Base Price (MSRP) - $17,895
As Tested (MSRP) - $31,545

Introduction

The Subaru Impreza line-up ranges from sporty to outrageous to practical. The practical and innovative Outback Sport remains, but the cheap, value-oriented models are long gone.

The Impreza 2.5 RS is at the sporty end of the spectrum. The 2.5 RS is an affordable sports sedan, fun to drive hard with stable handling and a growling boxer engine. The RS is comparable to other sporty compact sedans, though its brilliant all-wheel-drive system adds to its price. The Impreza TS Sport Wagon combines the practicality of a wagon with the sporty driving experience of the RS.

The best-selling Impreza, however, is the outrageous WRX. Japanese manufacturers have, until recently, been understanably reluctant to offer so-called homologation specials because rallying was about as popular in America as cricket. That's all changed now, perhaps due to rally-based video games or coverage of World Rally Championship events on the Speed channel.

Even more outrageous and into certifiable territory is the WRX STi.

On the practical side is the Impreza Outback Sport. Powered by the sporty 2.5 RS engine, the Outback Sport features a raised suspension for driving on unpaved roads. Its cargo area is trimmed to offer the utility of a small SUV. Rugged-looking design cues add an outdoorsy look. Outback Sport is very practical yet fun to drive.

Fresh styling in the form of new headlamps and redesigned front fascias with a lower hood distinguishes the entire 2004 Impreza lineup. Suspension tuning and brakes have been improved on all 2004 Impreza models for a smoother ride quality, more responsive handling, and improved braking performance.

 

Model Lineup

The Subaru Impreza model lineup includes the Outback Sport wagon ($19,095), the 2.5 RS sedan ($19,395) and 2.5 TS sport wagon ($17,895), the WRX sedan ($24,495) and WRX wagon ($23,995), and the limited-production WRX STi ($30,995). All models come with all-wheel drive. (The value-oriented Impreza models of a few years ago have been discontinued.)

Impreza RS, TS wagon ($17,895), and Outback Sport are powered by a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 165 horsepower.

WRX models are powered by a turbocharged and intercooled 2.0-liter engine that generates 227 horsepower. The WRX STi comes with a 300-horsepower turbo/intercooled 2.5-liter engine.

Five-speed manual and four-speed automatic transmissions are available on all models but the STi.

All models come with an extensive list of standard equipment. Impreza RS is equipped with an 80-watt AM/FM/CD audio system, air conditioning, power locks and mirrors, cruise control and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Outback Sport adds 16-inch wheels and, like a tiny SUV, comes with a rubber cargo mat in back.

The STi has no factory options, though ground effects moldings, a rear spoiler, and 17-inch wheels and tires will be available as dealer or port-installed options for the WRX. STi dispenses with floor mats and an audio system, but dealer-installed audio systems are available. There's a choice of silver-colored wheels or gold wheels inspired by the WRC team.

Passive safety equipment includes front-passenger side-impact airbags and three-point front seatbelts with electrically triggered pretensioners and force limiters.

 

Walkaround

Subaru looked to its rally team to update the appearance of the Impreza line. For 2004, Subaru Impreza models feature a lower, more aerodynamic hood with a grille designed to admit more cooling air. Gone are the unpopular large oval headlamps. Many thought they made Imprezas look goggle-eyed, like that kid in fourth grade who was always getting beat up. The new headlamps have two round lenses under glass, the outer lens truncated on the bottom by the front bumper, the inner scooped into the bumper.

The WRX began in Japan in 1993 as a homologation special, a limited-production model built to satisfy production requirements for the World Rally Championship. Hugely popular in Europe, the WRC is a series of races run on all types of roads, often unpaved, and in all kinds of weather. Subaru's turbocharged all-wheel drive is particularly well suited to driving flat out on treacherous roads. Rally-prepared Subarus have been available in Japan and Europe for several years, but the WRX was the first to be certified for the U.S.

The WRX STi stands out from its stablemates with a large hood scoop that directs air to the intercooler and a tall dual-plane rear wing that balances the STi aerodynamically at high speeds. Up front, where other Imprezas have fog lights, the STi has blank panels emblazoned with the pink STi logo. Why no fog lights there? Because Subaru's World Championship Rally cars don't have them there.

All Impreza windshields are flanked by specially shaped moldings that direct rainwater over the roof rather than onto the side glass, which is flush in the sedan's conventional greenhouse. All Imprezas have easy-to-open door handles.

Large taillamps flank a trunk opening that extends down to the rear bumper. The trunklid has been carefully sculpted, a small lip added to the trailing edge. The rear bumper cap wraps all the way to the rear wheel openings and is contoured for a sporting effect. The rear of the car is highlighted by "SUBARU" spelled out across the rear. WRX gets a large "WRX" badge on the lower left side and a dual-outlet exhaust under the rear bumper. STi adds the pink STi badge on the lower right side of the trunklid and the exhaust has a single large outlet.

If the WRX's styling was dramatic, the STi's is seismic. The vibrant dark blue, similar to Subaru's rally team colors, with the fender flares dramatically catching the light, make the STi stand out from other compact cars like a shark among cod. The STi will also be offered in silver, white and black, but the blue is our favorite. The 17-inch alloy wheels will be offered in silver or rally gold.

The WRX presents the striking appearance of too much machine for the wrapper, bulging out at each fender, its engine reaching for air for the intercooler through a prominent hood scoop. The STi sees that and doubles the bet. These features express the rally heritage of the WRX. The WRX and WRX STi sedans are distinguished by blister fender flares that permit a 20 mm wider front track. (The 2.5 RS comes with the same fenders as the WRX.) The WRX Sport Wagon has wheel openings with raised lips, as do the 2.5 TS and the Outback Sport.

The WRX has Bridgestone Potenza RE92 all-season performance tires size 205/55R16 on 16x6.5-inch alloy wheels. The STi goes that one better with 17 x 7.5 inch BBS brand aluminum alloy wheels shod with 225/45ZR17 Bridgestone Potenza RE070 directional summer-compound tires that look like something off a show car or a racecar.

 

Interior Features

The Subaru Impreza WRX STi is a serious performance machine and a driver sliding behind the steering wheel will immediately sense this. Most obvious are the rally-style front seats, with large side bolsters intended to keep driver and passenger in place during hard cornering. Just about everyone should be able to get comfortable in the WRX, which has tilt wheel and a height-adjustable driver's seat. The pedals are sporty-looking aluminum alloy with rubber grips.

The STi has suede-like Ecsaine fabric on the seats, resplendent in bright blue, the STi logo and contrasting black, help keep driver and occupants in place in hard cornering. The WRX get’s new rally-inspired seats, with a one-piece seatback that incorporates the headrest in a single shell.

WRX comes with a Momo steering wheel. STi comes with a smaller STi steering wheel, in black leather with red stitching, to go with its faster steering ratio. The shifter and handbrake handle, lever-style between the seats, are covered in black leather.

The instrument panel was redesigned for the WRX and WRX STi. Gauges are still under a semicircular pod on the dash, but now the tachometer is centrally located, racer-like, and the speedometer resides to the right, as they are in Japan and Europe.

In the WRX, the audio and HVAC controls are in a silver-colored panel above the console. The audio controls have been moved above the ventilation controls and include a standard 6-disc in-dash CD-player and logic control cassette player. The STi dispenses with a standard audio system, citing weight savings but also conceding the fact that sport compact buyers often want to install custom audio systems, so why give them one they'll just throw out? The right side of the dash proves a large glovebox can coexist with a passenger-side airbag.

The rear seat is roomy for a subcompact. The curve of the C-pillar means you'll need mind your head when getting in, but toe room under the front seats and reasonable headroom for anyone under six feet means an endurable ride for most adults. Though the rear has three-point seatbelts and headrests for three, these are better suited for larger children than grownups, as the Impreza lacks the width to accommodate three sets of adult male shoulders. The rear seat is contoured for two passengers.

The trunk is roomy, and the WRX has a pass-through behind a rear-seat armrest (deleted on the STi for lighter weight) but the Impreza still has old-fashioned hinge arms for the trunk lid that take up space when the lid is closed.

 

2004 Subaru Impreza / WRX

Driving Impressions

No matter the model, the Subaru Impreza is extremely stable. All-wheel drive eliminates any hint of torque steer under hard acceleration.

Subaru Impreza RS, TS, and Outback Sport are powered by a 165-horsepower naturally aspirated horizontally opposed four-cylinder. WRX comes with a turbocharged and intercooled 2.0-liter engine that generates 227 horsepower, strong motivation to a 3100-pound car. WRX STi nails the needle to the peg with 300 hp from a 2.5-liter turbo and intercooled engine.

Four different types of all-wheel drive are used. Models with manual transmissions use a locking viscous center differential, while those automatic transmissions have Subaru's electronically controlled Variable Torque Distribution AWD. The WRX STi is equipped with a special heavy-duty six-speed manual gearbox and a driver-controlled center differential.

When the WRX was new, we called it "an absolute hoot to drive." But there's nothing like a generous dollop of horsepower in a compact chassis to twist the excitement dial over to the right and, with 300 horsepower, the STi boasts a power-to-weight ratio that humbles expensive sports cars and sports sedans.

Upon start up, the STi has the familiar and friendly Subaru vibrations, a distinctive feature of a horizontally opposed four-cylinder engine. The controls are light and the pedals well spaced; only a distinctly audible basso exhaust note hints that the STi is anything but an ordinary Impreza.

Once under way, the STi reveals that it is anything but. There's a tense feel to this engine even at part throttle, like it's ready to run. The heavy-duty gears in the transmission, exclusive to the STi, whine faintly, something Subaru didn't try to hide. Drive it over 3000 rpm and the turbo boost starts to rise, even with the gas pedal well off the floor, and the engine wants to surge the car forwards. The STi yearns to run. Slam the pedal to the floor and the STi grips and goes. The engine is louder than the WRX's but never gets raucous. It definitely does sound like a very serious Subaru.

(Technical stuff: Look under the hood. The intercooler, emblazoned with the STi logo, rests atop the engine like a crown. It cools the intake charge after it is compressed and heated by the turbocharger. The turbocharger is tucked behind and to one side of the engine. An unusual feature is a catalytic converter between the engine and the turbine. There are two more cats in the exhaust behind the turbo. The engine features dual overhead camshafts with four valves per cylinder with Subaru's Active Valve Control System variable valve timing, and solid lifters for reliable high-rpm operation. Throttle is electronic drive by wire.)

The WRX engine reaches its power peak at 6000 rpm and is redlined at 7000 rpm; maximum torque comes at 4000 rpm. Knowing how quickly this engine can rev to redline, Subaru has a buzzer that can be set to alert the driver to shift before the engine bumps up against its rev limiter. Gear ratios on the six-speed manual gearbox are well matched to the engine's torque curve, with second gear good to the high side of 60 mph. The shifter is quick and accurate and the transmission always willing to go to the next gear.

We had the opportunity to drive the STi on a road course. In all honesty, it's more at home there than on the highway, unlike most cars. The STi has all-wheel drive, like all Subarus, but its unique Driver Control Center Differential has a base 35/65 torque split between the front and rear. In automatic mode, an electronically managed continuously variable transfer clutch changes this ratio as needed to maintain the best ratio of grip between the front and rear wheels. The driver can choose, however, to vary this manually with a thumbwheel on the center console. We found it best, however, to let the computer do its thing. On the racetrack, it was infallible in divvying out the grip to the front and rear axles, which have limited slip differentials to maximize grip between left and right.

With its nominal rearward torque bias, the STi's suspension has been tuned to provide minimal understeer. Its turn-in, a racer's term for how well the car responds to steering wheel input at the start of a turn, is crisp. In transients, the shift of weight from one side to the other in S-curves, the STi is smooth and well controlled. The WRX STi has inverted MacPherson struts, with the damper body on top rather than on bottom, which allows a stiffer strut for better camber control and more accurate steering.

With the grip of all-wheel drive and its big and sticky tires, the STi launches from corners. Braking is like throwing out the anchor, thanks to the race-ready Brembo disc brakes at all four wheels, plus four-channel ABS that actuates the brakes of each wheel independently (most four-channel systems read all four wheel separately, but apply ABS to both of the rear wheels together). The brakes, no matter how hard you use them, are absolutely fade proof, even on the racetrack. Subaru has learned the hard lessons of world-class rallying well.

Around town, the STi's ride quality is extra firm. The short 100-inch wheelbase and sports suspension make a luxurious ride impossible. Buyers wanting a boulevard ride ought best look elsewhere, which no doubt they will. Textured pavement generates noticeable road noise in the cabin, but while the WRX never felt harsh, the STi is not for the faint of heart.

Wind noise is almost nonexistent. While there's no audio system in the STi, the true enthusiast will appreciate the mechanical sounds generated by this minimally disguised racecar. On the STi, we noticed hood flutter at speed. No doubt enthusiasts will cherish the shaking of lightweight aluminum hood, a reminder of the car's performance capabilities.

We've driven the WRX over rough roads, the kind they use for special stages in rallies. We beat the WRX like a living room rug over a clothesline and it never shook or shuddered, much less fell apart like it should have done. We came away impressed, not only that the Impreza wasn't shedding parts, but also that it felt as solid as chunk of concrete. That boded well for the long-term durability of all the Impreza models, which are built on the same solid chassis.

The Sti, on the other hand, is not designed to be driven on gravel stages because of its low ride height. Therefore, rally competitors gravitate to the 227-hp WRX instead.

All of the Impreza models are firmly packed with technology, so they weigh a little more than other subcompacts. According to Subaru, the all-wheel drive, the fully independent suspension, the chassis, and the turbo have all been put on a gram-by-gram diet. The chassis was made as light as possible, with competition in mind, using tailor-welded blanks (essentially, thicker metal only where it's needed). The STi even has a lightweight glass rear window. Still, though the STi weighs in at over 3000 pounds, it has a power-to-weight ratio rivaling the V8-powered 2004 Audi S4.

Ride quality has been improved for all Impeza models except the STi, which has special struts, by using multiple-phase valves in the suspension struts.

The Impreza 2.5 RS can be considered WRX Lite. With 165 horsepower and, just as important, 166 foot-pounds of torque on tap, it will suck the headlamps from the 120-horsepower Mitsubishi Lancer OZ, the 130-horsepower Mazda Protege, and the Ford Focus ZX3. More potent competitors include the 160-horsepower Acura RSX and the 180-horsepower Volkswagen GTI 1.8T. While the Subaru benefits from all-wheel drive, these other cars muddle through with front-wheel drive. Best of all, the RS comes with the same spirit as the WRX, only with a few ponies less for more affordability.

The same spirit comes in subcompact wagon form in the 2.5 TS Sport Wagon. Both the RS or TS cost about $5,000 less than a WRX, and they are likely less expensive to insure than the powerful WRX.

The WRX STi is another matter altogether. It will be lusted after by a demographic that is still in the high insurance rate age group, there's a psychographic group that will not doubt consume the 300 per month allocated among Subaru's 525 U.S. dealers. The WRX STi will compete directly against the 271-horsepower Mitusbishi Lancer Evolution, another rally-derived subcompact sedan.

 

2004 Subaru Impreza / WRX

Summary

Subaru is selling its WRX models as quickly as it can make them. Subaru only plans to make about 300 STi models a month, however. The good news is that it's still a tremendous performance car bargain, and it will make the standard WRX easier to get for everyone else.

Subaru says the usual demographic analysis doesn't fit the WRX. Instead they're looking at psychographics, which means that if you want a car like this, you want this car, regardless of your age, gender or income level: If you have to ask why, you won't understand the answer. The STi will trump that in spades. We see the WRX appealing to enthusiasts who aren't necessarily eager to impress the neighbors but do enjoy driving a very capable automobile. Certainly there's nothing like it on the market today. The line forms to the right, just behind me.


Model Line Overview

Base Price (MSRP) $17,895
As Tested (MSRP) $31,545

Model lineup: 2.5 RS ($19,395); 2.5 TS Sport Wagon; Outback Sport wagon ($19,095); WRX sedan ($24,495); WRX Sport Wagon ($23,995); WRX STi ($30,995)
Engines: 2.5-liter dohc 16V turbocharged/intercooled H4
Transmissions: 6-speed manual
Safety equipment (Standard): 3-point seatbelts in all five seating positions (front w/pretensioners & force limiters), 4-channel/4-sensor ABS, dual front airbags, rear seat headrests, Uniform Child Restraint Anchorage, internal trunk release (on sedans)
Safety equipment (Optional): front-seat side-impact airbags (WRX and WRX STi only)
Basic warranty: 3 years/36,000 miles
Assembled in: N/A

Specifications As Tested

Model tested (MSRP): Subaru Impreza WRX STi ($30,995)
Standard equipment: air conditioning, sport-design seats, height adjustable driver's seat, STi leather-wrapped tilt steering wheel, leather-wrapped shifter and parking brake handle, tinted glass, power locks, power windows, cruise control, fixed intermittent wipers, rear defroster, keyless remote, remote trunk and fuel door release, dual overhead map lights, dual vanity mirrors, center sun visor, alloy wheels
Options as tested: none
Destination charge: 550
Gas Guzzler Tax: N/A
Layout: all-wheel drive
Engine (Optional): 165-hp sohc 8v 2.5-liter H4; 227-hp dohc 16v turbocharged H4, 300-hp dohc 16v turbocharged H4
Horsepower (hp @ rpm): 300 @ 6000
Torque(lb.-ft. @ rpm): 300 @ 4000
EPA fuel economy, city/hwy: 18/24 mpg
Transmission (Optional): 5-speed manual; 6-speed manual; 4-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 100 in.
Length/width/height: 173.8/68.5/56.3 in.
Track, f/r: 58.7/58.5 in.
Turning circle: 35.4 ft.
Seating capacity: 5
Head/hip/leg room, f: 38.6/53.3/42.9 in.
Head/hip/leg room, r: 38.6/51.9/33.0 in.
Cargo volume: 11 cu. ft.
Payload N/A
Suspension F: independent
Suspension R: independent
Ground Clearance: 5.7 in.
Curb weight: 3263 Lbs.
Towing capacity: 2000 Lbs.
Tires: 225/45ZR17
Brakes, f/r: disc/disc with ABS
Fuel capacity: 15.9 gal.

Unless otherwise indicated, specifications refer to test vehicle.
All prices are manufacturer's suggested retail prices (MSRP) effective as of 11/Jul/2003.
Prices do not include manufacturer's destination and delivery charges. N/A: Information not available or not applicable.
Manufacturer Info Sources: 1-800-WANT-AWD - www.subaru.com


Copyright © 1994-2003 New Car Test Drive

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Copyright © 1994-2009 New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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