Subaru's newest pocket-rocket redefines the affordable performance car segment.
This story was meant to be. Last week, May 11 to be precise, I found myself on the local launch of the latest-generation Subaru WRX. Depending on how you paint the family tree, this new one is either the fifth generation WRX or the second.
The original Subaru Impreza WRX took the world by all-wheel drive storm when it was first unleashed onto an unsuspecting public 30 years ago. Designed specifically to contest the World Rally Championship, the original WRX started life as a humble Impreza sedan but with a slew of rally-inspired go-fast bits that defied what a small, humble Japanese sedan should want from life.
It was lauded for its performance, praised for its raw appeal, revered for its rally-bred technology, and awarded for its success in the WRC. It became an instant classic, an icon that defined an entire generation of hot sedans.
Today’s new WRX still has much of the appeal of the original, but with a more mature demeanour with a more refined experience on the road that Subaru says is intentional. The WRX buyer has matured and so Subaru is maturing the WRX along with them. Or so it seems.
Thirty years ago, in 1992, that wasn’t the case, the WRX bursting on to the world stage in all its snarling, raw energy, glory.
Australians had to wait two years to get their hands on the new poster child of hot fours and when we did, it was soon apparent we had a giant-killer on our hands, the WRX’s blend of performance and affordability something few cars of the day could match.
But, what did we think of the ground-breaking Subaru WRX back in 1994 when it first arrived Down Under?
On 11 May, 1994 – and 28 years to the day before I found myself winding through the Victorian High Country in the latest generation WRX – the then motoring editor of The Age (the precursor to today’s ‘Drive’), the late, great Bill Tuckey, took readers on a rollicking ride behind the wheel of Subaru’s soon-to-be-anointed halo car. Here's what he thought...
I agree. There have been too many performance cars in this Wednesday road test page. This is not my fault. It is the fault of the cycles.
As a new model emerges, blinking, from five or six years of gestation, it is then scheduled for various markets. It just happens that, over the past three months, we have been buried in hot-shoe stuff rather than the ordinary.
On my schedule for the next few weeks are the new Ford Festiva, Holden Barina and Peugeot 306. Meanwhile, you must live with $40,000 worth of Subaru Impreza WRX all-wheel-drive (AWD) turbo, which, if it were human, would be arrested for having suspicious nostrils due to snorting substances.
In these circumstances I would rather try to relate the WRX to the $28,590 all-wheel-drive GX family sedan version. I use AWD rather than four-wheel-drive because it expresses better that we're talking about a traction system that has real meaning to the ordinary family car and has nothing to do with the Gibson Desert.
AWD is, by my measurement, the best thing that has happened to family cars since anti-lock brakes, better than airbags and grabber seat belts because, like ABS, it helps you avoid the crash in the first place.
So what the Impreza WRX (which will sell in tiny numbers anyway) says to me is that it is the ultimate forest-racer expression of a system that will, beyond any doubt, save the life and lives of a family which somehow gets itself into a situation where the climax is a major item on the evening television news.
All-wheel drive automatically distributes the power and torque effort from the corner of the car that is wanting to spin a wheel, to the corner with the most grip. If you want it in its most basic terms, it mug-proofs the car against the idiot driver.
The Impreza and its larger brother, the Liberty, are two of the few all-wheel-drive family cars available on the Australian market, more's the pity. So bear that in mind as we talk of a tremendous little road rocket that delivers blood-stirring performance and road adhesion.
It is essential that something like this makes a statement to the outside world, because otherwise you would buy the ordinary car and a fawn cardigan. So we get a clever but not outrageous kit of a big bonnet scoop, small rear spoiler, curved side skirts, and a deep front bumper and air dam incorporating big challenging lamps and fins.
Yes, it is an aggressive-looking car, particularly because it is small. You are reminded of a small insect that makes a dramatic demonstration of potential artillery without having anything to back it. That isn't the case with the WRX.
Subaru designers have a fetish about frameless windows, and they do help in styling, even if they contribute a little more wind noise.
However, they do deliver big glass areas, to balance out the aggressive sheet metal below. The proportions are good too, whether in four-door sedan or five-door hatch (wagon?) version – both are the same price. The five-door does give you a greater flexibility in packing.
It sits on quite fat tyres and simple but suitable five-spoke alloy wheels. There is absolutely no mistaking what a WRX is about.
O’Reilly’s Law says Murphy was an optimist; it also says that whenever you get a full-on performance version of what started life as an ordinary family car, then the interior will remind you that you are in an ordinary family car. So it is with the WRX.
There's not much wrong with the basic Impreza, but the overall impression is of several shades of grey. It is all a bit placky; it looks hard-wearing and probably is, with a woven tweed-like seat fabric and tough carpeting that looks stain-resistant.
The WRX seats are obviously much tighter-shaped and grabby, because of the car's potential for double velocity, and, apart from being a little short under the thighs, they work well. The cloth fabric is grippy, to help locate the upper body, a simple trick that so many European makers still don't seem to (or want to) understand.
The driving position is good, with a height-adjustable seat and steering column, and the seat belts are adjustable for height and angle across the neck – something we've come to expect from locally made cars. In front of the driver is a four-spoke Momo wheel but, stupidly, the tiny horn button is in the centre of the wheel instead of in the spokes, and is infuriatingly hard to find in a hurry.
There's a big glovebox, but again, finished in cheap plastic, plus narrow bins in the front doors only. There is no centre console, just a small aperture that will take something about the size of a garage remote controller, and a couple of coin holders and two other small cubby-holes behind the gear lever.
Rear-seat leg room is average for this size of car, and head room a little tight for bigger people, but the split-fold seats do come down near-flat and add a lot of load capacity to the above-average boot.
You must always understand that performance versions of family cars follow what I call the YPFP equation – You Pay For Performance. If you wish to be delivered from this school drop-off to that roundabout in the shortest possible time, there is a proportionate loss.
In the WRX it isn't too bad, apart from the placky interior trim. You do get electric windows and mirrors, central locking (but no security system, which is a bit of a worry); a fairly ordinary radio/cassette sound system, air conditioning, fog lamps and alloy wheels. Standard also, as one would expect, is the latest four-channel, four-sensor ABS brake system.
So that's it? Okay, so there's a leather-covered gear-shift knob and a boot and fuel-flap release and a driver's footrest, and in the five- door there's a luggage roller blind, but that stuff is what we have grown up to expect in your usual top-priced Toyota Corolla. One small problem, of course, is that as the Yen has inflated, the level of kit in Japanese cars has deflated, so you're really lucky to get that much.
This is where you have spent your money. The engine is basically the same as the legendary flat-four ‘boxer’ two-litre from the bigger Liberty, an engine that goes back 20 years and which is proof against nuclear attack. There are more Subarus left on the roads of Australia, per car capita, than old VW Kombis with Nimbin stickers.
This is the same engine as in all the Imprezas, but in the WRX it is a four-cam, 16-valve, intercooled, turbocharged honker that delivers 155 kilowatts of power and 270 Newton-metres of torque. The suspension runs MacPherson strut/coils at the front, but a lovely dual-link coil system at the rear, along with power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering.
The basis of all this was that Fuji Heavy Industries (the company that builds Subaru cars and trucks) had to build another 2500 ‘evolution’ WRX models to qualify for the World Rally Championship, which means that all the steering, brakes and suspension on the WRX are way over what you will ever need.
Take the brakes: the WRX runs huge ventilated discs front and rear, with a three-channel, four-sensor ABS system.
The all-wheel-drive system is fairly simple in execution – and bear in mind this all applies to the ordinary AWD car as well. There is a viscous coupling limited-slip differential in the centre and the rear, which in plain language means that in normal driving the torque is split about 60 per cent front and 40 per cent rear.
When all the ferocious loads come in, the central black box starts telling the various ends, and the bonus is that the rear also carries a viscous diff – which is a multi-plate clutch running in oil that allows various plates to join together to distribute the torque effort. It sounds complicated, but it isn't. The trick bit with the WRX is that a special sensor sniffs the difference in traction between front and rear and deals out the braking or torque accordingly.
Unhappily, Subaru hasn't invested in the correct concept (as in the new Toyota Celica GT-Four and the Mazda RX-7) of keeping the turbocharger spinning all the time. The result is the turbo lag that always plagued the turbo pioneer Saab from way back in the 1970s.
The WRX has nothing to deliver under about 4000 rpm. Over that it just shatters all your ideas of how quickly a small car should cover the ground. Because of the all-wheel drive it is totally competent and seriously fast point-to-point.
What an owner will have to do (and let's face it, anyone who buys one will understand this) is to work the fairly rubbery gearbox all the time so he keeps the engine bubbling at 4000-plus. This, of course, will ruin the fuel consumption, but my guess is that most of these cars will be bought as personal transport to be raced at weekends.
The fuel consumption can be a worry, particularly with a tank of only 60 litres. The steering is pin-sharp, and the ride quality surprisingly good for such a short wheelbase. Tyre noise (my bugbear) isn't as bad as on some Japanese cars, but wind noise gets up a bit, particularly over 100km/h.
Given all that, the WRX is a wonderful car. It has a coarse and mad engine note that has to be taken seriously, and it gets from point to point so quickly you wonder why people pay $100,000 more for a European sports coupe. It is very predictable in its cornering behaviour, responding meekly to throttle inputs and braking; in short, it doesn't have any bad habits.
When you do all your sums, particularly comparing it with the Honda Prelude, the newly released Toyota Corolla Sprinter and a couple of others, this car is about as much fun as you can have with your clothes on.
But I remind you: for about $10,000 less you can buy about the same package without the turbo and the brakes, but with the all-wheel drive.
Rob Margeit has been an automotive journalist for over 20 years, covering both motorsport and the car industry. Rob joined CarAdvice in 2016 after a long career at Australian Consolidated Press. Rob covers automotive news and car reviews while also writing in-depth feature articles on historically significant cars and auto manufacturers. He also loves discovering obscure models and researching their genesis and history.
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Copyright Drive.com.au 2022ABN: 84 116 608 158
Copyright Drive.com.au 2022ABN: 84 116 608 158
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