IN between Subaru’s entry level Imprezas and the STi lies the WRX, a derivative that adds some sporty jam to the bread and butter models, but without the cream of the rally-bred STi. Locally, it comes in Premium spec only, meaning it offers performance with a dash of sports kit in a comfort-accentuated package – fast, but not raw. Now, if this all sounds a bit of a compromise, then the WRX could be in danger of being overlooked. So, does it have a tangible character of its own?
Well, for starters, along with the rest of the Impreza range, the latest WRX features a whole new front end styled by ex-Alfa man Andreas Zapatinas, and it sure has finally moved the model away from looking a little like old generation Toyota Corollas. (Ironic, almost, because following GM’s sudden withdrawal of its liaison, Toyota has just taken an 8,7 per cent stake in Subaru’s parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries, and the two companies are expected to embark on future joint projects.) What the new face is intending to resemble is the cross-section of an aircraft: the grille surround is the fuselage, and the spars jutting outwards the wings. Reason? Like Saab, Fuji/Subaru has strong connections with aircraft manufacture.
Early photos of the Impreza did not impress, but in the flesh you quickly get used to the new visage. In addition, there is a new front bumper, darkened headlamp lenses, an air scoop on the aluminium bonnet, and flared wheelarches, all of which project a more aggressive persona. But as one tester commented, it is an interim measure until an all-new car arrives, and maybe does not gel that well with the existing shape. Other exterior distinguishing features include a bootlid spoiler, and red brake calipers.
Some changes have been made inside, too. The door panels have been revised, as has the whole centre console, which is claimed to have helped improve the efficiency of the climate control. Sadly, the satin silver plastic inlays still look and feel, well, plasticky. The multi-function steering wheel is similar to that fitted to the latest Legacy. Upholstery is in leather, and the sporty front seats carry lateral airbags. The audio system’s speaker set-up has been altered to improve sound quality, and a powered sunroof is part of the package. Generally, the environment looks and feels as though it has moved upmarket, but without quite reaching the standards that the Premium spec tag suggests.
Underpinnings have not been left untouched, either. Some of the rear suspension’s lateral links are now made from weight-saving aluminium, and the struts are now inverted as they were on the previous STi. Wheels are 17-inch with 215/45 tyres. But the big news is the engine: the previous 2,0-litre horizontally-opposed four has given way to a 2,5-litre unit, and the change is more significant than you might think.
Double overhead cams per bank, four valves per cylinder, turbocharger and intercooler remain, but the bigger motor has been enhanced with an active inlet valve control system. Along with the additional swept volume – 459 cm3, to achieve a total of 2 457 cm3 – you would expect there to be a significant increase in power and torque. Well, depending on which spec sheets you compare, power has increased by either one or four kW to 169 kW at 5 600 r/min. However, no such doubt about the increase in peak torque, which has risen by 20 N.m to an impressive 320 N.m at 3 600 r/min. Compression ratio is a mild 8,4:1.
The result is an engine with excellent drivability characteristics. Providing you have a reasonable number of revs dialled up, the motor pulls with impressive strength throughout the mid-range and all the way to the red line, accompanied by the motor’s distinctive flat-four bleat. But it is not just the strength that impresses: the WRX proves to be no slouch against the stopwatch.
With the usual, brutal max revs take-off, the WRX scurries from rest to the benchmark 100 km/h in 6,07 seconds, the kilometre marker in 26,22 seconds at 198,1 km/h, and on to a – hey, what’s this? – limited top speed of 210 km/h. At this velocity, a soft limiter intervenes, and the speed gently drifts down to 205 and back again. At 210 km/h the motor is spinning some 1 000 r/min short of the 6 500 red line, so why the restriction?
Apparently, the boxer motor’s additional torque is close to the operating limit of the drivetrain (which is different from the more powerful and quicker STi’s), so in the interests of reliability the artificial limit has been imposed. Not unreasonably, outright speed was not considered a priority for this model, so the (still high) limit should be taken in context.
Would a six-speed gearbox help, though? The WRX is fitted with a five-speeder that boasts double synchromesh on both first and second gears, and works with Subaru’s symmetrical all-wheel drive. Drive is apportioned 50:50 front/rear, with a central, limited slip differential controlling torque distribution in slippery conditions. On the limit or not, as with the engine, the drivetrain feels unburstable, but not for the first time we experienced some whine from the transmission on the overrun following our test routine…
Dynamically, the WRX is as good as ever, offering the reassurance of all-wheel drive with a balance that can be exploited at will. If anything, the slight revisions made to the suspension have marginally improved the handling to be practically neutral: the previous cars exhibited a tad of typical 4wd understeer. The ride, though, is hard, uncomfortably so for anyone having to frequently traverse the usually broken surfaces of our B-roads. But if smoother blacktop is your regular terrain, then the grin factor is huge.
Almost in a niche of its own, the Impreza WRX is a deceptively rapid four-door saloon. The bonnet scoop and rear wing are performance giveaways, but it is far from being an STi wannabe. The rallybred icon is a more expensive, more complex and more demanding machine to live with, but in daily driving terms the WRX gives away little to its demonic brother. Not for everyone, maybe, but if you fancy beating the hot hatch brigade with something from left field…