A unique station “sport” wagon emphasized in the sporty side of the spectrum with functionality, safety and practicality that SUVs can never match, while four-wheeling away from the bread-and-butter mainstreamers.
This compact station wagon was acquired as a service loaner with 8 miles on the odometer at the time of pick up. It stayed with me for 6 hours. I drove approximately ~100 miles. The test route included the urban freeways, and back roads in the Bay Area. The entire trip in the Impreza was with the driver alone. The averaged fuel consumption was approximately 25 mpg.
Subaru face lifted its Impreza model line in late 2005 for 2006 model year. The most substantial appearance change happened to the front end of the car, where it incorporated the Subaru B9 Tribeca SUV inspired grille, along with new projector headlights, and front bumpers, where all the body panels from the B-pillar forward have been redesigned. The 2007 models have carried over all the changes since the face lift. The tester is manufactured 100% in Gunma, Japan by Fuji Heavy Industries LTD. It equipped with a horizontally opposed Boxer engine mounted longitudinally under the aluminum hood in the engine bay, at the forefront of the front driveaxles. The aluminum cylinder heads and blocks, 2.5L 16valves SOHC engine (EJ25) pumps out 173hp@6,000rpm and 166Ib-ft of torque@4,400rpm with Subaru’s i-Active Valve Lift System. Engine power is transmitted via 4 speed electronic automatic transmission with an electronically managed continuously variable hydraulic transfer clutch (Subaru’s Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive System) to divert power to 4-wheels. Traction is provided by a set of P205/55R16, Bridgestone Potenza RE92A tires. The chassis (GDF) is supported by all wheel independent MacPherson strut suspensions with stabilizer bars. Stopping power is generated by vented disc brakes in the front, and solid disc in the rear.
Upon receiving the car from the dealer’s lot, our anticipation seemed a bit confused compare to our previous experiences. Perhaps it might be from our lack of experience and knowledge with a base model Subaru Impreza, or our image of a station wagon equipped with a seemed to be dated 4-speed automatic transmission. We have driven Impreza WRXs and STIs numerous times in the past. We were simply blindsided by its performance aspects rather than looking at the entire car as an entity. This time around, in a base model Impreza station wagon, there are some uncertainties, and disappointment. We were uncertain about its performance figure, and drive dynamics compare to its big brothers – the WRX, and STI. We were somewhat disappointed that we were not driving the always fun to toss around WRX or the ultra high performance STI – kinda like always traveling in the business class, and now we have to settle in an inferior economic class. However, we were surprised by its pleasant drive dynamics within minutes of driving.
Stepping into the cabin, placing myself onto the driver seat, I found myself sitting noticeably high off of the floor compare to our recently purchased STI. The sitting position is not mini-van or SUV like high, but it is a mix in between a compact sedan and a compact SUV. With that being said, there is plenty of headroom available. Taller drivers should find sufficient headroom even with the optional sunroof. The seat provided fairly nice thigh and lateral support, despite its plain appearance.
At idle, this brand new engine is buttery smooth, and exhibits the traits of Boxer engines. Boxer engines typically tends to be slightly noisier than an inline design due to the location of the cylinder heads, where the normal valve chattering noise is more transparent via the voids between the front wheel wells and the engine compartment of the car. A jab on the lag-free electronic throttle caused slight transversely rocking motion on the Impreza, kinda like a large displacement V-8 muscle car sitting at a redlight revving its engine to boaster its muscular posture like a barbarian in a mating season, but this is achieved in a 2.5L 4-cylinder engine at a more sophisticated manner. The rocking movement is due to the torsional force of the Boxer engine acting on the chassis, which is another trait of Boxer engine, where it produces greater torsional forces than an inline design. Inside the cabin, the engine sound is very subtle and distinctly joyful to listen to. The engine response feels like a small displacement V6. It offers ample and linear low end to midrange output but power tends to fade away gradually when the tachometer goes beyond 5,500rpm – a common SOHC valvetrain characteristic.
Engine provides good acceleration and passing power, operates smoothly, and revs freely under load until its rev limiter kicks in at the engine’s 6,400rpm redline. This smoothness and responsiveness on the Impreza is hard to achieve on a same displacement inline-4 design. Subaru achieved the smoothness of the engine by faithfully developing, improving, and using the horizontally opposed engine for decades. The Boxer engine is naturally balanced without the need of harmonic balancer, shafts, or extra weight on the crankshaft to counterbalance the secondary harmonic vibration from a larger displacement inline-4 engine which allows the crankshaft to be lighter, and shorter. The pistons in the engine are situated sideway and opposite from each other, combining with the designated firing order, it cancels the vibration caused by the combustion stroke from one another. It translated as the engine is uniquely responsive, makes freeway entrance and spirit driving a breeze even with the equipped 4-speed automatic transmission.
The equipped 4-speed automatic transmission may sound unfashionable on the spec sheet since majority of the cars equip with 5-speed ATs. During our road test, the transmission has proven itself that this 4-speed AT works great with the engine. It shifts willingly and efficiently with smoothness regardless up or downshifting. It is also geared properly to match the engine’s characteristic. To take advantage of the healthy doses of midrange torque, Subaru dialed gear ratio to allow the engine to rev at 2,500rpm at 65mph. The shifter is Mercedes like ’80s; Wobbly Gate selector where N-D-3 range is in one straight line. It is hard to feel where D position is due to the looseness of the notch. Therefore, it is easy to mistakenly shift into N when attempt to upshift from 3 to D to get into the overdrive mode. Fortunately shifter position is clearly displayed in the gauge cluster. Subaru’s symmetrical all-wheel drive is built in this transmission as well. In models equipped with automatic transmission, the system is called Active AWD where the electronically managed continuously variable hydraulic transfer clutch adjust engine power to the front or rear wheels with the most traction. However, the system doesn’t consider for traction between left and right wheels since it doesn’t equip with front or rear limited slip differential – unlike its bigger brothers.
Also unlike its bigger brother with leather-wrapped steering wheel, the plastic steering wheel reminded us we are driving a perhaps discounted model. However, it feels awfully right in our hands that the plastic actually provides fairly good grip. The steering input thru the conventional power-assisted rack-and-pinion is responsive, and provides highly accurate road feel in its class. Initial turn-in has a hint of understeer, perhaps due to the position of the Boxer engine being so far ahead of the front wheel axles in the result of higher polar-moment. In middle corners with constant throttle input, it behaved neutrally. A jab on the throttle in a corner, the car is projected forward with mild understeering that actually enhanced the planted, surefooted feel. A feeling of all available traction is on-demand willingly to promote control of the car to the driver. The equipped tires are fairly quiet offers good comfort and grip. With the Active AWD system, during tight turns under full lock situation, the center differential has the tendency to make noise cause by crabbing and binding of the differentials, however, it is more than a usual sound.
The suspension tuning on the Sports Wagon has the best compromise between sporty and comfort versus the rather stiff setup on the STIs. The suspensions are tuned perfectly to control dives from heavy braking, squat from our pedal-to-metal actions of the Impreza’s respectable 3,120Ibs curb weight. The cornering on this 58.3″ high body, a little over 2″ taller than the STI, is responsive and offers great confidence. Body roll is minimal, thanks to the placement of the Boxer engine, where it is placed lower than a conventional inline design that allows lower center of gravity, and a pair of antiroll bar connecting the front and rear independent suspension. The road noise travel thru from the suspension is minimal; the sound that intrudes into the cabin is the thumps that a car enthusiast will love to hear – a very solid feel. During our testing, the stiffness of the suspensions offers good road feel. And it is surprisingly capable of absorbing larger urban pavement obstacles such as potholes, cracks, and expansion joint without losing its composure. The interior also remains quiet and a solid feel.
Initially, the brake pedal required higher than expected effort to generated stopping power to stop the Impreza, although, the pedal feel is solid with proper amount of freeplay. The operating effort started to reduce after a few miles of driving in downtown San Francisco, where the repeated braking allowed the brake pads to break in with the brake rotors. Eventually, we can no longer complain its brakes but to cherish its overall design. The standard 4-channel ABS with electronic brake-force distribution offers great confidence. Under heavy braking ABS involvement is smooth, and subtle. The 10.8″ front ventilated disc with dual-piston front calipers, and 10.3″ rear solid disc with single-piston calipers, provides good fading resistance or street/spirit driving conditions.
Subaru didn’t seem to skimp on the chassis development of the Sport Wagon. The supportive suspensions and unyielding cornering attributes are the hidden achievement of the rigid chassis underneath the shiny sheet metals. The rigidity of the chassis can be revived under the hood and from the squeaks-free interior. Under the hood, the front strut towers are located very close to the firewall where it has the greatest torsional stiffness, which making strut tower bar unnecessary for Subaru performance enthusiasts. To prove, the claim, the ultra high performance STI with stiff suspension setup didn’t require any strut tower bar from the factory, which shows Subaru has confidence in the stiffness of its front end. The interior remains quiet, and rattle-free even under some large bumps and cracks on the pavement. Subaru’s Ring-Shaped Reinforcement Frame not only provides the rigid cabin structure but also enhanced passive safety by dissipate crash-impact energy from the occupants.
The interior styling is simple, and a bit on the plain side. The design, material usage, and fit-and-finish of the dash, door panels and throughout the interior seems dated back to mid 1990s. However, there is nothing wrong with the design beside aesthetic. The layout of the interior is very practical, efficient, and extremely easy to find and use the switchgears. Instrument panel is very eye pleasing, and easy to glance the needed information. Like the rest of the interior the standard DIN size 20W per channel single disc CD player is simple to look at, use, and dated. The music emits from the stock 4 speaker system has no much to write home about and relatively weak at its output. Fortunately, the quiet cabin didn’t dilute the music too much. The wind noise is hardly hearable. Road noise is nicely suppressed, only the noises needed to enhance communication between the driver and the road is transmitted thru the insulation. Engine noise is muted when cruising and emits joyful throaty sound under heavy acceleration. Exhaust note is non-existing whether it is outside or inside of the car. And like most Japanese car, the HVAC is efficient. The Sport Wagon provides good forward visibility, thanks to the slightly higher seating position, and the low hood line. Visibilities on the sides and to the back are excellent contributed from the windows filled greenhouse portion for the car.
Overall, we are quite pleased with the Impreza Sport Wagon. The ample of power, and refined driving dynamic made this Wagon very easy to drive, making your routine commute a bit more rewarding than the volume seller of its class. The driving dynamic that enhanced active and passive occupant safety, with the standard AWD system, and structural design, is one of a kind in its class as well. With the MSRP at ~$20,000, the Impreza Sport Wagon has an edge over its mainstream competitors – Honda Accord, Mazda 6, Nissan Altima, and Toyota Camry. None the mentioned, models here comes with AWD, and the Mazda 6 is the only model offers a station wagon trim. We would recommend the Impreza Sport Wagon for its uniqueness, convenient interior space/trunk size and confidence driving characteristics that is very unlike your grandma’s boxy Volvo station wagon. The interior layout, and the amenities available is lacking on today’s standard especially on the sound system.
Cost saving must come from somewhere along the line to accommodate the AWD system and the not-so cheap to made Boxer engine. However, in car enthusiasts stand point, the Sport Wagon provided a great foundation to improve upon. The equipped DIN size CD player can be easily replaced with a high end aftermarket unit along with new speakers, provided that the cabin is already muted – without distorting the music; a great sound system requires a noise-free environment.
Performance & Acceleration: 7
Comment: Ample of power for urban driving conditions. Sufficient power to make spirited driving fun, even when mated with AT.
Comment: Actively responsive, efficient, while operate smoothly.
Handling & Cornering: 8
Comment: Nimble and communicative handling offers plenty of grip and confidence.
Brake Feel: 8
Comment: Solid and refine in operation.
Ride Characteristic: 8
Comment: Supportive ride, capable of absorbing bigger bumps than you would expect from a car in this class.
Interior Comfort: 7.5
Comment: Basic luxury items from the mid 90s.
Comment: Japanese industrial standard fit-and-finish.
Comment: User friendly Station Wagon, I meant Sport Wagon.
Comment: Unique engine, and AWD system. Only Subaru has religiously offered AWD and Boxer engine even at this $20,000 price tag.
Funny that we hardly pay any attention too this Subaru model, but after this test drive opportunity, we spot more and more Subaru on the road than the past besides the heads turning STI. With a Limited Edition STI sitting in the garage, we’ve come to realize Subaru is a very specialized manufacture, kinda like the Saab of Japan, in terms of its consistent design approach. In speaking of Saab, we are so proud that GM no longer has control over Subaru. The Saabaru 9-2X is a joke, and not to mention the recent 9-7x. END