhere, hem-hem), though the front seems overly rounded in comparison. The truly elephantine hood scoop has the look of a just-about-to-sneeze 550 Maranello, but at least it’s well-integrated and less of a hack-a-hole-in-the-hood afterthought than previous years.

The bad news: whether four-door sedan or (better) five-door hatch, the playful nature of earlier WRXs is notably absent. Bugeye. Peanut-eye. Pignose. Impreza owners have always embraced their rides’ weird looks with affectionate disdain. Driving an ugly-ass Subaru was a chance to stand out from the pack, knowing all the while you had the goods underhood and underfoot.

The slick new model fails to distinguish itself from the motoring multitudes AND it looks like it was designed to adhere to some focus group’s idea of “sporty.” Still, the new WRX may have a touch of the old Subaru fungoid; it remains to be seen whether its looks will grow on its (former?) fans.

After you whack your head on the unexpected window frame, you enter a not-so-markedly improved cabin. The new dash offers reasonably subdued chrome accents and a flying-V design theme (an encore performance of the fallopian Tribeca). The materials boast higher quality than the old WRX’s “we-spent-the-budget-on-the-drivetrain” PVC wonderland. Fine-vision gauges with STI-style startup sweep and center-mounted tach complete the updated look.

The new Subie’s extended wheelbase means that rear leg-room is far less likely to induce DVT than the old model’s cramped quarters. A more compact suspension means a wider (if not overmuch larger) trunk. Once again, rear visibility takes a backseat to styling. On the positive side, the new front seats are wonderfully comfortable and supportive.

Well, vertically. When it comes to cornering, it’s a case of BYO-Bolsters. If your seatbelt’s not snug, an aggressive turn can easily catapult you into your passenger’s lap. I’d also happily sacrifice the new steering-wheel-mounted stereo controls for a Momo tiller. And the shifter is as vague as Miss Teen South Carolina, particularly when down-shifting from thirdish to secondish.

But why downshift? Subaru’s new 224 horse 2.5-liter mill lacks the pulsing sonic thrill you expect from a boxer engine, but it’s got porterhouse-sized servings of torque (226 lb-ft of torque at 2,800 rpm) with a side order of insta-boost. In nearly any gear, at nearly any rpm, it’s possible to walk on the throttle and watch the traction control flicker like an electric eel trying to stun a manatee. And that’s with AWD. I frequently found myself punching it in the middle of a corner just to see what would happen.

Sounds fun, right? Well, while the hugely available low-end grunt makes the ’08 WRX a traffic scalpel, mash the gas on a corner and it rolls like an improperly ballasted galleon. Grip is more than adequate for any sort of reasonable person, but g-force aficionados better get on the pre-order list for some aftermarket swaybars, STAT. And we’re not well pleased that VDC stability control is a $1500 option.

The WRX’s speed-sensing variable power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering remains quick and accurate, but provides less feedback and more insulation. As rough roads and gravel will still be a natural playground for those who dare to get their side-skirts dirty, the tiller’s tactility isn’t a huge issue. And while the soft, long-travel, four-wheel independent suspension (double wishbone at the back) may add to the new Impreza’s tippy cornering, it’s truly astounding at swallowing bumps. Speedbumps are to be scorned, potholes pitied.

Taken as a whole, Subaru hasn’t dropped the ball with its new WRX. They’ve just punted it onto a whole different playing field. While the old WRX had its own (numerous) shortcomings, it easily made up for them with puppy-dog enthusiasm and ever-present utility. The new model has all the modern charm of a robot dog. It’s not bad, by any means: more comfort, more space, more style (arguably) and more fuel economy. All of which makes it more easily justifiable to your comfort-loving significant-other. It’s just too bad that all these “mores” add up to less fun.


By Megan Benoit

The 2008 Subaru WRX is the U.S. pistonhead's cheap thrills with no frills poster child. Meanwhile, the Impreza. Yes, I know: a Subaru without a turbo is like a Mercedes without automatic climate control, but hey, normal people drive cars too. When you move away from turbo-nutter wastegate wonderland, the word “thrills” takes on a different meaning. Or does it? Sans blower, does the new entry level Impreza have what it takes to tickle the fancy of a wider audience?

Farago’s flying vagina metaphor continues to wreak havoc on Subaru’s design department. While the Tribeca’s nose responded to the diss by becoming a Chrysler Pacifica tribute band, the Impreza’s front end is “blessed” with yet another corporate grill. This time out we get a diminutive U-shaped motif topped by the kind of faux aluminum "spread wings" Pan Am stewardess used to pin on small children. The result is about as distinctive as Brooks Brother dress shirt, only less classy and not as distinctive.

Considering the outgoing Impreza’s ability to inflict blindness at 1000 feet, the new model’s overall aesthetics are a step up. The new LED taillights may be completely out of place on a car that’s trying this hard to be inconspicuous, and there’s more than a passing resemblance to the kinda flashy Mazda3. But as far as thoroughly inoffensive looks go, Subaru is making considerable headway. **golf clap**

Yes, well, Impreza build quality still sucks. Yank on the car's door handle and you too can feel like The Incredible Hulk. While the entire portal doesn’t rip off the body in your hand, a Coke can pop top offers a greater sense of solidity. Subaru may have ditched the sashless windows, but the first (quality) cut is the deepest.

Inside, everything looks nice enough. Just don’t touch. I’m not saying the Impreza's plastics are low rent, but if they were a Manhattan apartment, they’d have a waiting list a mile long. To be fair, the new Subie's interior isn’t quite as craptastic as its immediate predecessor– which is like saying Friday the 13th Part VIII was a more compelling cinematic experience than Friday the 13th Part VII. The Impreza’s seats are still as flimsy as the plot lines of both/either films. Then again, if you wanted lateral support, you’d drive a car that needed it…

The Impreza offers the same 2.5-liter boxer engine that’s graced Subaru’s pedestrian offerings since 2004. The 170-horse mill provides the Impreza with class-leading (Civic, Corolla, Mazda3, Cobalt) thrust, And unlike the 2.5-equipped Legacy, the mini-mill serves-up enough grunt to get the 3000 lbs. base Impreza out of its own way. Ditch Subaru’s weak-sauce four-speed automatic tranny– which occasionally ignores requests for power– and "sufficient" acceleration becomes "more than merely adequate forward momentum."

The Impreza’s improved suspension makes for firm-but-soft-but-firm progress. The double-wishbone layout is far more refined than the outgoing multilink version, with bump absorption on a par with Subaru’s more expensive offerings. But something’s been lost in the process: sportiness. Even the slightest whiff of corner carving potential has been completely, radically removed. Sad but true: this Impreza is no sportier than a Kia Rio.

Through the corners, the Impreza handles pretty much like the WRX, only worse (if you like driving) or better (if you don’t). Caning the WRX made me want upgraded sway bars and springs. Pushing the Impreza to its limits made me want neither. In fact, it was one of the least memorable drives of my life. At least that’s what my notes tell me.

The Impreza’s driving dynamics have only one thing to recommend themselves: all wheel-drive (AWD). And who needs that in a thirsty, mildly-powered economy car? Hands-up if you regularly face inclement weather or suffer from general paranoia. In that case, your exceedingly safe, reasonably practical, deeply dull Subaru Impreza awaits. The most basic Impreza gives you AWD, a slew of airbags and change from twenty large. Add another $1,500 for traction control, stability control and emergency braking assist, and you’re good to snow.

If you don’t want or need AWD, there are a lot of other cars that are just as good as the new Impreza, all of which can be had for less money. They may be less powerful, but most drivers in this class are more than willing to sacrifice the extra oomph of a 2.5i engine for higher gas mileage.

Yes, there is that. The base Impreza used to overcome such prosaic concerns based on its “quirky” styling and driver satisfaction; offering enough power and handling to create a [faint] mechanical echo of its extreme sib’s head-banging performance. Clealry, the Impreza has jettisoned both assets in pursuit of mainstream success. The Faustian bargain makes the Impreza a better (if over-priced) Corolla– and a worse Subaru.


Fifth Gear - 2008 Subaru WRX

By Jonny Lieberman

When I bought my second Rex, I nearly bit the bullet and went STI. But I like to haul more than ass. So I sacrificed balls-out speed for cargo capacity and bought the five-door WRX (again). The good news: starting now, Subaru's hottest rally-bred machine is available only as a hatch. The bad news: the new STI costs $14k more than the WRX. Is it worth it?

Not from the look of it. I wonder how far the STI's development had progressed when GM sold its shares to Toyota; the front of this sucker resembles a partial-birth Saabortion. Subie designers must have had a running bet to see who can fashion the world's most grotesque cars nose. The STI's rump is also ugly against all odds. Clear Lexus RX style taillights? Yuck. Quad tailpipes? The STI only has four cylinders for Malcolm Bricklin's sake!

The STI's side view is the only decent angle. From that perspective, it looks Roger Clemens's trainer shot up a Saab 900.

The STI's interior is a travesty at the price. Someone (Subaru? GM? Toyota?) replaced the previous car's nice-for-an-econo-box plastics with crap. Crap whose crappiness is increased exponentially in full consideration of the STI's $40k price tag. The STI's cabin "boasts" a cartoonishly oversized (or is that MINIshly?) tachometer, festooned with green and pink neon lights, which glows a deep orange-red. Now that's cooking with class! Radio buttons on the steering wheel of an STI? In a word, nyet!

A big however, however, occurs when you start moving your hands and feet around. The STI's tiller is the right kind of chunky. While it could be an inch or two taller, the metal and leather shift knob feels like the business end of an aluminum bat. And a special shout out to the ideally placed pedals. To me, no car is set up better for the old heel-and-toe routine. While I'd still prefer the JDM STI's racing buckets, the USD leather/Alcantara seats look fly and provide enough bolstering to defend the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Almost.

Light the fuse and the STI's carryover (but remapped) 305 horsepower boxer mill will rocket you to 60 mph in 4.8 seconds. The STI doesn't feel nearly that slow. If not for the fussy gearing that forces an up-shift to third, you could hit 60 mph a lot faster.

Still, like all turbocharged Subarus, the 2.5-liter four-banga is useless below 4000 rpm. And because the new heads feature variable valve tech, the STI's redline has been lowered by 400, down to 6600 RPM. That's a lawn mower-grade useable power band, which explains the constant gear rowing. (I happen to love it, but many won't.) The STI's big, bad Brembos are absurdly fantastic. More importantly, they feel burly, which is exactly what drivers want when decelerating from triple digit speeds.

The STI's supposed killer app: DCCD. That's Driver Controlled Center Differential to you and me. We're talking an open center diff that sports clutch-type locking. In default Auto mode, the traction control computer monitors wheel slippage and routes torque accordingly between the front and rear wheels. But with 18" x 8.5" Potenzas on 18-spoke forged aluminum BBS wheels mad-doggedly grasping the pavement, what's the point?

In Manual mode, you can vary the lock-up from a 50-50 split to a maximum of 35/65 front to rear. There are three Automatic modes to choose from: "Auto," "Auto +" (for snow and gravel) and "Auto -" to route more torque to the rear wheels. After screwing around with the DCCD settings for 400 miles, I'm sad to report that the entire system's a total waste of time. I didn't notice any difference in handling save for lighter, less accurate steering in, uh, one of the modes.

The STI's "SI-Drive" knob lets drivers select from three throttle response programs. "Sport" is the default setting. If you're interested in saving gas, there's an "Intelligent" mode that neuters the engine's power output by 20 percent. While I question the smarts of anyone who buys an STI and worries about fuel economy, I'm thinking of having "Sport Sharp" tattooed on my forearm.

Needless to say that's because the fully enabled 2008 WRX STI outhandles an X-acto knife. Yes, the steering's a bit lumpen, and the chassis understeers at the limit, and the mammoth tires produce unwanted bump steer rolling over the nastiest bits. But this sucker's is a four-wheeled middle finger to Newtonian physics. Einstein, too.

True to its rally roots, the worse the road, the better the STI behaved. In fact, I didn't really dig the STI until I fed it some busted-up asphalt. Then my love blossomed with an unnatural (and sideways) passion.

So, is the STI worth a 14k premium? The depends entirely on your driving license's current status and your access to crumbling roads.


By Michael Martineck

Station wagons with manual transmissions are quickly going the way of the fedora. In fact, there are more gas-electric hybrids for sale stateside than row-your-boat wagons. If you want an all-wheel-drive model, the number plummets. Which makes me wonder: what's the point of the Subaru Outback five-speed?

Although I can't speak for Subie's Sapphic fans, sex appeal is NOT the Outback's raison d'etre. Oh, it's handsome enough; in a stern, trim, no grotesque affectations sticking you in the eye sort of way. Subaru's raised the beltline (to lose the Popemobile effect), added new lights (there was a sale on Japanese fish eyes) and stuck a Chrysler Pacifica logo on the snout. While the Outback now looks more expensive than it is, it's about as quirky as an accountant wearing different colored socks.

The interior is equally enthralling and twice as sensible. Fold down the Outback's rear seats and lifestyle load luggers enjoy almost as much schlepitude as Volvo's V70. Although Subaru's redesigned the Outback's instrument panel, "revised" the interior fabrics, added a telescoping wheel (yay!) and numbered the radio buttons from one to five, the cabin remains very much of a muchness. There's nothing tasteless, nothing tasty. Well, except for the meaty steering wheel…

The helm puts you in charge of Subaru's 170hp 2.5-liter SOHC aluminum-alloy 16-valve horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine. If Porsche went all Jaguar on us and tried to dip down market, this is the kind of engine I'd expect: smooth, free-revving and just about as gutsy as a four can be. But Outback drivers are never in any doubt that they're lugging around a couple hundred extra pounds of all wheel-drive (AWD) gear.

The Outback's ride is comfortable without the slightest hint of refinement. Dry road handling is exemplary, with predictable body roll and enough steering feel to tell you when to quit (early and often). Try to accelerate out of a couple of turns and the Outback's architecture tells you that the vehicle could stand another 80 horses– and the rest. The no-fun factor might be considered a plus in a wagon full and kids and dogs and things to be inflated, but it's a definite drawback when you're all alone and late for work. And then…

I was fortunate enough to test our base Outback on fresh powder and packed snow. The worse the conditions, the better it got.

Needless to say, I developed an immediate and intimate respect for Subaru's time-honed Symmetrical AWD system. While other drivetrain layouts have all kinds of 90 degree kinks to sap power and response, the Outback's in-line engine allows more direct power transfer to all the wheels. At the same time, the low-slung boxer engine provides a lower center of gravity, like bending your knees when you're skiing.

The Outback's four-wheel disc brakes, with ABS and electronic brake-force watching over each wheel, proved highly effective on the white stuff. More to the point (of the vehicle's existence), when traction is iffy, it's nice to have more options than merely stop and go. The Outback's manual transmission gives the set up more feel. Sure, you can crank the automatic's lever back and forth, but it's not the same as feathering the clutch, whipping up the revs or using the engine as a brake.

Taken as a whole, the Outback bites, rather than slides on, the snow; it felt like I had an invisible keel slicing through an unseen slot in the road. Although it doesn't have all the toys and [much of any] torque, the entry level Outback has still got the bad weather integrity that makes it an entirely justifiable for people who live in the… wait for it… outback.

Again, if you live in those parts of the country where you can get to grandma's house sans icy winds and killer snow drifts, and you're not likely to travel for hours on unpaved roads, the Outback is a different beast. Well, maybe "beast" is the wrong word. A different "animal:" one of those zoo dwellers that's odd but not terribly attractive. Though it's still adept at negotiating wet leaves, large puddles and the occasional hopped curb, the Outback's charms diminish in direct proportion to the civility of your driving environment.

The number of American drivers who favor a manual transmission is in the single digits and falling fast. But Subaru's right to continue offering a stick shift, low frills, Outback with a relatively anemic engine.

What's the reverse of a halo car? You know: a car that shows that a brand is still in touch with the austere competence that endeared its products to its original financially-challenged, mechanically savvy customers? The five-speed manual base Outback is it. Well done to Subaru for not pulling-up its roots. Now, if they could just strip and flip the STI…


2009 Subaru Forester

By Michael Karesh

Subarus are supposed to be the Birkenstock sandal of the automotive world; simple, robust cars with a certain sense of style that doesn't care about current fads. Alternatively, you could say a Subie used to be what a VW used to be (before Ferdinand Piech started messing with the brand) plus a boxer engine (once a key VW characteristic) and standard all-wheel-drive. In recent years, Subaru's image has become less and less clear. The automaker's desire to escape the granola ghetto first gave us the Tribeca, and then the new Impreza. And now we have a new Forester; an answer the question that in the past didn't have to be asked: what is a Subaru?

Subaru has made some major styling missteps in recent years. Thankfully, the new Forester doesn't continue that misguided trajectory. There's no funky grille, no bulbous malformations; just a pleasant. nicely-proportioned wagonish shape… that could have come from Hyundai or Mitsubishi or Toyota. Does the new Forester look just like the Hyundai Santa Fe or the Mitsubishi Outlander? Yes it does.

Just so it's clear that the Forester isn't a wagon… some Baja 1000 racers get by with less clearance between the tires and the wheel openings. Modders can fit double-dubs, a lowered suspension or both– and still have room inside the arches for a plasma TV screen.

Subaru's interior is equipped with a lethal combo of upmarket aspirations and cheap materials. There's lots of hard silver plastic– most notably a wide band that forms a wave across the instrument panel. [Note to carmakers: no one wants to grab cheap-feeling plastic every time they shut the door.] Sadly, the soft-touch dimpled polymer that impressed back in 2003 didn't survive the redesign. The old Forester's interior wasn't as suavely styled, but it looked more genuine and felt more solid.

Subarus have traditionally been more dimensionally challenged than the competition, especially in the back seat. For the first time ever, you'll find plenty of legroom inside a Subaru. What's more, the rear seat reclines. More importantly, the Forester offers useful storage cubbies, bins and indents everywhere you look, and many places you don't. Another positive change: you get a decent sliding center armrest as standard equipment, rather than as a dealer-installed accessory. Way hey!

Some of the Forester's key characteristics haven't changed: the Forester still has a boxer four and all-wheel-drive. But the fancy new wrapper makes promises the naturally aspirated powerplant just can't deliver sans turbo. (There is a turbo on offer, just not in the L.L. Bean variant tested.)

The Forester's Curb weight is up about a hundred pounds (to 3400lbs), the engine's output is down by a few horses (three bhp), and Subaru apparently feels that a fifth gear is still too special for its junior models. Bottom line: no matter how much you rev this engine, there are no thrills to be had. The Forester's engine sounds sounds so gruff you won't want to rev it. But you'll have to rev it, just to get the Forester up to speed. Good thing there's a manual shift gate; the automatic prefers to lug the boxer when left to its own devices.

Not that you want to be making many knots when you turn the wheel. Aside from the over-light steering, the Forester's chassis feels perfectly composed in relaxed motoring. But hit a turn with any semblance of speed and massive understeer meets insufficient grip on the wrong side of the yellow line. No doubt the Yokohama Geolanders (yep, them again) are good at something. But that something isn't hanging on to dry pavement. Stability control is standard for those who think understeer is an invitation to push harder.

On the flip side, the ride is smoother and quieter than in the old Forester. Think Toyota.

Problem is, even with Subaru and Number One now joined at the hip, does the world really need another Toyota? Subaru used to be about getting a Japanese car that was unlike other Japanese cars. In every way that really matters, the new Forester is just another compact crossover. The body is nice to look at. But so are those of the Santa Fe and Outlander it so closely resembles.

Subaru's predictable response: Hyundai and Mitsubishi don't have the automaker's patented symmetrical all-wheel-drive. Granted: Subaru's trademark drivetrain system is desirable- when combined with a lusty turbocharged engine, taut suspension and sticky rubber. In the 170-horse Geolandered Forester it makes not the slightest difference.

The previous Forester was unlike anything else in the segment. The new one is just like everything else in the segment, for both good and bad. This is good for Forester buyers, and bad for Subaru. Go figure.