COAL: 1997 Subaru Impreza Outback Sport – Driving Into Adulthood (#4)

In July 2007, I was poised to graduate college (for the first time) and had just bid adieu to my long-running 1990 Subaru Legacy wagon. Only a month before, my Army Reservist father deployed to Kuwait. With a post-college world waiting to be explored, my dad told me to take the car that had replaced the Legacy as his cold weather wheels.

When I drove the ’90 Legacy off to college in 2003, Dad didn’t have a ready replacement for it. Thinking that a smaller Impreza wagon might be a handier size and a trifle thriftier—more of a spiritual successor to his long-departed ’83 Sentra—he watched the inventory at our local Subaru specialist garage for months before finally finding a suitable candidate: a 1997 Outback Sport.

Brochure image; virtually identical to my Impreza (save for my car’s steel wheels).


1997 was a transitionary model year for the Impreza. Subaru stylists freshened front-end styling that year with a more pronounced grille treatment that would remain through 2001. The interior, however, largely carried over from the model’s 1993 introduction. 

Subaru’s SUV-pretender Outback trim level debuted in 1995. For the ’97 refresh, they added the “Sport” moniker to the Impreza Outback, further distinguishing it from the far more popular Legacy-derived model. Also that year, the automaker deemed the junior Outback worthy of its own TV ads. A younger nephew character joined established Subaru spokes-Aussie Paul Hogan to tout the smaller Impreza Outback to Gen X and Y.

Notwithstanding the car’s youth-oriented marketing, outdoor sports pretensions, and heavy-handed hood scoop, my 50-something father found it to be suitable. He bought the car despite its lack of a sunroof, a feature he had prized on nearly every car going back to his very first: a ’56 Volkswagen.

I borrowed my dad’s Impreza a few times on visits home from college. While I found the car to have its charms, it didn’t inspire much envy when I got back in my Legacy.

Admittedly, I was intrigued by the Impreza at the model’s 1993 debut. Even though my family didn’t own a Subaru in the early ’90s, I still thought of us as something of a Subaru household, owing to a 1978 4WD wagon that we had in my youngest years. At the time, boxy ’80s Subarus were ubiquitous in my central Pennsylvania hometown. The more contemporary Legacy was becoming increasingly common as well.

1993 Subaru Impreza Ad

Yet despite the prevalence of the Pleiades emblem in my area, the Impreza didn’t sell well at first. In the “What to drive” era, the new Impreza was about as frequent a sight as the Isuzu Stylus. (We did have a well-established Isuzu dealer in town.) Before long, a woman in my neighborhood—who looked vaguely like Courteney Cox and for some reason I always thought was a young divorcée—acquired a new Impreza sedan, adding to the car’s mystique. Ms. Impreza lived on our development’s other cul-de-sac, and I only ever caught fleeting glimpses of her and her car. 

At introduction, the new model impressed me as looking rather modern and mainstream for Subaru. Yet it still had enough styling quirks to remind you that, yes, it was a Subaru. The wagon variant naturally appealed to me as a hatchback aficionado. I could never quite decide whether or not I loved the car’s funky “sedan wearing a backpack” look, though. Within a couple years of launch, certain Imprezas sported a three-section grille with U-shaped trim surrounding the Subaru emblem. Whether intended or not, I saw that touch as an homage to the grill treatment on ’70s and early ’80s Subarus (like our old ’78). That detail endeared the nascent model to me even further.

1978 Subaru GF and 1995 Subaru Impreza



About a dozen years later, when I first drove my dad’s Impreza, the nameplate had become common on the road. My personal connection to Subaru was no longer merely a few fuzzy memories of my family’s old ’78 wagon. And compared with the ’90 Legacy I drove daily, Dad’s newer Impreza didn’t feel like a clear winner.

1997 Subaru Impreza Outback Sport - Dashboard

Not my car, but nearly identical (Credit: Flickr user Hunter Clary).


Having the same 2.2-liter H4 and a few hundred pounds less to haul, the Impreza was quicker than the Legacy. It also seemed coarser and noisier. Handling was secure and responsive—even fun. But the stout Impreza did not have the light, tossable feel that I found so entertaining in my old ’91 Protegé. Moreover, this ’97 Outback felt somewhat “de-contented”, not only relative to my ’90 Legacy, but also earlier Imprezas. Little niceties, like the shift indicator between the speedometer and tachometer, had been removed. Cruise control was absent. Interior plastics felt a grade cheaper than those on the Legacy; the carpeting was noticeably downmarket. And Subaru designers not only covered the seats and door inserts in a rough material that was unpleasant to touch, they emblazoned it with a bizarre acid trip pattern that was downright distracting to boot.

1997 Subaru Impreza Outback Sport - Interior Fabrics

What were they thinking? (Credit: Flickr user RSImpulse).


The Impreza may have been a bit of a comedown from the Legacy. Nevertheless, I began driving it with the same “anytime, anywhere” ethos that put so many miles on its predecessor. In August 2007 with my bachelor’s degree in hand, I motored halfway across the country to visit my older brothers and look for professional work. I didn’t really care where, so long as it was far from home. I spent months searching, sending résumés, and interviewing for positions in such disparate locations as Dallas and Madison. With no success, I headed back to the Mid-Atlantic to focus my search on a more concentrated (and familiar) area. Ultimately, I decided to return to school as a hedge against a rapidly deteriorating job market. Shortly thereafter, I found my first post-college job near Philadelphia.

The realities of working full time while pursuing a second degree tamed my rampant wanderlust. My Impreza Outback served me faithfully, though it missed the endless miles of carefree adventure I shared with the Legacy. Instead, it shuttled me between work, campus, and the depressing apartment I could afford on my entry-level salary. 

Like the Legacy, the Impreza surely would have continued its march to 200K and beyond. But it met an untimely end at the hands of a sibling, just as our first Legacy had years earlier. One morning in the early fall of 2008 while I was visiting my hometown, my younger sister borrowed the Impreza and was soon involved in a head-on collision. She emerged unscathed; the car was less fortunate. 

Once again, I was in a hurry to find a replacement vehicle—for the second year in a row. This time, however, I lacked the high spirits and optimism I had at commencement. The search would take me into previously uncharted territory: Toyota.