By the way sport-utility vehicles (SUV) are selling you would think we all live on dirt roads at the top of a mountain.

But that's not so. Most SUVs see life primarily around town, being driven like cars. Since they are essentially fancy trucks, the penalty for driving one shows up in initial cost and high gas consumption. If they are used like cars, why not base them on cars?

A whole new generation of small sport-utility vehicles based cars lurks on the horizon. Toyota's RAV4 and Honda's CR-V have their roots in sedans, as does the pair of Outbacks from Subaru.

Subaru has been building four-wheel-drive sedans and station wagons for years, so it was easy to reconfigure them with styling touches that give them a sport-ute persona. There are Outback models in both the Legacy and Impreza line.

The Impreza Outback Sport driven here is derived from the compact Impreza station wagon. Sitting on a raised suspension and 15-inch wheels, it looks much more aggressive this year because of a complete face lift. The front bumper gets a new grille and cooling vents, while a scoop on the hood brings in fresh air. The front end design borrows heavily from Subaru's successful World Rally Championship racers and it adds to the bold, energetic look.

Under the Sport's hood sits a 2.2-liter, four-cylinder engine with 137 horsepower (the standard Impreza has a 1.8-liter engine with 115 horsepower).

True to Subaru's tradition, this engine has two horizontal cylinders on each side, a "boxer" layout similar to a Volkswagen beetle or Porsche 911. A key advantage to this configuration is a low center of gravity. On the contrary, the exhaust has a raspy sound and the engine is not as smooth as an in-line design.

Subaru devotees will likely find the engine's coarse sound endearing, while others may be put off by it. I fall somewhere in the middle. The automatic transmission seems to smooth things out.

According to Subaru, power is transmitted to all four wheels through a grapefruit-sized transfer mechanism inside the transmission. This resembles a simplified version of Audi's Quattro system, and it sends power to the wheels with the most traction. Most of the time you can't feel it working, but when things get slippery it soldiers on like a sled dog.

Even though the Impreza Sport sits tall and looks tough, it is not really meant for off-road use. The transmission has no extra-low gears, for example, and the ground clearance and front and rear overhangs limit its mobility. For tootling down gravel roads or even moderately rough dirt lanes, however, it works quite well.

What makes it so appealing is the easy-folding back seat and roof-mounted luggage rack. Young families who do a lot of camping or other outdoor activities will love it because it is easy to throw gear into.

Even though it sits tall, the Impreza Outback Sport rides comfortably and never feels as if it is cornering on tippy-toes. Zip down the highway and you feel as if you are in a small sedan, although the noise level is a tad greater.

The interior is pleasant but simple. The small radio controls are a bit old fashioned and the cupholder that slides out from the center of the dash puts the radio at risk should your drinks slop over.

The firm seats are covered in brightly-patterned cloth that some might find a little loud, but this is a car aimed at the young set and it conveys a youthful image.

The Impreza Outback Sport is a bargain when you consider it comes with all-wheel-drive, anti-lock brakes and station-wagon versatility for less than $20,000.


The base price of our test car was $17,995. Power windows and locks, AM/FM stereo cassette, rear wiper, anti-lock brakes and air conditioning are all standard.

The only options on our test car were the automatic transmission and floor mats, which brought the sticker price to $19,816.


The basic warranty is for thr years or 36,000 miles.

Vehicles for The Star's week-long test drives are supplied by the auto manufacturers.

Point: The Impreza Outback Sport is a compact station wagon with all-wheel drive, anti-lock brakes and an economical four-cylinder engine. It is versatile and rugged looking, yet it has the civility of a small car.

Counterpoint: Some might find the engine note disconcerting, while others will like it.

The radio could have better controls, and relocating the cupholder will keep drinks from spilling onto the radio.


ENGINE: 2.2-liter, 4-cyl.


WHEELBASE: 99.2 inches

CURB WEIGHT: 2,915 lbs.

BASE PRICE: $17,995


MPG RATING: 23 city, 30 hwy.