The latest slogan from the collective minds of the marketing department over at Subaru North America: “Love... it’s what make a Subaru a Subaru.” Really?... I always thought it was the symmetrical all-wheel drive and a rumbling boxer engine? That is, until recently.
I have been the proud owner of a 1998 Subaru Impreza GF8 L Wagon for just over a year. I remember the day I found her in the tow yard like it was yesterday. (Yes, it’s cliché but true). There it stood... sad, neglected, covered in dust, and weeping oil. Despite previous marketing adverts suggesting I should let mother nature do the washing for me. Here in CA over the last couple of years we received a total cumulative rainfall of about two feet, and I couldn’t wait for the next precipitation event, like any good new Suby owner, I gave her a quick rinse to see what charm lay beneath the dust (but don’t worry i used reclaimed gray water). To my surprise, the body wasn’t in too bad of shape. The front and rear bumpers were bestrewn with bumps, scrapes, cracked paint, and the telltale signs of a life lived in a city with minimal parking and plenty of varied grades. Aside from that and the peeling clear coat there is no major work needed on the exterior. The weeping oil was the concerning component. This being the fabled 2.2-liter (EJ22) version of the Japanese boxer motor, I was dubious this oily excretion was caused by the dreaded head gasket issue that plagued the 2.5-liter (EJ25) variant of the flat four (but tentatively nervous nonetheless). Unlike most engines, particularly four bangers, the horizontally opposed piston setup makes for a much more difficult repair due to the low position of the motor as well as the fact that the heads are facing exactly 180 degrees in the opposite direction (horizontally opposed); meaning the entire engine must come out of the car to repair such an ailment.
Once I had this beauty up on jack stands, I noticed the CV boots had torn and axle grease had been slung all over the wheel wells/lower engine block, and the oil was leaking fairly heavily onto the exhaust system. Closer inspection revealed that the cause of the 10w30 tears is bad valve cover gaskets, a brittle oil filler neck O ring, and an old rear cam seal. I took a deep breath of relief knowing that the head gasket was good (as suspected). With less monetary investment than a pair of designer jeans, all the leaky seals were replaced and the axles were whole again. Throw on top of that a fresh pair of brake pads and ball joints and I had a peppy (mind you not fast) AWD wagon that was a hoot to drive.
The classic lines and stable stance more than resemble the sensational limited release 22B, and in my
not so humble opinion, looks better than most economy cars today. Although the L wagon is lacking in the power department, you can really feel the rally heritage in the corners. As any salty veteran track rat will tell you, the true fun of racing is corner speed. Rain or shine, the symmetrical AWD system inspires confidence at every corner. I literally feel as though you could enter any corner at any speed and come out of the other side without an extended stay in the ICU. Not only did I get to test the wet weather ability of the Subaru, I was able to test it repeatedly... in the rain... in the hail... in the snow and sleet. In a year of record snow fall in the Sierras many, a trip was taken to the slopes and the little Subaru always handled amazingly. At the chain control stops on Interstate 80 I could thumb my nose at all the poor saps messing about in the icy muck, fumbling around with tire chains... HA! I was repeatedly waived through with no such traction device and did not even have to think twice about it. When the pavement is not compromised by bad weather... The under-powered 137 HP pancake engine allows just about any driver to enter a corner early... late... just right... whatever, and put down the hammer and nail the apex. You can truly feel the AWD at work with the rear wheels providing the torsion to keep the chassis level, and front wheels pulling you through the turn. A maximum torque of 145 ft. lbs. at 4000 RPM’s under-steer is just a word to describe some ethereal phantom that exists in a parallel dimension where cars are merely a mode of transportation.
Unfortunately, that parallel universe is where many of us spend the majority of our lives. In my day to day work I spend a fair amount of time behind a windshield (mostly small to mid-sized pickup trucks) but occasionally I get an opportunity or condemnation (however you want to look at it), to drive the latest model of the “best” economy cars on the market. One such example is the 2017 Nissan Sentra. To quote @caranddriver
“The painful mediocrity of the Sentra suggests that the days of truly great small Nissans might be gone. The 1.8-liter four-cylinder makes a lethargic 130 hp and comes standard with a six-speed manual; a CVT is optional.”
The Lackluster econo-boxes of late are comparably priced to the 1998 Impreza when it was new, however they’re conclusively void of any character or personality. The steering wheel feels numb in your hands and the overly effortless power assist disconnects the driver from the car and therefore from the road, providing ZERO feedback. Furthermore, if one is ill-fated enough to be stuck with a “CVT” (continuously variable transmission) model, when one puts their foot on the gas struggles to figure out what it is supposed to do. It will eventually kick down to a lower gear yet the continual variability feels like it is continually slipping. The interior is indifferent. Everything about most new economy cars is totally “blah”. On the other hand the feedback from the pilot seat of the Impreza is nearly telepathic in comparison. When you romp on the accelerator, the (automatic) transmission knows what it is supposed to do: match the road speed and GO FASTER. Admittedly, it is a modest effort but more prudently, it is responsive.
After spending a week in one econo-bucket or another, I LOVE sitting behind the dash of my modest yet utterly enjoyable Subaru... at least I used to, I may have made the biggest vehicular mistake of my life. I just sold the little wagon that could and I am beginning to realize that Love really might be what makes a Subaru a Subaru. I have a hole in my heart where an oval starry emblem used to reside.
Perhaps Horse Power is the cure for a broken heart... not time.