This could be the perfect "kid car," a category I like to recapitulate as graduation time beckons, so take notes, indulgent parents. The Subaru Impreza wagon is foremost an all-wheel-drive machine, as are all Subarus. It has plenty of room for flexible young bodies and their appurtenances, it's affordable, it handles and stops decently, it's not exactly overpowered, and it's so pitifully hog-ugly, they'll only drive it when they have to, like when their buddy with the V-8 convertible isn't available.

Looks are a subjective thing, of course, and the accompanying photo doesn't really do the car's dorkiness justice. In the round, it goes beyond funky and well into the realm of pathos. It starts out okay - the cowcatcher front bumper perhaps a leetle overdone - but that foreshortened rear end looks as if it were copped from a Pacer recycling dump (which can't be the case, because it's not rusted). It certainly is a standout in the Subaru line, and maybe that's what they intended. The rest of their vehicles vary from clean to downright amusing, thinking here of the Impreza RS "boy racer" variants.

The Impreza Sport Wagon, to give it its proper tongue-in-cheek name, comes in only the L state of trim, and that's not shabby. You get the all-wheel drive, a five-speed manual transmission, power steering and brakes, front air bags, air conditioning, an AM-FM-cassette stereo, tinted glass, power windows and door locks, power outside mirrors, tilt wheel, rear window defroster, washer and wiper, remote trunk release, power tap, 60/40 fold-down rear seats and lots of trim bits.

This abundance comes at a price of $16,790, delivered, and includes a total of 110 cubic feet of interior volume. The first add-on many people would want is an automatic transmission, and Subaru's four-speed overdrive adds an extra $800. There are numerous other options, small stuff, that one can add, plus a serious ($695) premium sound system. On the whole, though, it takes a bit of work to break through the $19K barrier.

The go power comes from the smaller of Subaru's flat-four engines, a 16-valve, single-overhead-cam job with output of 142 hp (@5,600 rpm) and 149 foot-pounds of torque (@3,600). Like its bigger brother, the 2.5-liter, this engine has the virtue of being compact and helps lower the vehicle's center of gravity, for a well-planted feel. Such torque as there is is present over a wide range of engine speeds, making it a good partner for an automatic. The engine's only vice is a rather unpleasant, raspy sound at open throttle settings, but most of that commotion is kept outside the cabin.

It asks for only regular unleaded and not that much of it - EPA ratings are 23 mpg city, 29 highway for both transmissions. I doled out the hydrocarbons to the tune of a gallon every 26.6 miles, and that in mostly frequent-shifting country work, not freeway loafing. Another plus, if you're footing the gas bills. While the power is har dly awesome, neither is the weight. Even with the complexity of a secondary drivetrain and an automatic transmission, the Impreza Sport Wagon only goes 2,880 pounds. It plods from 0-60 in a tad over 10 seconds - no tire burning here - but feels lively in the middle speed ranges if you keep the revs up. The automatic transmission shifted quickly and smoothly, although it had some tendency on forced downshifts to jump from fourth to second, causing a bit of commotion in the engine compartment. That's likely because top gear is a long-legged overdrive ratio, which you'll appreciate at freeway speeds because it reduces the clamor to some extent.

Depending on whether you're a self-shifter or an automatic type, you get a different form of Subaru's slick all-wheel drive. Manual cars have the older "continuous" system, which has a viscous-coupling center differential. Normally it splits power 50-50 between front and rear axles. When the axles get out of sync, the slower axle gets ower until equilibrium is restored. It's a well-proven, bulletproof system, similar to Audi's earlier quattro schemes. When the automatic transmission is chosen, it is mated to what Subaru calls its "active" all-wheel-drive mechanism. In this case, the norm is for 90 percent of the torque available to be shuttled forward. Motion sensors throughout the vehicle can detect weight transfer, which in effect anticipates changes in traction. The torque is redirected accordingly to the axle better able to handle it.

All this occurs of course without any driver interaction. In practice, all you feel is a car performing better, irrespective of road conditions, than you might have expected. This is an all-weather system, not an off-roading one, but halfway decent fire roads shouldn't be out of the question, although it would be wise to invest in skid plates and remember that ground clearance is a car-like 5.7 inches.

Ride quality over good-to-excellent roads was good; over poor-to-fair surfaces, rather unpleasant. The four-wheel-independent suspension ran out of travel fairly early and passed a considerable amount of harshness to the interior. Worst of all, the Impreza sport Wagon seemed very loosely constructed, unlike most other Subarus. It was a gathering place for assorted bumps, thumps and rattles, despite showing very few miles on the odometer. Perhaps it was a bad day at the plant; such poor assembly is atypical.

The test car had the pricey ($695) radio upgrade package, which was quite pleasing. It had above-average tuner sensitivity, gobs of power and a rich, space-filling tonality overall. The package gets you a CD player, better speakers all around, and adds both tweeters and a self-amplified subwoofer to the mix. You can add these items individually, too, but they'll wind up costing more. Do sample the standard unit to see whether it meets your needs.


The Impreza has disc brakes front, drums rear. Pedal feel was rather numb, but stopping distances were reasonable. Alas, antilock is not available even as an option; Subaru's a little behind the times on that one.

The Impreza is rated to tow up to 1,500 pounds - not task I'd want to take on with this engine. Better to stow the gear inside - there's 25.5 cubic feet available with the rear seats up, 62 c.f. with them down. Might as well fold them down - second class is pretty tight for anybody who has to pay adult admission, but, then again, college-age folks might see that as a plus. Consumers Union rates the Impreza as well above average in reliability. It also fared better than the average in its class in crash testing.

If you can live with the dorky aspect of the vehicle, it provides a great deal of utility at a bargain price. The test machine had a bunch of extra goodies and bottom-lined at $19,200.

"The Gannett News Service"