Rally-bred competition for some nervous Germans.

by Eric Peters

The Soviets were famous for tough and durable, if not especially flashy, military equipment. Stuff that really worked, no matter the conditions. The AK-47 assault rifle was not as pretty as the M-16 rifle used by our side, but it got the job done -- and then some.

You could say the same things about Subaru's pugnacious 2002 WRX Impreza sport sedan. This car is the pumped-up descendant of the previous 165-hp 2.5 RS Impreza, formerly Subaru's hottest compact road rocket in the U.S. market.

It's not much to look at from the outside: only the bulging hood scoop and 747-sized driving lights suggest anything out of the ordinary. But it's priced far below similarly-equipped and similarly capable "status" sports sedans, such as the BMW 3-Series, Lexus IS 300 and Audi A4. The WRX has the goods where it counts to clean their clocks.

How about a high-boost (14.2 psi) intercooled, 2.0-liter engine pushing out an astounding 227 hp? That's 113.5 horsepower-per-liter of piston displacement, enough to whump the 225-hp BMW 330, the IS 300 and both versions of the Audi A4 (the 170-hp 1.8T and 190-hp 2.8 V-6, respectively).

And you can get your claws on this potent little beast in either sedan or wagon form for all of $24,995, about what you'd pay for a well-equipped (and utterly ordinary) Taurus or Accord.

Rally standard

The WRX also comes with a very capable viscous-coupled, full-time all-wheel-drive system standard. Similar gear is available on the A4 and the BMW 3-Series (the Lexus IS 300 is rear-drive only), but you've gotta open your wallet. And open wide, too. A comparably equipped all-wheel-drive BMW 330Xi sedan carries the formidable MSRP of $35,740; even the non-AWD BMW 330i will set you back $33,990.

That Bimmer is a great car, one of the world's best sport sedans. But Subaru can get you into a seriously credible, World Rally championship-based sport sedan that's more powerful, maybe faster (comparative testing not in yet) and with standard AWD -- for almost $10,000 less.

The Audi A4's price differential is not so chasm-like, with the A4 2.8 Quattro's bottom line coming in at a more manageable $30,990 ($24,540 for the front-drive 1.8T model). And you can get a similar ride in the Volkswagen Passat 4Motion -- itself a modified, stretched A4 with the same engines and a nearly identical AWD system as the A4 Quattro -- for $26,875.

However, neither car has the Cobra-slaying, mongoose-like reflexes of the spunky little Subaru. Like the AK-47, it's a piece of serious equipment for people who mean business, and who don't really care about impressing people with how fat their wallets are. Almost nothing on the car is extraneous, and everything works, right down to the functional air scoop that ducts higher-density outside air to the intercooler.

Altered state

The WRX isn't just an econosled with a hot engine and some badges. The suspension has been significantly altered, from the 20-mm wider track in front to the ventilated 11.4-inch/10.3-inch front/rear disc brakes (with ABS), to the no-nonsense gauge cluster and Momo steering wheel. Maybe the underlying platform is shared, but that's about it. The regular Impreza and the WRX are about as far apart in every meaningful sense as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito in Twins.

So if going fast without hemorrhaging green are your goals, this might be the car for you. There is really nothing quite like the WRX currently on the market. It's not a muscle car, and it's not your typical expensive, image-conscious sports sedan, either, yet it can hang with the best of them. It's also got A/C, most of the worthwhile power options, and a good standard radio, too.

And when ordered in a basic color -- white or black, not the day-glo blue of the press car I tested -- it's easily overlooked by the gendarmerie who assume it's just another economy car. This makes it much easier to scuttle along at more than lawful speeds and yet slip under the radar.

The downside, if there is one, is that Subaru will not offer the WRX in a coupe version, as it did with the previous 2.5 RS. However, in addition to the sedan, the WRX will also be offered in versatile wagon form, which should give Audi (A4 Avant) and BMW (330 sport wagon) yet more sweaty, sleepless nights.

2001 Subaru WRX

Base price range: $24,995
Engine: 2.0 liter turbocharged and intercooled flat-four, 227 hp
Transmission: Five-speed manual or four-speed automatic, full-time all-wheel-drive
Wheelbase: 99.4 in
Length: 173.4 in
Width: 68.1 in
Height: 56.7 in
Curb Weight: 3085 lb
EPA (city/hwy): 20/27 mpg
Safety equipment: Dual front airbags, side airbags, seat belts for five passengers
Major standard features: turbocharged engine, all-wheel-drive, performance-tuned suspension, functional hood scoop, unique trim and accents, air conditioning, power windows, locks, CD player
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles

© 2001 The Car Connection

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