Pros: All-wheel-drive traction; powerful turbo engine; decent fuel economy; reasonable price

Cons: Rubbery shifter on WRX; no automatic transmission offered; cheap plastic on dash and doors; no high-end factory audio

Subaru's Impreza WRX is the company's scintillating all-wheel-drive performance sedan and hatchback. Roughly the same size as the Volkswagen GTI, the WRX was designed for a young audience but finds broad acceptance with drivers of all ages and genders. In the WRX, owners have a compact car that serves as a comfortable daily driver, performs exceptionally well in snow yet, when asked, can light up the streets like a Roman candle on the Fourth of July.

A favorite among off-road rally drivers, the Impreza WRX has a cultlike following-with good reason. The WRX builds on the previous-generation Subaru Impreza body with a turbocharged engine, a sport suspension, larger wheels and tires and sport seats. The ultimate WRX is the STI, which includes a more powerful turbo engine, a six-speed manual transmission and an adjustable center differential that allows the driver to choose front to rear torque distribution.

Before you get out your checkbook, however, we should point out some of the WRX's shortcomings. Those who can't drive a manual transmission will find themselves out of luck, because the WRX only comes with a manual shifter. And, if you have kids with driver's licenses, your insurance premiums are certain to increase. You'll probably also eat through tires at a greater rate than with a standard sedan, and performance tires aren't cheap. Minor irritants aside, there is much to love in the Impreza WRX, including a price that starts just over $25,000.

Comfort & Utility

Given its modest size, the Impreza WRX is actually quite roomy inside, with plenty of legroom in front for adults and rear-seat accommodations on par with other compact competitors. Taller drivers may want to opt for the base WRX, which excludes the headroom-eating sunroof found on the Premium and Limited models. The WRX's sport front seats offer good lateral side support, but the single-piece molded seatback rounds out near the top, forcing some drivers to complain of having their shoulders pushed uncomfortably forward.

The WRX's thick-grip steering wheel is complemented by a well-positioned shifter and a neatly organized instrument cluster backlit in bright red with white indicator needles. Checkered black carbon upholstery with WRX embroidered logos round out the stylish cockpit. Outside, the WRX distinguishes itself with wide fender flares, a wide functional hood scoop and, on the STI, 18-inch BBS wheels.

We like that Subaru offers Impreza WRX buyers a choice between the security of a trunk and the versatility of a hatchback but charges the same for both--with the exception of the STI sedan. Although the sedan's 11.3-cubic-foot trunk is large enough for most needs, those who carry lots of stuff such as snowboards or camping gear will likely find the hatchback's 19-cubic-foot cargo bay more practical.

Technology

Both the WRX and the WRX STI offer Bluetooth connectivity for cell phones and streaming Bluetooth for audio devices. There is also a USB interface for an iPod. Although Subaru doesn't offer a high-end audio system such as Bose or Harman Kardon on the WRX, there is an option for a 10-inch subwoofer and upgraded speakers. New for 2012 is a revised navigation system with voice control, iTunes tagging capability and text messaging.

The STI model includes Subaru's Intelligent Drive (SI-DRIVE), which allows for three settings (Intelligent, Sport and Sport Sharp) that adjust throttle input and the engine control module. Accompanying SI-DRIVE is the Multi-Mode Driver Control Center, which allows torque distribution to be manually selected between front and rear wheels. Two auto modes either increase or decrease power to the center limited-slip differential: less for dry-pavement touring and more when conditions become wet or slippery. There are also six manual modes with varying degrees of front/rear torque distribution up to a perfect 50/50 split. Subaru's Multi-Mode Vehicle Dynamics Center allows three variants of traction control, ranging from normal to increased traction and the ability to switch off the system completely.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The Impreza WRX is powered by a turbocharged 2.5-liter boxer engine good for 265 horsepower and 244 lb-ft of torque. Hooked to a somewhat rubbery-feeling five-speed manual, this engine nevertheless is a blast to drive, delivering immediate punch once the turbo spools up and giving right up to the redline. EPA figures of 19 mpg city and 25 mpg highway are more than respectable, considering the WRX's performance-oriented nature.

The WRX STI has a more powerful turbocharger and intercooler with Dual Active Valve Control to produce 305 hp and 290 lb-ft of torque. This engine is mated to a much improved six-speed manual that features tight, short throws for better operation. Official fuel economy ratings of 17/23 mpg are not far below the WRX, but given the temptation to push this STI to its limit, owners should not be surprised if their fuel economy is much lower.

Safety

Every WRX and WRX STI comes with front seat side impact airbags, front and rear side curtain airbags, electronic traction and stability control and Incline Start Assist that keeps the vehicle from rolling backward when starting off on an incline of more than five degrees. The STI is equipped with Brembo performance brakes for better stopping power.

The Impreza on which the WRX is based excels in both independent and government crash tests and is an IIHS Top Safety Pick.

Driving Impressions

Never mind the noisy cockpit and the excessive tire noise; forget about cheap plastic bits that like to rattle and squeak on warm days. The Impreza WRX is all about driving. The turbocharged engine loves to run, and nailing the gas pedal to the floor at every stoplight can easily become an addiction. Push the WRX hard into a turn, and the car sticks to the pavement with the tenacity of a gummy bear on a theater floor. The AWD aids greatly, as do the revised sport suspension and the aggressive wheel-and-tire package.

In the STI, the ability to choose torque distribution and differential settings, coupled with the 305-hp engine, helps to create a driving experience worthy of the fastest supercar. It's no wonder the WRX has attracted so many enthusiasts who will never be able to shell out $75,000 for a Porsche or a BMW M but won't let economic status ruin their good time.

Other Cars to Consider

Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution GSR (Evo) - The Mitsubishi is the top-end performance rival of the WRX STI. The Evo's ride is a bit harsher, and it only comes in sedan form, but its interior is better equipped with options such as Recaro seats and a 710-watt Rockford Fosgate audio system.

Volkswagen GTI - The GTI doesn't offer AWD, and its turbo engine isn't as powerful as the WRX's, but the GTI's ride is far more civilized, as is its Audi-like interior, and it's still a blast to drive.

Audi A3 - For about the same money as the STI, you can get into a 200-hp turbocharged A3 with quattro AWD, a premium name and an exterior that doesn't scream "boy racer."

AutoTrader Recommends

Pound for pound, the base Impreza WRX model is the best deal. The STI may offer the best performance, but its $35,000-plus price puts it into used BMW and Porsche territory. The base WRX offers plenty of power, doesn't have a rigidity-weakening sunroof cut into its roof and comes nicely equipped with the features most drivers want. With a price starting at about $25,000, you can take the extra couple of grand you'd spend for leather seats and a power sunroof (Limited trim) and install a really nice aftermarket audio system.

author photo

Joe Tralongo started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2000 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He's well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to communicate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations.

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