It doesn’t look like much, but the Subaru Impreza has one of the strongest fanbases and reputations in the internet car world. Drive one hard and you’ll understand why.
(Full Disclosure: I’ve never owned a Subaru Impreza, but I’ve driven a few. Bill Petrow of Broken Motorsports let me drive his runaround for a week. Team O’Neil Rally School let me cut loose in a slightly modified Hawkeye sedan and a Prodrive-built WRC-spec rally car. I didn’t pay a dime, other than for gas in Bill’s car. Thanks, Bill. Come to think of it, I’ve also driven a new Subaru STI for a day across Wales on a press trip set up by Subaru a year back. I got to run a rear-wheel-drive-converted Impreza rally car on a muddy stage at the Higgins Rally School on that same trip. Subaru covered all my costs for those two.)
I get the feeling that Imprezas are often driven for the wrong reasons. When I was growing up in Northern California, I only saw these little sedans getting driven around by crunchy granola types who I think were mostly afraid of putting on snow chains when they drove up to the Sierras. They had lots of bumper stickers. They were basically Corollas that got worse gas mileage. Also they were quite homely. And their interiors were garbage.
And over the past, ugh, what is this now, five years I’ve been writing about cars on the internet, I’ve mostly seen Imprezas in the performance community getting driven like little muscle cars. The big draw for a lot of Subaru fans is the power you get from Subaru’s turbo motors and the speed off the line of its AWD system. Go to any ski resort and you’ll hear the BRAAAAAAAP of a blacked-out STI clone with most of an exhaust. Go to any rich kid suburb in the Southwest and you’ll hear it, too. Tuned Subarus with boosted boxer motors are fast, and that’s enough for most leadfoot drivers.
My boss used to have a WRX sedan. I think he, like thousands of other mad-at-the-world dudes, just wanted the speed. It’s not hard or expensive to get a Subaru that’s loud and fast, a step up in price and prestige from cheap Hondas on the affordable enthusiast car scale. For a lot of people, Subarus are for bros and lady-bros. You know, these people.
Up until a few years ago I had never driven a Subaru Impreza of any generation, so I only vaguely desired something like an early two-door 2.5RS, mostly because I thought it looked cool. But now I’ve driven everything from a Prodrive-built rally car to a non-turbo ‘Blobeye’ sedan and there’s something deeper about these cars that every enthusiast should know first hand.
This is going to sound weird, but it’s the normalcy of the Impreza that makes it so good to drive. I did a couple hundred miles in that Blobeye I mentioned, road tripping out to Pennsylvania to co-drive in a rally a few years back. The car didn’t have much of anything but lots of room and AWD. It drove and functioned, like I said before, like a Corolla with worse gas mileage.
I had that road trip in mind two weekends ago when I was fully and completely sideways in an almost identical Impreza, a Hawkeye used as a trainer car by Team O’Neil Rally School up in New Hampshire. At its roots, it was still the same plain car too look at and to drive around like any other car.
Huck it into a corner in snow, though, and the Subaru becomes one of the best driver’s cars around.
If you’ve never gone sideways in an all-wheel drive car, you won’t really understand the sensations of it. The feeling and the responses aren’t like anything else you might drive. Turn in to the corner with a big lift off the gas, even a brush of the brakes with your left foot, and the nose of the car dives down and into the turn. Get back on the gas and the car will pull you out of your slide and in to the next bend.
You can do the same trick with a front-wheel drive car, but you always have the feeling there that the car is operating in two halves. You can feel the undriven rear slide out and you can feel the driven front pull you free. An all-wheel drive Impreza doesn’t have that sensation. It feels like the entire car, wrapping around you in a single motion, evenly slips in and out of a corner as one.
There’s no big drama about it. Subarus have viscous differentials, sort of juggling the power around the corners of the car, and it all sort of meshes and globularizes into unified motion. It’s not abrupt. It’s not sharp. It’s creamy peanut butter plastering over all the little holes on a piece of bread. Your little mistakes at the wheel and the little undulations of the road all get processed by the Subaru’s AWD. All it leaves you with is sideways speed.
The sensations were largely the same even when I drove a full-on rally spec car, one owned by O’Neil and built by some Prodrive meachnics out in the midwest. Prodrive, if you’re not familiar with Subaru lore, was the British race shop that built Subaru’s winning World Rally Championship cars. Prodrive gave the world the 555 Imprezas, sideways over crests and on into the collective unconscious.
The dog box transmission whined and the engine thundered when Tim O’Neil, riding shotgun with me, flicked on the anti-lag button. Flames shot out the exhaust. We took off like nothing else. The handling was so neutral, so plain. Like any other Impreza, it made getting sideways in the snow as easy as possible. The big difference was that the torque of the thing hungered for more speed. First. Second. Third. Already too fast on the little slalom/skidpad course O’Neil had laid out. The car wanted to be doing a hundred miles an hour through the woods. Everything on the car was designed to make that happen as quickly and as simply as possible.
Don’t get me wrong. These cars do not fix all drivers. One icy corner did leave me tapping a snow bank, taking some paint off the back bumper of this (eek) reasonably historic car. Subarus make driving like this easy. They do not make it idiot-proof.
I’ve driven all kinds of other performance cars. I’ve been sideways in front-drivers and rear-drivers. I’ve driven more analog, old-school all-wheel drive cars like an ‘80s Audi 4000 Quattro. I’ve driven more digital, new-school all-wheel drive cars like the current Ford Focus RS. Drift cars. Race cars. Off-roaders and ex-military vehicles. Getting an all-wheel drive drift going in an Impreza stands out as one of the most accessible and interesting experiences you can have in a car.
Look past the vapes and flat brim hats of Subaru bro-ism. Leave the hippie associations of Foresters and Outbacks aside. If you’ve never gone sideways with all four wheels lit up, find a way to get yourself behind the wheel of an Impreza.
It won’t seem like much at first, but that’s the whole charm.