Yes, it's a Subaru.

by Bengt Halvorson

For the past decade, while Subaru's U.S. efforts have been aimed at going for upscale, outdoorsy folk, the automaker has been building a solid performance image in other countries, backed up by its top performance in World Rally Championship (WRC) races throughout the 90s. Although Subaru originally entered rally racing more than ten years ago with a car based on the Legacy, it wasn't until the introduction of an Impreza-based car in 1993 that Subaru quickly fought its way to the head of the pack, bringing down Ford and other long-running top European rally forces with three Championship wins.

From the start, the last-generation WRX was a car very closely related to the actual WRC rally car. It was known to have near-supercar performance at a bargain price, and the WRX gained an especially strong cult following in the U.K., where high-performance Subarus are now affectionately termed "Scoobies," and also in Japan. It probably would have found a similar following in the U.S. as well, but our regulations-emissions and otherwise-kept the race-bred WRX out of the U.S. market.

Here at last

Finally, after years of harassment by enthusiasts and automotive journalists, Subaru has dealt with those issues and is bringing the new WRX to the U.S. market. The WRX is the second product, after the 2.5RS introduction more than two years ago, to help mold a new performance image for the automaker. Ultimately, we were told, Subaru wants to have a two-sided marketing approach, with practical, outdoorsy, near-luxury products on one side, and performance-oriented products on the other side. Instrumental in this strategy, the WRX is being rolled out first among much fanfare, followed by redesigned versions of already established Impreza models.

Subaru gave us a special preview drive to experience the new WRX in Georgia and Florida, where we spent two days feeling out the WRX on highways, back roads, a race track, and of course, a real rally course, just to prove that the WRX stands up to its race-bred heritage. From the ear-to-ear grins on my face after running a dusty rally course in the WRX with a professional driver onboard, yes, it does.

The main obstacle that kept Subaru from bringing its turbo models to the U.S. in the past was emissions. The cost of having an engine that isn't used anywhere else in the model lineup certified is enormous. But from the tremendous response and enthusiasm for the 2.5RS, Subaru judged that the market exists in the States, and they went ahead designing the car this time with the U.S. market in mind.

What they did to adapt this engine for the U.S. market was no easy task. Although the last generation WRX had blistering acceleration, it suffered from low-rpm sluggishness of the line, which Americans just would not tolerate. Engineers added a redesigned intake manifold, with a "tumble generator valve" that gives the intake air more turbulence at low rpm. The use of new 12-hole fuel injectors, along with the new manifold, allows for leaner cold starts and improved emissions. Finally, they used three catalytic converters for cleaner emissions: a pre-converter is just before the turbo, a front catalytic converter is mounted next to the manifold, and a rear cat is mounted midship. All said, the WRX is rated as an LEV now.

Turbo boxer

The WRX's engine shares the same horizontally opposed "boxer" engine layout with the rest of the Subaru family-the only difference is that its 2.0-liter, 16-valve horizontally opposed four has solid valve lifters, as compared to the hydraulic ones used elsewhere in the lineup. Engineers say that this is because solid lifters are considerably more precise for the WRX engine's wide valve openings (Subaru engineers say the valves only need adjustment every 60,000 miles). The WRX's turbo feeds 14.2 pounds of maximum boost up to 3000 rpm, and then tapers it off with a waste gate at higher rpm, making for a peak output of 227 hp at 6000 rpm and 217 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm. The WRX's prominent hood scoop is, believe it or not, functional. The hood scoop forces air into the turbo's intercooler.

Power delivery from the engine is much smoother than past 22B and WRX models I've driven. The boost comes on smoothly, without the on-or-off delivery of, for comparison, a Saab 9-3 Viggen, which also has a large-capacity turbo. The engine doesn't feel weak at low revs, but high revs with the turbo spooling up is enough to give a burst of adrenaline to even the most jaded auto scribe. Subaru boasts that the WRX's power-to-weight ratio is the best in its class.

Shifter action isn't the most precise, but it gets the job done. The WRX boasts revised gear ratios to better match its torque curve, and they do fit the engine very well. The hydraulic clutch is easy to live with and progressive, and it has plenty of grip for getting power from the engine for quick stoplight takeoffs, which involves revving the engine a bit first to build boost. We didn't get to sample how well the optional four-speed automatic transmission works with the turbo engine, but smaller engines with large turbochargers usually tend to work quite well with automatics as they keep the boost up during shifts.

Subaru maintains two different types of all-wheel drive, depending if you opt for the manual or automatic transmission. Manual-transmission cars have the carryover viscous-coupling all-wheel drive system, in which the center differential normally allocates torque equally from front to rear, while slip at the front or rear will redirect torque to the pair of wheels that it getting the most traction. A limited-slip viscous coupling controls the torque between the wheels. Automatic-transmission WRX models for 2002 have an all-new Variable Torque Distribution (VTD) all-wheel drive system, which electronically manages torque distribution through a center differential and hydraulic clutch. Lesser Impreza models with the automatic transmission, including the 2.5RS, come with the essentially carryover Active All-Wheel Drive system, which uses a system of clutch plates interfaced with the transmission.

Capable chassis

The WRX's chassis always feels up to the task of handling the horses, the result of several suspension changes aimed at increasing stability and handling and making the WRX's power delivery safe. The front track has increased by 20 mm, and rear suspension members were strengthened to add lateral support and reduce understeer. Subaru boasts that the rear roll center is now close to that of the WRC car. Overall, the new WRX hugs the road better than the last-generation 2.5RS.

The WRX has excellent, forgiving, handling characteristics. We found handling on the track to be pleasantly neutral, with a tendency toward slight oversteer. It's easy to maintain a bit of oversteer by feathering the throttle. Feedback through the steering wheel is excellent, possibly due to the new load-sensitive steering pump that the WRX has. Impreza 2.5RS models will continue to have engine speed-sensitive power steering. The WRX's brakes, upgraded to massive (for a small car) 11.4-inch front rotors, have excellent stopping power.

Noise insulation has been improved across the Impreza line, according to Subaru, and if the WRX is any indication, it's greatly improved for road noise. Despite the fact that the WRX rides quite firmly, very little road noise enters the cabin.

The WRX's interior is sporty and tasteful, with a black leather Momo steering wheel setting it apart from the 2.5RS. WRC-inspired alloy pedal covers add to the special feel, along with the black-twill sport seats and silver trim around the gauges. The gauges have been revised to what Subaru officials termed a motorcycle layout, with the speedometer in the center, flanked closely by tachometer, fuel, and temperature gauges. The supportive, racing-style seats are adjustable for tilt and height and have beefy side bolsters. They do give just enough legroom for tall people-there seems to be a bit more legroom than in former Impreza and RS models.

It's really hard to find what's not to like about the WRX, but if anything it's rear-seat room. Just as in the last-generation Impreza models, rear-seat room is extremely tight, especially for legroom. Adult-size passengers in the back will find themselves cramped and wishing for the front seats.

Begging for accessories

The WRX isn't at all a stripped down racer like Acura's Integra Type R. It's loaded with features like air conditioning, a six-disc in-dash CD changer and 80-watt sound system, cruise control, power windows and mirrors, tilt steering, keyless entry, and fog lamps-all standard. We don't know about options yet, but there won't be many. Subaru is already preparing for a voracious consumer appetite for dealer-installed and aftermarket accessories on this car. Special fascias, spoilers, and suspension kits will be eventually available through Subaru, including the infamous bolt-on rear spoiler. Personally, I tend to like the clean, relatively uncluttered look of the regular WRX.

The standard 16-inch alloy wheels look good, and the 55-series Bridgestone RE92 tires have plenty of grip, but for the full performance look there are optional 17-inch BBS wheels with ultra low-profile 45-series tires.

The new Impreza's body structure has significant improvements in both torsional and bending rigidity, partially due to a new hydroformed front subframe, reinforced side sills and B-pillars, and a unique new welding and stamping technique that reduces weight and increases strength. Impreza and WRX models, along its Legacy and Outback siblings, retain a frameless window design that Subaru says increases body rigidity and outward visibility. Vibration of the glass when opening and closing the door has been reduced due to new dampers.

The price issue is a very significant one for Subaru. Over dinner, I had the chance to talk with Subaru of America chairman and CEO Takao Saito, who explained the simple but extremely important supply-and-demand dilemma in pricing the WRX and recovering the enormous investment of bringing it to the U.S. Saito and others admitted that Subaru has been going haggling with parent company Fuji Heavy Industries over the price. It sounds as if Subaru of America wants to deliver the car at a low initial price (in the low twenties) to spark demand, upon which it can handily raise the price by a few thousand dollars. If the initial price is too high, it may have a stigma attached to it that will be hard to overcome. Other Subaru officials noncommittally suggested that around $23,000 is the price that they'd like to offer it for, pending Fuji's approval.

Competitive edge

So what car does the WRX compete with and what type of people will go for the WRX? Subaru says the car compares favorably, both in terms of specs and driving dynamics, with the Audi A4 1.8T and the BMW 325xi, although it's a leap of faith to say that a lot of BMW buyers are going to lust for a Subaru. More likely, WRX buyers will come from the group that grew up with pocket-rocket models of the 80s, and from people who have owned Honda Civic Si, Sentra SE-R, and Volkswagen GTI models. Subaru told us that it anticipates attracting far more men than women, with a median age of 34, buyers that are familiar with Subaru and are enthusiasts. Right on.

Following its introduction to the public at the North American International Auto Show, the first WRXs should arrive at dealerships by late March. With the introduction of the rest of the redesigned Impreza line following the WRX lead, Subaru hopes to sell 25,000 Imprezas per year in the U.S., with about 10,000 of them being WRX models. Subaru estimates that the split between body styles will be 80 percent sedan and 20 percent wagon, although we estimate the demand for the wagon to be greater than that in the long run. With wagons becoming cool again, a seriously fast, practical sport wagon should be a sure-fire recipe for success.

2002 Subaru Impreza WRX

Base price: $23,500 (estimated)
Engine: 2.0-liter inline four, 227 hp
Transmission: five-speed manual, all-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 99.4 in
Length: 173.4 in
Height: 56.7 in
Width: 68.1 in
Curb weight: 3085 lb
EPA City/Hwy: N/A
Safety equipment: Front-seat side airbags, four-channel anti-lock brakes
Major standard equipment: Air conditioning, 80-watt sound system with six-disc in-dash CD changer, cruise control, keyless entry, fog lamps, sport seats, Momo black leather-wrapped steering wheel
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles, now with roadside assistance

© 2001 The Car Connection

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