COAL: 1993 Subaru Impreza L: The Allure of the Pleiades


I have a bit of an unusual relationship with cars. A 1997 Hyundai Accent sedan is the most romantic car I’ve ever owned, and this one is the most exciting. Yes, the 1.8L boxer was likely over-tasked with hauling the AWD system around, but it was so buttery smooth- I mean, here’s what I drove before it: a ’97 Hyundai, a 4.0 Jeep, and a Nissan 200SX powered by a moonshiner on a banjo instead of an engine. So yes, buttery, richly, wonderfully smooth, with a Porsche-esque boxer’s burble and a rear end designed to resemble a dog taking care of business.




We looked at a few cars before finding this one. There was a late-80s GMC Jimmy that I could not properly test drive because it had no plates. We checked out a late-90s Mercury Sable. It was beige. And then I spotted the Impreza, parked next to a slightly newer blue one that was $1500 more expensive. The red one was the one that immediately caught my attention. Its cheer was evident the first time I turned the key and the engine came to life. I wasn’t even out of the parking lot of the little used car dealership before I had decided that this was the car for us. There would be no haggling with him over the price, although at $3000 I didn’t really feel it was necessary to give the guy a hard time about it. I got it insured, handed over the cash, and it joined our family.


There was absolutely nothing pretentious or try-hard about that Impreza. It had no extra switch for the door locks: lock the driver’s door, the rest locked. Unlock it, and everyone gets to get out. It was more egalitarian than the Hyundai was, in that the passenger did not get preference when entering the car. There were no spoilers, no fog lamps. It was not adorned with ground effects or hood vents or a fake scoop, although I have been told that being painted red gave it 5 extra horsepower. Given our experiences, I’m inclined to believe it.

Despite the 5 hp boost from the red paint, it was not the most sporting car I’ve ever had. The worn-out suspension creaked as the car leaned on it in the turns, but it did always feel planted. Oh well, the speed limits in Marquette are only 25 mph anyways. It had the best ride by far of all the cars I had owned to that point in my life (now it would be a distant third). The seats were flattened with age and mileage (some 200,000 of them at the time of acquisition in May of ’04) and I put another good 50k on it before selling it and moving to Japan.


It smelled of burning oil. I was informed by a mechanic that there were leaks on top of the engine. Oil seeped out and sat on top of the boxer’s engine block and burned away. On cold nights at stoplights, you could see wisps of smoke rising from under the hood, but only when you were stopped. When you were moving it was not an issue, and the car never lit itself on fire. I personally think it was because it loved us too much.

The Hyundai was a romantic, helping woo my future wife with its many, many charms. The Subaru was, too, helping to deepen our relationship. We drove it all over Upper Michigan. My wife had to go to Sault Ste. Marie to take her GRE. The Subaru took us there with no trouble, but on the drive back to Marquette the weather turned on us and it became hazardous. Snow came down and accumulated on M28, with visibility not much farther than a few hundred feet at best. The Subaru shined in these conditions. Humming along through the snow, it plowed forward with no complaints, no hesitation. We followed a plow truck for some time until it reached a county line and had to turn back, and then we drove forth into the steady snowfall. It would be nice to be able to tell this story with some kind of tension, having some kind of dramatic finish to such a treacherous journey, but there wasn’t. Age, mileage, maintenance (or lack thereof), none of it seemed to matter.


I know everyone is wondering about the big issue with this car: what about the head gaskets? They blew. Or rather, I blew them. Worried about the oil leaking on top of the engine and burning away, I added a bit of oil without checking how much was in there, and blew the gaskets right up. I’m confident that that is not the stupidest thing that has ever been done to a car, and hey, I’m only 34 years old. I have time yet to make even bigger mistakes in the future. Anyways, what a lesson that was to learn though, a $1000 lesson. The mechanics replaced the timing belt at the same time because, hey, the engine was already up out of the bay to begin with, so you know, no big deal. I decided that instead of trying to add the right amount of oil, I would just change it a bit more often.

As I checked, I realized that the amount of oil leaking onto the engine block and burning away was minuscule, and I did not need to do any more than the usual 3000 miles/3 months thing. I was also informed that the air conditioning was irreparable, and that the whole unit would need to be replaced at great cost. So, it went without air conditioning, not really a huge problem with a perfectly serviceable Camry parked next to it while we lived in Toledo.

Ah, that’s right. We had the car for our fourth and final year of college and then we moved down to my hometown of Toledo after we graduated in May of ’05 to begin graduate school at UT. She graduated and I didn’t, having lost my way halfway through it. We bought a second car, a 1989 Camry that had lived a comfortable life in California, and the Subaru was forced to split duties. Its excitement relative to the Camry was evident every time you sat in it. You sat closer to the ground. When you started it up and drove it, the engine sang a lively tune compared to the drone of the joyless I-4 in the Toyota. According to Subaru, the boxer made its center of gravity much lower and it was far less sailing-shippy in the corners, staying more level and planted than the well-aged and more upright Camry.


It felt the most at home in the UP, however. It did fine in Toledo, I have no issues with its performance there, but in Marquette it was truly in its element. It was used to hunt down the many waterfalls scattered throughout Upper Michigan. These waterfalls were often hidden down long stretches of dirt roads. The Subaru tackled the treks with vim, bombing down the roads with the eagerness of a Labrador retriever puppy. It splashed through mud puddles, plowed through snow drifts, and squealed gleefully around corners. Everyday was Christmas for that car.

When it came time to sell it, I took a few pictures of it and put it on Craigslist for $2500. No one had enough time to call. A guy walking by our apartment saw it parked in the street with the ‘For Sale’ sign in the window and asked about it. He had owned Subarus in the past, and wanted a second car that he could use to haul around drums and guitars, something his V-6 Mustang was capable of doing only just barely. He immediately said he’d buy it for $2000 which I was more than willing to accept, and a few days later I watched it disappear down the road to its new home. I told my dad what I had sold it for and he was shocked. He told me that he didn’t think anyone would pay anything more than a grand for that thing and that he thought I was crazy for asking that much. Don’t underestimate the allure of a Subaru.


When I visited home during winter vacation a couple years later I had the opportunity to drive down that street, and I saw that old Subaru still in his driveway. My NMU sticker in the rear window had been joined by some other ones I can’t seem to remember, but it was still in joyful service. I can’t imagine that it still is, but wouldn’t that be sensational?


NOTE: Finally, all pictures mine except the picture of the engine, via google image search.