We are often surprised by the prices of cars. The Concorde, at $20,000, feels like it should cost more, and indeed it would if it was sold by Toyota. The 300M, with fewer luxury features than the Concorde, sells at $30,000.
And so it is with the Subaru Impreza. The interior screams "Hyundai Excel." The exterior speaks of cheap cars dressed up with thousands of dollars of aftermarket plastics and stereo equipment. There are three hood scoops; the central one could feed two 426 Hemis, if it was connected to anything. None of the three are.
Wind noise is relatively high, especially for a car with this price tag. To be fair, it is possible our frameless windows were misaligned, since most of the noise seemed to come from one place
As is often the case, though, we quickly discovered why the Impreza is priced with the Stratus and Intrepid, rather than the Accent and Metro.
Reason One is all wheel drive, standard on every Subaru. It doesn't come cheap, but it sure is fun to accelerate on a wet road. It is also nice to not worry about spinning the front tires, and the resulting careless driving tickets. With the Impreza, you lose no acceleration time on spinning tires.
Reason Two is the suspension. The Impreza RS is a rally car modified for the street. It hugs the road big time, and feels very stable. What's that I hear? The Neon does the same thing? Wait for Reason Three.
Reason Three is the engine. In Subaru tradition, the engine is an oddball, similar in basic layout to the Porsche Boxter. The engines are horizontally opposed - they fire sideways rather than up and down or on a slant. The optional 166 hp 2.5 starts off strong and races happily up to redline. That's 166 real hp, Not Honda horsepower - it is backed up by 165 lb-ft of torque. On the highway, the Impreza is always strong and willing, with no need to downshift. Unlike the current Neon, the Impreza manages to have gobs of highway passing power without keeping the engine over-revved, so it's not too noisy. Lesser models make do with a "mere" 145 hp engine.
This is a fun car once you get used to it. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of getting used to, which is probably why they let us borrow it for a full week. The clutch certainly takes time to master; the automatic no doubt is easier if less fun. The tight steering calls for your attention, as well. Adding to that is a somewhat idiosyncratic stereo system, whose sound could be better.
Visibility is excellent in all directions. There are enough storage areas, though Subaru clearly needs some help in figuring out coin and cup holders. (Maybe they should team up with GM, which knows about those things but needs help with suspensions). The coin holders are oddly placed but fine if you like to hear change rattling. There are two front cup holders, an extremely fragile one inside the center console, and a badly placed one that pops out of the dash above the stereo and vent controls. Don't use a cup holder if spilled coffee means getting a new stereo!
The instrument panel is somewhat haphazard, but the black on white gauges are pleasant and intelligently backlit at night. Large "cat's eye" driving lights help to annoy other drivers, and shed some light on the road as well.
Given the oddities of this vehicle, the trunk is actually well designed and spacious. We really did not expect that of a car which seems to have been designed for performance addicts (we are referring to the suspension and engine) and the hopelessly tasteless (we are referring to the hood scoops, driving lights, and rear spoiler).
All wheel drive is standard. Antilock brakes are not. Most likely they thought they would lose the macho driver and experienced racer markets.
The Subaru Impreza clearly is not designed for everyone. However, it has many merits. If you are terribly disappointed in the new Neon, or if you have an old Neon and only desire more power and better handling, the Impreza RS was designed for you. Likewise, if you like to add fiberglass rubbish to your car, the Impreza RS can save you a lot of time and money. And guess what? It's good in the snow, too!
The Impreza RS costs $19,000, which is a $5,000 premium over a nicely optioned Neon or a base Impreza. For that price, you get all wheel drive, handling which seems better than the Neon, and clearly superior acceleration. However, the Neon has a superior interior, much more space, better gas mileage, an easier clutch, and window frames.
If you're a real motorhead, the Impreza RS offers a good package of handling and acceleration. Indeed, its performance value is far, far better than, say, the Nissan Altima, even with its optional 16-inch wheels and handling package.
On the other hand, if you're an ordinary car buyer, you'll take one look at it in the showroom and move on, regardless of what we say here.
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