by Albert Hall

2.5 RS makes you feel like a world-class rally driver.

Base Price $15,895
As Tested $20,809

In the 1980s they called them "pocket rockets," subcompact economy cars with a little more power and better handling than the standard models. Most automakers built them because pocket rockets delivered good, clean, practical fun at a reasonable price and created some interest in the showroom.

In the late 1990s, when "sport" is more often associated with "utility," pocket rockets come few and far between. Fortunately, the Subaru Impreza 2.5 RS proves that the concept lives.

With the 2.5 RS, Subaru takes its subcompact Impreza, installs the 2.5-liter engine from its larger Legacy sedan and wagon, adds a screaming rear spoiler and, Viola! An Impreza worthy of the pocket-rocket heritage.

Better still, the Impreza 2.5 RS updates the '80s vision of a pocket rocket. It draws on Subaru's heritage as a force in auto racing's World Rally Championship, and comes equipped with standard all-wheel-drive. It also has something you wouldn't necessarily expect in a subcompact: a back seat that holds two medium-sized adults in reasonable comfort.

We drove the 2.5 RS Coupe.

Model Lineup

The $19,295 Impreza 2.5 RS is the hot rod of the Impreza lineup. New for the 2000 model year, the 2.5 RS is available in Coupe or Sedan body styles.

The rest of the Impreza line is powered by the sensible 2.2-liter engine. It comprises the $15,895 Impreza L Coupe and Sedan, $16,295 Sport Wagon, $18,095 Outback Sport (not to be confused with the big Outback).

Destination charge adds $495. Optional automatic transmission adds $800.

Walkaround

In Europe, the World Rally Championship is almost as popular as soccer. Throngs of spectators line rutted dirt roads or icy lakes as rally competitors blast by at 110 mph, just a few feet away. Subaru's 555 Impreza rally cars are widely recognized. For three consecutive years they've driven home with the World Rally Championship title. That's an impressive feat as the competition from Toyota and other manufacturers is fierce.

The Impreza RS is no 400-horsepower rally machine, but it comes as close as anything Subaru sells in North America. Its thick, foot-tall Subaru Technica rear-spoiler looks just like the rally car's. The Impreza RS has a big--albeit nonfunctional--scoop and two little grilles on its hood; deeply flared rocker skirts visually connect its wheel wells. With the exception of the multi-refractor fog lights and 16-inch spoked alloy wheels, most of the Impreza RS appearance tweaks are cosmetic. Yet on the road or in a parking lot, this little coupe draws as much attention as any subcompact we've tested in years.

On the functional side, the Impreza gets the 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine from the Legacy (as opposed to the standard Impreza's 2.2). Like all Subaru engines, the 2.5 has horizontally opposed cylinders -- a V configuration that is essentially pressed flat. This "boxer" design is also used in Porsches. From an engineering perspective it boasts even power delivery and a lower center of gravity. Most important to the driver, the 2.5's 165 horsepower exceeds the standard Impreza engine by 23 horsepower. This level of power ranks the Impreza near the top of the subcompact class.

Subaru's full-time all-wheel-drive system differs slightly in Impreza models with automatic or manual transmissions. Automatics use a multi-plate clutch inside the transmission case to spread power to the front and rear axles; cars with manual transmissions like our Impreza RS test car have a viscous-fluid center differential. In either case, the system is compact, sturdy, simple and reliable, and the effect is the same: power is distributed automatically to front or rear wheels, depending on which tires have the best traction. For 2000, a viscous limited-slip rear differential comes standard that further improves traction in slippery conditions.

With air conditioning, cruise control, power windows, a power sunroof and an 80-watt stereo, the Impreza RS's standard-equipment list doesn't read like one in the window of an economy car. Safety enhancements include dual front airbags, side-impact protection beams and anti-lock brakes.

Interior Features

If the body package isn't enough to convince you that the 2.5 RS has a sporting streak, the view from the driver's seat might drive the point home. Both the steering wheel and shift lever are padded with black, red-stitched leather. The seats are more heavily bolstered than those in a typical subcompact, though they are wide enough that husky people won't feel squeezed. The driver looks at black-on-white gauges, with a prominent speedometer in the center and a tachometer, coolant temperature and fuel gauge to either side.

The Impreza's heating and cooling system operates with simple radial switches to set the temperature and direct airflow. The fan has a slide-type switch, and moves enough air to keep the windows clear on damp, foggy days without excessive noise. Evaluated in terms of distraction-free operation, the stereo is mediocre. The buttons could be larger, but the unit is well placed and the volume control falls within easy reach of the driver. The sunroof switch sits overhead between two reading lamps.

Access to the Impreza coupe's rear seat could be easier. A toe-operated lever on the front passenger seat moves the seatback all the way forward, but it doesn't slide the entire seat toward the front of the car. Once a passenger climbs in, however, the rear seat is surprisingly spacious. The bottom cushion is narrow, but the back is nicely angled (rather than bolt upright) for a comfortable seating position. There's sufficient legroom and plenty of headroom. In short, the Impreza's rear seat is more accommodating than that in some other coupes that are larger and more expensive.

The trunk is deep and accommodating. However, it lacks a net or some other device to keep gallon jugs or groceries from sliding around.

The Impreza RS has some nice touches. The door pockets are wide enough to hold cassettes. There's a storage bin in the center console, a lockable glovebox and a neat, handy bin in the center of the dash. Press a button: the lid opens and exposes a compartment large enough for sunglasses, a hairbrush and a handful of CDs. The cupholder slides out of the dash from under the center vents and keeps drinks within easy reach of both driver and passenger.

The finish throughout the Impreza is quite good for a sub-$20,000 car. The dark vinyl panels are soft and pliable, and the woven upholstery feels sturdy. It reminded me of curtain fabric, but so does the upholstery in most cars these days.

Driving Impressions

In the mid-1980s, a 0-60 mph acceleration time of 8.3 seconds would have been the envy of every pocket-rocket manufacturer in the world. Even today, there are more expensive coupes, and so-called sport sedans, that can't keep up with the Impreza 2.5 RS.

That said, the RS's acceleration isn't quite as lively as we might have expected based on its size and engine power. The discrepancy might be explained by gearing, or by the character of the boxer engine. There's plenty of acceleration-producing torque in the middle of the power band, yet the engine is weak at very low rpm, and it runs out of steam well before its 6200-rpm redline. Gear ratios also contribute. While most cars will reach 60 mph in second gear, the Impreza RS requires an upshift to third just past 50 mph, adding as much as 0.4 second to the O-60 times. Although the RS has shorter throws than a standard Impreza, its shifter isn't the world's most precise, and it's fairly easy to miss a gear in the heat of a spirited drive. Yet overall, with its fat power band in the middle of the rev range, the Impreza RS is more responsive, and more entertaining, than a host of other subcompact automobiles.

Its suspension offers some nice surprises, too. Most small cars tuned to improve handling come with stiff rides. The Impreza RS, on the other hand, is tuned in the tradition of rallying where race courses are often dry creeks or dirt logging trails full of bumps and deep chuckholes. So the Subaru's springs are fairly soft and there's quite a bit of suspension travel. That means a comfortable ride to go with handling that's quite good, once a driver gets familiar with the car.

The Impreza RS leans over quite a bit during hard, sudden cornering, yet weight transfers from side to side progressively, in a controlled fashion. It doesn't flop. The steering is quick, and while it lacks the feel of a sports car, the Impreza RS turns into a corner crisply. Its basic handling characteristic is understeer, or what enthusiast drivers call push. That's a safe, progressive process that intuitively makes a driver slow down if he or she goes into a corner too fast. Yet with all-wheel traction, the RS can safely--and quickly--negotiate corners that might be too much for a standard front-drive subcompact.

Final Word

In sum, the Impreza RS's drivetrain/suspension combination makes a reasonably sophisticated package. A few subcompacts are smoother, and more refined in the details. Yet the RS comes with more entertainment value, and more character, than a Ford Escort or Toyota Corolla or most other cars of similar dimensions. Throw in the all-season security of all-wheel-drive, and you have a package that's hard to beat for the money.

Ah, the money. Prices do change with the times. At a base price of $19,195, the Impreza 2.5 RS is a far cry more expensive than the $12,000 pocket rockets of the 1980s. On the other hand, these days any vehicle under $20,000 is considered inexpensive.

The Impreza 2.5 RS delivers decent performance, good fun, head-turning looks, a functional back seat and--for those who live in less hospitable climes--fewer worries about when the next storm might blow through.

And there's no other subcompact quite like it.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

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