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The Subaru WRX - practical performance

Review Notes: Subaru Impreza WRX wagon five-speed
Above Average In: Ride, handling, braking, speed, all wheel drive, space, looks
Problems: Turbo lag, tether strap location, requires premium fuel

The Subaru WRX is an amazing car in many ways. It is the kind of car reviewers love and wait for - exciting to drive, and different enough that writing an article is easy.

To start with, if you've driven an Impreza recently, forget about it. The WRX is different. The suspension seems more sophisticated - much more comfortable over bumpy roads, without giving up surprisingly good traction. The engine is the opposite of the standard Impreza's boxer, which specializes in low-end grunt. Finally, even though the engine is more powerful, there is only one hood scoop, instead of three (but the one scoop actually works).

The engine is probably the most celebrated part of the WRX, so it's worth a closer look. Generating 227 horsepower out of 2 liters [Spirit R/T fans, are you listening?] is unusual, and generally demands a turbocharger. It should come as no surprise, then, that the WRX has one, with a massive intercooler. In a rather clever move, the hood scoop actually feeds the intercooler (which is basically a radiator) rather than the air intake. That's a novel solution to the problem of fitting an intercooler next to the radiator in a car with a rather small nose.

The problem with turbochargers is turbo lag - the delay between hitting a gas and getting a response, due largely to the time it takes the turbo to "spool up" (spin at high speeds). Most older turbos suffered from lag, but many newer models seem to avoid it. The WRX starts relatively slow from a start, then suddenly all 227 horsepower kick in at once, with a whistle from the turbocharger, and kick you in the pants. It's a thrill, and it does the job, but it takes some patience coming off the line - or some revving and good timing. Being in the right gear is important, since the turbocharger is needed for that kick in the pants. Still, zero-to-sixty times are quite low - around 6 seconds even for a skilled driver - this is a very fast car, and really feeling the acceleration takes a good clear spot on the highway.

Gas mileage is good considering the power and price class - 24 mpg city, 30 highway - but that's on premium.

With all this power on tap, and the suddenness of its application, keeping traction is an issue. Fortunately, like every Subaru, the WRX has all wheel drive built in - a very good feature for performance, since it almost completely avoids screeching or chirping tires on acceleration. That also avoids the unwanted attention of the law. All wheel drive also minimizes torque steer, although there is (as one might expect) some understeer during full throttle acceleration.

When you want to drive gently, the WRX will happily comply. It takes only a little time to get a feel for what will and what will not cause the turbocharger to kick in with a whistle and a kick.

The gearshift comes straight out of the parts bin - didn't we see that one on the Plymouth Sundance? - but the stick and clutch are both very easy to operate, a plus for a car with this much speed.

Handling and braking are both very good, and the WRX has a very tossable feel which makes fast turns enjoyable and inviting. Happily, visibility is also very good - far better than, say, the Audi TT coupe, which also gets a lot of power from a small engine and has all wheel drive. (We'll take a WRX over the overstyled, confining TT any day.) Braking and handling are both better than most competitors.

The interior is functional, with a clear, well-designed instrument panel that has a large tachometer but no boost gauge. Controls feel good and are logically designed, including the stereo and intuitive climate control. The vent fan is powerful but unusually quiet, and air conditioning is stronger than we expect from a Japanese car.

The center console unit has an open spot for "stuff," but the hard plastic bottom will rattle. The small closed compartment, likewise, could use some sort of lining to prevent noises. Fortunately, felt is cheap. There are no coin holders. One cup holder is cleverly designed but any spillage may go into the stereo and climate control, while the other is rather small.

There are personal interior lights for front passengers as well as a standard dome light. There is also an unusual center sun visor which was handy in blocking October glare.

The wagon's rear seat room is better than one would expect from a sporty coupe, with good room for two grownups. The roof stays flat to the back, so headroom is good for all but the very tall throughout the car.

Trunk space is also good and accessible in the wagon - the Impreza's wagon design is very practical. Parts of the cargo area floor lift up to reveal compartments surrounded by sound insulation, a rather clever and useful feature. The only problem comes if you hold in a child seat using a tether strap - the strap has to reach across the cargo area because the latch is at the end of the car. On the lighter side, there is no separate trunk lock, just a large, easy to use handle which locks and unlocks with the other doors.

The WRX is a surprisingly good package. The performance is excellent all around (Subaru capitalizes on that by throwing in a free year's membership in the Sports Car Club in America), with a very spirited engine, strong traction, easy to handle clutch, and good brakes. There is plenty of interior room and cargo space with the wagon. The exterior is attractively styled, less ostentatious than the last Impreza we tested, with pleasant round headlights and a hood scoop that can be forgiven because it actually functions.

The WRX is clearly a winner - and the public seems to know it. Sales seem brisk. We'd certainly rather than a WRX than most of its competitors - including the Audi TT and Ford Mustang. It comes with four doors so we can put our kids in the back and drive sedately around town, and a ride which belies its handling. The price, about $24,000, is quite reasonable for an all wheel drive wagon in this size - much less one with this much performance. The total package is unbeatable.

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